The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing

A previous post critiqued Andrew Bacevich’s “limits of power” take on world affairs. He derided what he saw as vain attempts to control history, which can’t be done – so don’t even try. It’s true that do-gooder efforts may, for numerous reasons, fail. But I prefer a proactive approach to life rather than a passive fatalism, hence trying to make the world better. And people, throughout the ages, have succeeded at it.

UnknownYet regarding today’s Middle East – I throw up my hands (and my lunch).

The conventional wisdom now is that America’s 2003 Iraq venture upended a hornets’ nest, causing today’s tsuris, and we should have left well enough alone. A seeming vindication of Bacevich. Well, maybe; but I’m reminded of when Chou En-lai was asked to evaluate the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

(We did not invade Iraq based on “lies” or manipulated intelligence. All major intelligence services believed Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction – he was trying hard to make it seem so. The true issue was: did we dare risk that he had them? Yet, to the “knowing what you know now” question, I’d say don’t invade – knowing now how botched it would be, particularly in disbanding the Iraqi army.)

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

Bush 43’s real Iraq sin was willing the ends but not the means – imagining it could be done cheaply and easily. I still think Bacevich is wrong, and we could have succeeded; but if you do aim to alter history, please be prepared for some heavy lifting.

images-1Of course, President Obama, who forswore repeating Bush’s Iraq mistake, is now doing exactly that – willing the ends but not the means – declaring that we will destroy ISIS (or is it now just containment?) but without actually going to war. As if some cheap airstrikes will do the trick. The results so far add yet more color to the picture of feckless American impotence Obama has painted.

My instincts are hawkish. However, the problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy is not just that it’s ineffectual but it isn’t a strategy at all, more like striking out blindly. ISIS is horrible, yes, but we must weigh the ramifications of battling it. images-3We’re relying on Shiite militias, almost as nasty (at least one is actually on our official list of terrorist organizations), and likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. And this war puts us in bed with the Iranians, and even with Bashar Assad*, not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists also fighting ISIS for Assad’s sake. Be careful what you wish for — is the triumph of all those forces really desirable?

Maybe we don’t have a dog in this fight, and should just let all these bad guys beat each other to exhaustion, which probably now has to happen, before some halfway sane alternative can possibly, eventually emerge in that afflicted terrain. As columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, we cannot impose a resolution absent a stupendous commitment that isn’t going to happen; Middle Easterners must work this out for themselves, bloody though that may be. Meantime, Iraq’s nationhood is now a lost cause; the Kurds deserve their own state anyway. We should fight only for something that is really worthy of defending, and is defensible – e.g., Kurdistan, or Jordan, if threatened. It was different at the start of Syria’s conflict when we could have gained real strategic advantage by backing the good guys. But Obama funked it, and now there aren’t any good guys.

images-2Let’s understand what’s really going on with ISIS. This is not mainly about religion or theology (nor some sort of arguably legitimate “grievances”). The violence itself attracts certain people; while the normal well-adjusted human being is decidedly not violent (contrary to cynical stereotypes), some alas don’t meet that description. There are always enough young men to staff the ranks of storm troopers or beheaders or whatever. But – more broadly – for its recruits and loyalists, ISIS is mainly about personal identity. The transition to modernity can leave people unmoored from traditional cultural sources of identity and personal meaning (“who am I?”) – the “loneliness of the crowd.” Today’s Middle East is so messed up that it’s natural to cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security) people can. In some societies this hunger for identity and meaning may manifest itself in nationalism; but the Middle East lacks nation states to which intense feelings can attach. So, instead, that hook is provided by tribalism, Islam, and jihad. This also attracts young people from outside the region with similar personal voids and cravings.

A recent PBS Frontline program showed that ISIS really started flourishing to fill the vacuum in Syria, defending civilians against Assad, once it became clear that America would not. Local people who support it aren’t crazy. For all these reasons ISIS is a powerful force that won’t melt away with some aerial bombardment. If anything, being under attack by their fetishized enemy feeds their narrative and intensifies loyalty – another reason why our half-baked military campaign seems worse than useless.

