Friday, February 24, 2017
Republican Party's Greatest Disaster
Our various wars in the Middle East continue to drag on after a futile 15 years and there is no end in sight. So far the only ones to profit from them are the top military brass who have a road to promotion regardless of how badly they fail and the Defense industries that have a constant market for their goods.
It’s hardly controversial these days to point out that the 2003 invasion (aka Operation Iraqi Freedom), far from bringing freedom to that country, sowed chaos. Toppling Saddam’s brutal regime tore down the edifice of a regional system that had stood for nearly a century. However inadvertently, the U.S. military lit the fire that burned down the old order.How many more years of waste and folly can we expect? Given the type of people we elect, we are probably facing war without end, amen.
As it turned out, no matter the efforts of the globe’s greatest military, no easy foreign solution existed when it came to Iraq. It rarely does. Unfortunately, few in Washington were willing to accept such realities. Think of that as the twenty-first-century American Achilles' heel: unwarranted optimism about the efficacy of U.S. power. Policy in these years might best be summarized as: “we” have to do something, and military force is the best—perhaps the only—feasible option.
Has it worked? Is anybody, including Americans, safer? Few in power even bother to ask such questions. But the data is there. The Department of State counted just 348 terrorist attacks worldwide in 2001 compared with 11,774 attacks in 2015. That’s right: at best, America’s 15-year “war on terror” failed to significantly reduce international terrorism; at worst, its actions helped make matters 30 times worse.
Recall the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm.” And remember Osama bin Laden’s stated goal on 9/11: to draw conventional American forces into attritional campaigns in the heart of the Middle East. Mission accomplished!
In today’s world of “alternative facts,” it’s proven remarkably easy to ignore such empirical data and so avoid thorny questions. Recent events and contemporary political discourse even suggest that the country’s political elites now inhabit a post-factual environment; in terms of the Greater Middle East, this has been true for years.
It couldn’t be more obvious that Washington’s officialdom regularly and repeatedly drew erroneous lessons from the recent past and ignored a hard truth staring them in the face: U.S. military action in the Middle East has solved nothing. At all. Only the government cannot seem to accept this. Meanwhile, an American fixation on one unsuitable term—“isolationism”—masks a more apt description of American dogma in this period: hyper-interventionism.
As for military leaders, they struggle to admit failure when they—and their troops—have sacrificed so much sweat and blood in the region. Senior officers display the soldier’s tendency to confuse performance with effectiveness, staying busy with being successful. Prudent strategy requires differentiating between doing a lot and doing the right things. As Einstein reputedly opined, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
A realistic look at America’s recent past in the Greater Middle East and a humbler perspective on its global role suggest two unsatisfying but vital conclusions. First, false lessons and misbegotten collective assumptions contributed to and created much of today’s regional mess. As a result, it’s long past time to reassess recent history and challenge long-held suppositions. Second, policymakers badly overestimated the efficacy of American power, especially via the military, to shape foreign peoples and cultures to their desires. In all of this, the agency of locals and the inherent contingency of events were conveniently swept aside.
So what now? It should be obvious (but probably isn’t in Washington) that it’s well past time for the U.S. to bring its incessant urge to respond militarily to the crisis of the moment under some kind of control. Policymakers should accept realistic limitations on their ability to shape the world to America’s desired image of it.
Consider the last few decades in Iraq and Syria. In the 1990s, Washington employed economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein and his regime. The result: tragedy to the tune of half a million dead children. Then it tried invasion and democracy promotion. The result: tragedy—including 4,500-plus dead American soldiers, a few trillion dollars down the drain, more than 200,000 dead Iraqis, and millions more displaced in their own country or in flight as refugees.
In response, in Syria the U.S. tried only limited intervention. Result: tragedy—upwards of 300,000 dead and close to seven million more turned into refugees.
So will tough talk and escalated military action finally work this time around as the Trump administration faces off against ISIS? Consider what happens even if the U.S achieves a significant rollback of ISIS. Even if, in conjunction with allied Kurdish or Syrian rebel forces, ISIS's “capital,” Raqqa, is taken and the so-called caliphate destroyed, the ideology isn’t going away. Many of its fighters are likely to transition back to an insurgency and there will be no end to international terror in ISIS’s name. In the meantime, none of this will have solved the underlying problems of artificial states now at the edge of collapse or beyond, divided ethno-religious groups, and anti-Western nationalist and religious sentiments. All of it begs the question: What if Americans are incapable of helping (at least in a military sense)?
A real course correction is undoubtedly impossible without at least a willingness to reconsider and reframe our recent historical experiences. If the 2016 election is any indication, however, a Trump administration with the present line-up of national security chiefs (who fought in these very wars) won’t meaningfully alter either the outlook or the policies that led us to this moment. Candidate Trump offered a hollow promise—to “Make America Great Again”—conjuring up a mythical era that never was. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton offered only remarkably dated and stale rhetoric about America as the “indispensable nation.”
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