Phillip Merrill Scholarship

Here is the essay I’m submitting for the Johns Hopkins SAIS Phillip Merrill Scholarship. The winner is given 50% tuition for both years of the masters program. Pretty fucking hot! The prompt is: “Polling data from many countries show that US standing internationally is at all time low levels among foreign publics. How significant are these findings for US national interests? If you think they are significant, what should we do about it?”

Please give me your feedback and comments. I need to trim about 100 words off it still.

Since the “War on Terror” began, the Bush Administration has alienated foreign countries with unilateral “Axis of Evil” and “for us or against us” rhetoric. But on December 8th, the findings of the Iraq Study Group were released, concluding that the US must seek diplomacy internationally, even with undesirables like a Sunni Ba’athist Syria and a Shi’ite Ulama in Iran, because those countries may do much to improve security of the region. The findings have been viewed as a rejection of neoconservatism by most of the US media, but as recommending fruitless plans with no concessions by experts such as Eliot Cohen.

What’s more, relations with traditional allies have been strained, and unaffiliated foreign countries’ attitudes have turned increasingly negative towards US foreign policy. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s June 13th, 2006 findings, sentiment against the US turned not in 2002 when the US invaded Afghanistan but in 2003 and 2004 when the US invaded Iraq. Germany’s favorable opinion of the US dropped from 61% in 2002 to 45% in 2003, France’s from 63% in 2002 to 43% in 2003. Within the few Muslim countries polled, Indonesia’s dropped from 61% in 2002 to 15% in 2003, Jordan’s from an already-low 25% to 1%. These statistics demonstrate a strong relationship between Iraq occupation and anti-American sentiment.

And as the US focuses mainly on stabilizing Iraq, it is neglecting its larger national security interests. It is sustaining and promoting a boom market in jihad and military contracting. What will be the least-anticipated but darkest effect of the US occupation of Iraq in the next few decades will be the bull market for jihad and for private security services.

Iraq is a training ground for aspiring mujaheddin to improve guerrilla tactics and bomb-making skills, and to weave themselves into the mujahed myth. It is important to keep in mind just how powerful the myth of the mujaheddin is to jihadists. When foreign fighters and ethnic Afghanis were rebelling against the Soviets in Afghanistan, fighters and ideologues streamed in to take part in the great jihad. When the Soviets retreated, the CIA stopped its funding and the jihad ended. Those who arrived late, including Al-Zarqawi, sought jihad elsewhere. Afghan mujahed hero stories were recorded and distributed through madrassas and mosques worldwide. Mujaheddin veterans returned to their home countries, sowing upheaval in Algeria’s civil war and radicalizing Egyptian intellectuals. Seminal works by Sayid Quttub, Wahhabi, and Salafist authors continued to call intelligent minds to jihad, including Osama bin Laden.

So when the US invaded Iraq and expelled the entire Ba’athist government and military, Iraq quickly became the new place to go for jihadists. This was where they would become legendary mujaheddin and established combat veterans, living the dream. Al-Zarqawi was the most prominent example, energetically stamping Iraq as his quickly despite his handler, Al-Qaeda, objecting to the insolence and savagery of his actions.

But there was also another benefiter. Early on, the US State Department authorized private military contractors (PMCs) to come in to Iraq to provide personal security and explosive ordinance demolition services. As a result, there is a $766 million boom in the PMC business: according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO) and the documentary “Iraq for Sale”, there are around 25,000 security contractors in Iraq. There have been at least 250 contractor deaths, more than all other coalition soldiers’ deaths combined.

So here is the issue. Is US national security being compromised by sharply declining international sentiment?

The truth is that US presence in Iraq makes national security worse for every day that it continues, facilitating exportation of matured, field-tested terrorist tactics along with incentivizing terrorist recruitment.

The US should immediately leave Iraq. Because there is a direct relationship between US occupation of Iraq and negative international sentiment, leaving Iraq would have the immediate effect of defusing the core complaint of the majority of Iraqi and Muslim people, Iraqi insurgents, Al-Qaeda, and Arab politicians and diplomats against the US.

Jihad is already being exported to other countries. The Madrid bombings, Al-Zarqawi’s Jordanian hotel bombing, IEDs and suicide bombers in Chechnya and Indonesia, and other attacks worldwide bear the signatures of maturing sophistication and spread of terrorist techniques.

