'Heartland' strategy in Iraq: Right idea, if done the right way
By William Hamilton
Some critics like to say American foreign policy is discernible only in retrospect. Even so, such opinion could be taken as a left-handed compliment for a nation that has done rather well in defending itself and its allies in the previous century, and now, at the beginning of the 21st century. Though it might be too early to put a name to the Grand Strategy we are employing with regard to Iraq, just "being there" suggests that our strategy aligns quite nicely with the Heartland Theory put forth in 1904 by Sir Halford John Mackinder, one of the great military strategists of the 20th century. Here's how the Heartland Theory would apply to Iraq: Get a globe and put your finger on Iraq. Notice how your finger is resting right in the middle, the "heartland," of the Middle East, halfway between Egypt and Pakistan.
In 1904, British geographer Mackinder placed his finger on Eastern Europe and declared that to be the "pivot area" or "heartland" of Europe. He declared: "Who commands Eastern Europe commands the heartland; who rules the heartland commands the world island; and who rules the world-island commands the world." (By world-island, he meant the Euro-Asian-African landmass.)
Did anyone buy the Heartland Theory?
Yes. Napoleon understood it even before Mackinder was born. That is why he attacked czarist Russia. Moreover, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and three generations of the world's foremost military strategists embraced it as gospel and acted upon it. Even now, the United States is steering NATO's drive into Mackinder's Heartland with the addition to its ranks of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Just being there is enough.
The essential element in the Heartland Theory is simply "being there." Properly applied, being there means Iraqi oil revenue cannot go to al-Qaeda. Being there means the Iraqis can choose whatever government they want, as long as it does not support terrorism. Being there means interdicting the radical Islamists' lines of communication that run across the Middle East from Cairo to Islamabad, Pakistan.
But being there need not include the imposition of a Pax Americana on Iraq's cities.
The inevitable collateral damage of urban warfare creates a no-win situation for U.S. troops in a news-media world dominated by the hostile Al-Jazeera TV network and by a Western media that daily prove the dictum: Bad news will travel around the world before good news can tie its shoelaces. George Friedman, who runs a private intelligence service, suggests that the U.S.-led coalition can still be there while, at the same time, withdrawing its troops from Iraqi cities. By occupying a series of desert outposts, we retain the strategic advantage of being in the heartland of the Middle East. If al-Qaeda or the Iraqi insurgents want to fight our troops, they must expose themselves in the open desert, where their rusting, bomb-laden pickups are no match for our Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Our casualties would plummet. Theirs would skyrocket.
Bush administration's opportunity
But even as it becomes increasingly clear that our troops are being withdrawn from Iraq's troubled cities — especially now that governing power has been transferred to the Iraqis — the debate as to the wisdom of being there in the first place rages.
One way for the administration to answer its critics would be to explain the invasion of Iraq and our continued presence there in terms of the Heartland Theory. While that explanation might make a great deal of sense to armchair strategists and war-college graduates, it could be a difficult sell to a pop culture that cast more votes during the latest American Idol season than it cast in the most recent presidential election.
Meanwhile, the inescapable geographic truth is that we are occupying the heartland of the Middle East. If Mackinder's theory is correct, our mere presence there will have a major impact on how we fight, and whether we succeed, in the ongoing war on terrorism. But maintaining public support for our continued presence will require military tactics that reduce our casualties to more acceptable and sustainable levels.
If that can be achieved, the armchair strategists and the soccer moms may create the common ground of broad public support that will be essential to our successful occupation of a strategic base in the region's heartland.
William Hamilton is a syndicated columnist, retired Army officer and co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy —two novels about terrorists targeting the United States. He lives in Colorado.