International Security Policy Isn’t That Tough, Just Ask Yogi

March 7, 2010

by Pat Ryan

The wit, wisdom and good humor of that great American philosopher Yogi Berra may be the last refuge of a columnist under tight deadline but there’s a strange resonance in what the hall of fame baseball player, coach and manager had to say when it comes to international relations. In particular I’m struck by the appropriateness of, “The future ain’t what it used to be,” when it comes to today’s general election in Iraq.

You may be forgiven if you don’t recall the first election day in modern Iraq — landmark voting over five years ago, which formed an assembly to craft a post-Saddam Constitution. Much has happened since that celebrated election, which was heavily covered by American media and gave us images of Iraqis waving purple inked fingers, a mark that they had done their civic duty that day.

The January 2005 vote occurred in the midst of an intensifying insurgency that followed the March 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States. The election was successful and was followed by a vote later that year to approve an Iraqi Constitution. But the insurgency continued to sap the new government despite major support of the United States. The blood and treasure spent by America to change the regime in Baghdad and restore security and stability is measured in thousands of lives lost, tens of thousands wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent.

The war ground on through counter-insurgency campaigns, new groupings of anti-government warriors – Sunni versus Shia sectarian fighters, former Baath party and Saddam military hardliners, Al Qaeda terrorists. It was a hellish brew of foes that America’s military men and women were battling while successive orders of politicians in Baghdad tried to consolidate a political order. The 18 month “surge” in 2007-2008 was designed, not to defeat the enemy, but to give the Iraqi government “breathing space” in which to sort through the divisions and resolve the structural questions of leading the country into the future. The military component of the surge was successful. But the political element? Not so much.

In the bright lights of the 2008 U.S. presidential cycle, America moved to disengage its forces from the direct fight with combat troops being withdrawn from towns, handing over security duties to Iraq forces, last June. It followed President Obama’s announcement that most U.S. troops would be gone by August 2010 and the remaining 50,000 troops out by the end of 2011.

So here we are in March 2010, almost seven years since “shock and awe” toppled Saddam only to be followed by a torturous experience that could leave historians to conclude Operation Iraqi Freedom was one of America’s worst strategic blunders. But it’s too early to tell. Indeed, a scary historic perspective on the outcome in Iraq was shared by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author Thomas Ricks, whose book “Fiasco” is perhaps the best accounting of how America became enmeshed in the whole sad episode. Ricks, making the television rounds last year to promote his book, “The Gamble,” about the 2007 military surge, remarked that when historians look back at America’s involvement in Iraq they will identify a key event that “has yet to occur.” As Yogi would say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

With that background in mind we ponder the current situation, today’s election. Iraqi politics are as unsettled as ever. Sectarian divides are as sharp, and violent, as ever. Al Qaeda terrorists continue to attack the government as ferociously as ever. Bombings plague efforts to restore security and stability – this week there were devastating suicide attacks against security forces, polling places and hospitals among the targets. On Thursday Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who up to now was anxious for U.S. troops to leave, acknowledged that there might be a scenario where the American military might be needed for a longer period to keep the pieces from falling further apart.

American military involvement in Iraq was seemingly ended. Or is it? “If you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi. Given the turmoil in the region, the uncertain prospects for Iraq, and the diminished, indeed evaporated, appetite among Americans for further involvement there, what is the road ahead for U.S. policymakers? How about attacking Iraq’s neighbor, Iran? Yogi, the master geo-strategist had that one covered too, “Déjà vu all over again.”

Pat Ryan is a retired sailor and writer. He lives in Cookeville, Tennessee and he can be contacted through

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