Unknown-1Then we have the Iran nuclear negotiations. Getting whatever promises we can out of Iran might sound good, inasmuch as the military option, no matter how much Obama pretends otherwise, is unthinkable. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability also may seem desirable, hoping the landscape might change in a decade. However, the very fact of a deal with America would be a big boost to Iran’s international stature, and sanctions relief would be a big economic boost, all of which would serve to further entrench Iran’s mullahs in power, and to strengthen a country that will still fundamentally be our geopolitical competitor and enemy. On the other hand, if Iran did get the bomb, what could they do with it that wouldn’t be suicidal? So here too I lean more and more to the desirability of doing nothing. I’d rather see Iran with unusable nukes left stewing in its shit-hole than an Iran without nukes but empowered in ways that really matter.

* Remember when Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Assad’s forces for chemical weapons use? We are now finally bombing in Syria — without Congressional authorization — striking Assad’s enemies. Does this make sense?


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10 Responses to “The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing”

  1. Bumba Says:

    Bacevich’s basic argument is correct. War is unpredictable and a bias to avoid war should be the rule. The military indust complex

  2. Bumba Says:

    To continue, the arms manufacturers et al push politicians. Facts indicate a deliberate deception about wmds.

  3. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Given our 62 years of interference haven’t had any really good results I think lets try 10 or 12 years of just leaving things be outside of purely humanitarian assistance.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Facts indicate a deliberate deception about WMDs” — BY SADDAM. As stated in my post, he was doing all he could to convince the world he had the weapons. Facts DO NOT “indicate a deliberate deception” by the world’s intelligence services, nor Bush or Blair.

  5. Lee Says:

    At the risk of purveying a stereotype… hawks often equate military approaches as “doing something” and other approaches as “doing nothing,” so maybe I agree with you that a heavy emphasis on “doing nothing” is now what is called for. There is a calling for some military intervention in specific examples … saving people stranded on a mountain from a siege that will kill them shortly … but I see military approaches aimed at the “big win” to be not as productive as some “do nothing” approaches.

    I would like to hear more about the “personal identity” crisis that is fueling the ranks of ISIL. Is it exasperated by deprivation, disenfranchisement, or discrimination? Whatever the causes, can we “compete” with ISIL in providing the solutions?

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    “Deprivation, disenfranchisement, or discrimination” — sounds like the old liberal bleat blaming “society” for all individual dysfunctions. Well, OK, “society” is not perfect (yet) — but it does a way better job than in past epochs at giving ever more people good lives. Yet of course there are always misfits of one sort or another. That a small fraction of 1% of people choose ISIS is not an indictment of society.

  7. Lee Says:

    I am very proud of democracy and the societies it has shaped, so we are in agreement there. One thing good about society is that it provides mechanisms for dealing with problems that are bigger than any one individual, such as dealing with the ISIL problem. There are about 100,000 ISIL warriors and, guessing, at least 100 times as many people who finance, facilitate, or otherwise sympathize with ISIL. As a matter of self preservation, it behooves us to work boldly to provide alternatives for those who would otherwise “cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security)” they can. If we offer the real thing instead of “seeming identity and security,” surely we will devastate the pretenders.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    Any person with their head screwed on right should prefer our kind of society to the kind that ISIS envisions. But, alas, too many people have their heads screwed on wrong; and no rational persuasion will work on them.

  9. Lee Says:

    According to “Mutually assured estrangement”, to achieve better relations with Iran, the first steps are to bust the following myths that are widely believed by reasonable people in Iran. It is about US and Iran relations rather than about ISIL vs. the world, but I bet a similar list could be drawn up for the latter.

    The United States remains “The Great Satan” as a corrupter of life on earth and a bastion of immorality.

    The United States is continually trying to dominate lranian politics and install a puppet regime.

    The United States and Israel maintain a coterie of spies that continually undermine the Iranian state.

    The politics of the United States and Israel are inseparable: whatever Israel desires is acquiesced to by the United States.

    The United States and other Western powers want Iran to remain backward and dependent on the West for technololy and modern civilizational aspects.

    Western cultural forces target lran and other Islamic nations in an attempt to erode traditional values.

    I believe a strong effort towards dispelling these myths would go a long way, and likewise for a similar list for ISIL. Especially if we are saving money by “doing nothing” on the military front, we can afford some resources for this approach.

  10. rationaloptimist Says:

    According to all sources assessing public opinion, Iranians are among the most pro-American in that part of the world. It’s the regime that seeks to perpetuate these myths. It would be swept away in a free vote.

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