The US, almost solely focused on Iraq, is neglecting Somalia’s power struggle between the Islamic Courts (backed by Al-Qaeda) and the transitional government. On November 30th, Somalia faced its second suicide bombing ever. Jihadists within Somalia just released a video called “Apostate Hell in Somalia”, a call to jihad prominently displaying Al-Qaeda’s black flag, al-rayah.

Suicide martyrs are now being sent to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s attention is shifting back to the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the Taliban have negotiated a no-invade zone with Pakistan. Counter-terrorist experts regard this as Pakistan’s surrender of the territory, commemorated with Al-Qaeda flying its al-rayah at the ceremony. Quickly the Taliban has employed its restrictive sharia.

Inevitably the US will pull out of Iraq. Regardless of when this occurs, the result will be that Iraq’s ethnic areas will become sharply defined. Already there is ethnic cleansing of small neighborhoods in Baghdad and in the rural areas as Sunnis are being pushed out of Shi’ite Sadr City and Shi’ites are fleeing Sunni Al-Anbar.

I believe the Iraqi Army and Police will disband functionally soon after the US leaves. In 2005, I worked with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorist Force, the elite Iraqi strike force focused almost solely on targeted raids. I would talk to them as much as I could during downtime between missions. Mainly they would ask me if I knew who Al-Sistani (the most prominent Shi’ite cleric in Iraq) was. As an American, I didn’t — a sign the US was not addressing key figures for Iraqi government. And tactically, the predominantly Shi’ite soldiers were solely focused on killing Al-Zarqawi, but I took this as being sectarian, not professional.

The soldiers never talked about democracy or freedom or the core values we thought we brought to Iraq. They talked about Islam, family, lack of electricity and money and food, and how they soldiered primarily for the pay.

When the US leaves, there is no incentive for these soldiers to stay. Foremost, it would be dangerous for themselves and their families to be known as American collaborators. Second, pay would dry up and American backing (body armor, M-4s, ammunition, logistics, intelligence, and air support) would stop. An Iraqi male’s main priority after the US leaves would be towards his family, tribe, and religion.

And what about the American soldiers? Once the military re-deploys, tens of thousands of American soldiers will separate from the military and PMCs will not have many government contracts anymore.

This leaves a population of healthy fighting bodies, who have years of experience conducting war, unemployed. Since PMCs operate with a business mindset, they will seek new revenue streams, providing (and perhaps creating need for) services to areas of conflict like former South African military mercenaries did in Sierra Leone. PMC poaching helped double attrition rates for Special Forces soldiers, according to GAO studies. Recently I attended an out-processing brief, and almost all the 101st soldiers present wanted to join a PMC or become law enforcement (a scary thought for increasing police brutality within the US). Jihad has not been addressed politically or ideologically yet and will continue to spread. With reliable global financing, former Iraqi officers will be recruited who have been freshly trained in US intelligence, operations, and counter-intelligence.

The US is training its future adversaries and laying the groundwork for decades of instability within politically weak governments. Guns and jihad will be for sale to the highest bidder, as mercenaries use the skills they’re best at to undermine security, establish caliphates, and fight any man’s war.

There is another long-term threat to national security. The Pentagon’s tendency to over-correct for past mistakes could lead military planning to concentrate solely on asymmetric warfare precisely at a time when future military blocs of power such as an emergent Chinese military or the European Union stand up as admirable counter-balances to US military projection of power.

Iraq occupation has set many events in motion for the 21st century but their severity will be dictated by future US foreign relations and policy-setting. If the US can encourage neutral diplomatic ground for key players such as India, Iran (which it won’t be able to unless it concedes on nuclear domination), Syria, Al-Sistani, and Muqtada Al-Sadr (a career politician currently never mentioned without the words “firebrand” or “radical”), and if the US disengages not only from Iraq and Afghanistan but also from its bases worldwide (including its notorious counter-insurgency schools) and Israel, then it can be seen again as a benevolent broker of peace, stability, security, and globalization. US independence from oil will improve its diplomatic leverage also. Then, with an improved diplomatic hand, it can provide mutually beneficial Special Operations direct-action advisory support for counter-terrorist missions and logistics support to NATO/UN missions. The US can credibly seek arms restriction from Russia and China and must cut back its own arms sales. Terrorist ideology will lose kinetic energy when the US no longer occupies perceived Muslim land or interferes in Muslim interests.

It is crucial for the US to implement these actions quickly in order to anticipate the boom within the community of well-trained ex-military or ex-mujaheddin. Without a radical change in US foreign policy that is willing to make key concessions to traditional adversaries, there will be a security situation with high unpredictability not only in the Middle East but worldwide, directly impacting US national security.