It is time to take the gloves off in the Middle East
The recent emergence of a terrorist group in Syria and Iraq has created a dilemma for U.S. policy (I think we should refuse to give that group any legitimacy by either calling them a “state” or using their expansionist name). Sadly, it is a problem that is at least partly of our own creation. In this, I do not mean that it is the result of our failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war earlier, rather it is the consequence of the instability in the region that followed from the U.S. having gotten involved directly in the Middle East under the previous administration.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in the 1990’s, we imagined the emergence of a “New World Order” that seemed to require a fundamental shift in policy. Consequently, the United States adopted a misguided policy of attempting to “democratize” the rest of the world, including by the use of force. This agenda was pushed by the powerful Neo-Conservative faction inside the second Bush administration. This policy directly led to the Iraq war in 2003 in the erroneous belief that the country, once freed from the yoke of an oppressive dictator, would spontaneously transition into a western-style democratic state. This naïve view violated the reality that democracy presupposes a free and educated electorate, neither of which existed given a long history of tribalism and sectarian animosity.
The seeds of this situation were sown after the First Persian Gulf War, where arguably direct American involvement was critical to restoring the stability of the flow of oil. However unlike previous conflicts, the U.S. left a sizable military force in place at the termination of hostilities. In addition, there was a belief that we had made a strategic mistake in not overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. Some believed that we had left unfinished business.
The action was in clear opposition to a previous policy of mitigating the hostility and conflict in the Middle East from the outside. When I taught National Security Policy at West Point three decades ago, the mantra was, “Never get into the sand box with them.” We supplied weapons and aligned ourselves with “proxy” states, like Israel, that promoted our interests in order to maintain a rough equilibrium in the region.
The program was an off-shoot of the Cold War strategy of “Containment” of the Soviet Union. This was a modern version of then eighteen century German policy of “Realpolitik,” that was based on power and material factors rather than ideological considerations. The major European empires of the time sought ever-changing alliances to maintain a “balance of power.” As Lord Palmerston said, “Nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”
However, the stationing of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf exacerbated, not created, the perception of Western expansionism among conservative Muslim groups. In effect, we joined them in the sandbox. This situation strengthened the radical’s position and was ultimately a contributing factor to the now global assault on Western institutions. At a minimum, it gave credence to radical ideologies that are feeding on the growing instability in a volatile region.
This begs the question of what to do next. We cannot undo anything that has been done. However, we do need to be honest.
First, we should define radical Islam as an ideology not a religion, a distinction that is crucial in dispelling the notion that we are on a Crusade against the Islamic faith. Furthermore, the barbaric actions by the radical forces expanding in Syria and Iraq demonstrate that we are facing nothing short of evil incarnate, not simply an alternative view of the world. As such, our long-term goal must be to eradicate it.
However, we must also avoid getting stuck in the quicksand. Recent history should teach us that “boots on the ground” probably creates more enemies than it eliminates. This mitigates against the foolhardy notion that American ground forces can solve the problem; it has not over the past decade-and-a-half and will not this time.
If the deployment of Western troops is counterproductive and airstrikes alone will not accomplish the mission, we are logically left with the path of returning to Balance of Power politics. We should adopt the proverb, “An enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Simply put, we should arm and train those that are fighting against the radicals.
The Kurds are our friends, arm them. The Turks will be upset because they are concerned about unrest in the Kurdish portion of their country. Fine, tell them to either get in the fight against evil or accept the consequences. After all, the reason we would arm their “enemies” is because they are not promoting our interests.
The other Persian Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc) also need to actively participate. They have the most to lose and we should tell them in no uncertain terms that the days of us subsidizing their lifestyle and security are over.
This leaves us with Iraq. It is time to take the gloves off. Tell the new regime, either they bring the three factions (Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd) together with reasonable policies or we will support the “soft-partition” of their country. While creating short-term instability, this would give each faction a reason to fight the new evil. They would get what they want most-self determination.
It is unlikely it would go that far because the threat of this outcome is likely to spur many of the other regional players into action. The Saudi’s are terrified of the possible expansion of Iranian influence if an Iraqi Shiite state emerges. The Turks are likewise afraid of an independent Kurdistan. Finally, the governing elite in Iraq are loath to give up power.
Will any of this solve the problem? Without significant political courage, likely not. However, a fundamental shift in policy away from a bankrupt ideology towards a rational policy of balance of power would send a very clear signal to the rest of the world, including a now resurgent Russia, that we will no longer play the game of political correctness. America will look after its interest and it might be prudent for other countries that want our friendship and protection to assist in that effort.