The Fall Of Falluja Reveals The Tragic Futility Of America's Strategy In The Middle East

01/23/2014 01:51 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of "A World Without Islam," a memoir "Three Truths and a Lie," and the forthcoming "Turkey and the Arab Spring."

When is a war "worth it?" It's a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans' attention -- US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa'ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago -- for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis -- was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now -- upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That's roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile -- equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders--Iraqis must wonder -- whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage -- constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict --is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi'a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi'ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today "better off" -- at least politically, than before the war. But that's a political abstraction.

Was it "worth it" to individual Shi'ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was "a hard choice... but it was worth it." That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it's been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan.

At home there are the human costs of nearly 5000 American dead, unknown social and psychological damage from cruel maiming, high veteran suicide rates, and, harshest of all, the haunting horror of soldiers that their sacrifices may indeed have been in vain.

Meanwhile, the US wars in the Middle East and the attendant operations of the Global War on Terror have cost Washington dearly in terms of moral standing, clarity of vision, and robustness of leadership. But should American leadership be "robust" in failing and ill-conceived enterprises? Can a more "resolute" America reverse the deep pools of resentment in the Muslim world, the legacy of anger generated by the very American boots on the ground and behavior by occupying troops?

In one of the oldest, most complex racial, religious, political, and cultural regions of the world, what kind of hubris -- ignorance of history if you will -- does it take to believe that force majeure can set things "aright"?

The US resembles an 800 pound gorilla frustrated at the geopolitical balance of a Middle Eastern mobile: he grasps it to fix in place a given order of things, only to find that, once released, it spins into wild gyrations and plungings of delicately balanced orbs that will never find stasis.

"Fixing" other peoples' cultures, especially by force, is a fool's errand. Worse, it leeches out our own common sense and empathy towards foreign peoples and communities that don't ask to be fixed, or to become part of a grand US strategic global design. Why do Americans find it so singularly difficult to imagine themselves under someone else's foreign occupation, however benign, aimed at "fixing" our problems?

These criticisms of US wars in the Middle East may perhaps seem to verge on a case for pacificism. Indeed, personal political philosophies aside, a very respectable case can be made for pacificism as a guiding instinct in foreign policy -- in philosophical, moral, even in practical terms of net lives and treasure spared. Or at the very least the wisdom of resolving to avoid war at all costs unless the threat is supreme -- and not as hyped by fear mongers, armchair strategists, or, most dangerous of all, "liberal" interventionists with God on their side. Remember the Hippocratic oath: above all, do no harm.

I remember visiting Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage's office in the mid-1980s when I was still with CIA. He had a huge poster on his wall showing an irate Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves; the caption read "Uncle Sam wants to kick ass!" Well, now we have, but in some ways we've gotten as good as we've dished out.

It was a feel-good, if puerile geopolitical philosophy that has dominated US policy for a decade or two. One would hope we've learned a thing or two by now, but that's not always how things work. Must America remain the "exceptional" country in the world--that still wants to kick foreign ass?