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.
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.)
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.
Of 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. We’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.
Let’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.
Then 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?