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    Anthony Cordesman, security analyst who saw flaws in U.S. policy, dies at 84


    Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst who became a prominent commentator — as well as frequent critic — regarding U.S. policies in the Middle East and beyond during decades of war and upheaval, died Jan. 29 at a hospital in Alexandria, Va. He was 84.

    Dr. Cordesman had health problems following intestinal surgery, said his son Justin.

    To the public, Dr. Cordesman was known for regular media appearances, including as an ABC News analyst and an op-ed contributor to news outlets including The Washington Post, during pivotal events that included the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq and the current Israeli war in Gaza.

    In Washington policy circles, Dr. Cordesman carried significant influence with his essays and analyses on Middle East affairs and other security topics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, or CSIS, including directing a project on studying Saudi Arabia’s policy shifts under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Dr. Cordesman’s many advisory roles included helping the Defense Department assess the regional fallout from Israel’s victory over Arab forces in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

    Dr. Cordesman’s expertise covered how actions by U.S. policymakers and military commanders eventually play out in reality. This is what he called the “gray areas” of warfare and foreign affairs, where more nimble strategies and realpolitik are needed and, in his opinion, the United States often falls short.

    He presented views that portrayed the U.S. reliance on military superiority as a potential liability in times when far more subtle policies are required. America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan offered countless lessons learned, he said.

    He described himself as a tepid supporter of the Iraq invasion, saying he was “48 percent” convinced of the intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of biological and other weapons of mass destruction. Once the claims were proved to be fabricated or embellished, Dr. Cordesman hammered at U.S. military and diplomatic missteps in Iraq even as he offered behind-the-scenes advice to commanders and envoys.

    His early critiques grew to be the storyline in Iraq writ large: How President George W. Bush’s administration stumbled to rebuild a post-Hussein government and military in Iraq. That opened the doors to Iranian influence with Iraqi’s Shiite majority and the rise of Shiite militias — along with rival Sunni factions that formed their own insurgency, sometimes with ties to al-Qaeda.

    “We did not really prepare to liberate Iraq,” Dr. Cordesman said in a 2006 interview. “Essentially, we sent in a bull to liberate a china shop. As a result, the legacy in many ways is very destructive. … Iraqis are worse off, on average, as individuals, than they were before we invaded.”

    As the Islamic State seized territory in 2014 — drawing U.S. air power back to Iraq less than three years after Americans officially ended combat operations — Dr. Cordesman framed the battles as part of the legacy of U.S. disarray after the initially successful invasion.

    “The United States has never defined workable grand strategic objectives, made effective efforts to create a stable post-conflict Iraq, or shown the Iraq people its presence actually serves their interests,” he wrote in 2020 after the Islamic State was driven from key areas such as the northern city of Mosul. (More than 4,400 U.S. service personnel and at least 150,000 Iraqis have been killed in the Iraq War.)

    In Afghanistan, Dr. Cordesman often ridiculed the idea that the Taliban and other factions could be defeated solely by military means. “We either need long-term commitments, effective long-term resources and strategic patience — or we do not need enemies,” he wrote in The Post in 2008. “We will defeat ourselves.”

    In 2021, the Taliban stormed back to power two decades after it was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, which had been masterminded by al-Qaeda from bases in Afghanistan.

    In the end, Dr. Cordesman questioned whether the United States had already pre-written its defeat years earlier by failing to build alliances with tribal leaders or develop an effective Afghan armed forces. The war’s death toll includes more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel and tens of thousands of Afghans.

    “The key issue is not why the war was lost,” he wrote in a CSIS analysis, “it is whether letting it escalate and prolonging it was worth its cost.”

    Dr. Cordesman’s outlook on the region sometimes embraced views with little support in Washington, such as the need for an open dialogue with Iran. He was, however, in step with long-standing policy on Saudi Arabia as an indispensable security partner.

    He maintained that view even after Saudi security agents, widely believed directed by the crown prince, butchered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Dr. Cordesman sharply criticized the crown prince for the death of Khashoggi, a contributor to The Post’s opinion section, but appealed to keep the slaying from disrupting strategic ties.

    “Killing him deliberately or accidentally was truly idiotic,” he wrote. “What could anyone in the Saudi royal court or intelligence possibly have expected the end result to be?”

    In one of his last essays for CSIS, Dr. Cordesman presented a dire outlook for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, saying the Gaza war virtually extinguished prospects for compromises for peace on either side. (Dr. Cordesman once draw sharp criticism from rights groups in 2000 for a CSIS study that reportedly suggested Palestinian security forces should pressure militants with interrogation methods that “border” on torture.)

    “In short, the real issue now is not how this war will end, but why it won’t,” he wrote in early November. “Escalating to nowhere is not a strategy — it is a disaster.”

    Anthony Huff Cordesman was born in Chicago on Aug. 2, 1939. His father was a graphic artist, and his mother was a sociologist whose work included a fellowship at the University of Chicago. His family was forced to move from Oak Park, Ill., to an area near the university after threats and protests over their help in finding a home for a Black chemist, Percy Julian, in the mostly White suburb, said his son.

    Dr. Cordesman graduated from the University of Chicago in 1960 and received a master’s degree the next year from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He completed a doctorate from the University of London in 1963.

    He served in intelligence analysis posts at the Pentagon and State Department in countries including Egypt and Iran, and at NATO in Brussels and Paris. From the 1988 to 1995, he was national security assistant to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee and was civilian assistant to the deputy secretary of defense.

    He joined CSIS in 2000 and was most recently the group’s emeritus chair in strategy.

    The more than 50 books he wrote or co-wrote covered a range of foreign policy and defense issues including Iran’s nuclear program and China’s expanding military reach in Asia. In “Arab-Israeli Military Forces in an Era of Asymmetric Wars” (2006), Dr. Cordesman analyzed the capabilities of military forces across the Middle East.

    His marriages to Sally Lermond and Carole Foryst ended in divorce. Survivors include a daughter, Bridget, from his first marriage and sons Justin and Alexander from his second.

    Dr. Cordesman’s prolific pen included a passion far from policy wonks and military brass. He contributed articles and reviews for an audiophile magazine, the Absolute Sound, including an annual best-of list called the Golden Ear Awards.

    He said he became fascinated by high-end audio gear while working at a stereo shop in Chicago as an undergrad to help with tuition. “My professional life has been in national security,” he wrote, “but I’ve never lost touch with the high end.”



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