Every now and then, a blast of cold sanity greets the world. At least that was my reaction reading Tom Ricks respond to the idea that if Obama had somehow been able to leave 10,000 troops in Iraq, all would now be well. Au contraire:
That’s nonsense. If we had the force there, what we’d be doing now is facing this question: Do we retreat ignominiously and get the troops out of the country, or do we use them in a way—or do we find ourselves forced to use them—in a way we don’t want to, supporting Maliki without reservation? Or do they just sit there inside their camp gates and everybody mocks the Americans for doing nothing?
So I think by not having troops on the ground there it greatly simplified the issues for the United States and actually gave the United States more leverage rather than less, because clearly Obama does not simply want to act on Maliki’s behalf. I think Obama sees Maliki more at fault here than he does the Sunnis.
Exactly. But what does it mean to say that we now have a “simplified” set of issues? Here’s what I think: we have a real fork in the road here. Only the deranged believe the Iraq war was anything but a disaster. But the question now is: will further intervention make already-horrible matters worse or slightly better?
My best bet (and, of course, I could be wrong) is that it will make matters immensely worse, entangling us in a completely lose-lose scenario from which we have only just extricated ourselves. I can’t see how we intervene neutrally; I can’t see how Iraq can be put back together again without some kind of sectarian and national catharsis; and I don’t think the US should be taking a position – and an inconstant one at that – in the epochal Sunni-Shia battle that goes back centuries. In fact, I think it’s verifiably insane that we should even think of taking such a position.
So what are the obvious costs of staying out? The main one is the danger posed to the US by a Jihadist haven in Sunni Syria and Iraq. But do we have a real grasp of that danger? Recall that – thanks to Obama – the chemical weapons threat has been removed from the table, just in time. Do they want to come find us here? Well, Mr al-Baghdadi has so threatened, but not even Dick Cheney thinks he’s ready to attack the US yet. Americans who have gone on Jihad in Syria? You bet. And if we don’t have extremely close monitoring of them, we need to.
But we’ve seen from the past that terror attacks can just as likely come from Jihadist servicemembers as well as troubled Boston teens from the Caucasus. Deciding that the religious fanatics in Syria are an imminent threat to the US – as opposed to all the other possible imminent threats – makes little sense to me, given that they currently have their hands extremely full preparing to face off against Shiite militias on their sacred soil. Perhaps that’s why the Cheneys have been going around doing their mushroom cloud act again. It’s only if you’re scared shitless will you do the kind of radical re-invasion of Iraq that Cheney is – yes he is – advising.
But what if we refuse to be scared shitless? What if we take a deep breath and see the resilience of Islamist terror as something we have little control over, as the Middle East enters a convulsive new era – except to exacerbate it by invasion, torture and, after a certain point, drones. What if we treat other people’s civil wars as if they are other people’s civil wars? If the Saudis and the Iranians want to get in each others’ faces, why should we insist on getting in between them, and inevitably failing anyway? The key for us to make sure WMDs are not in any equation to prevent any real catastrophe – which is why the agreement with Iran is more important now than before. If we can do that – and we’re almost there – it seems much saner to wait and see than rush in and regret.
The deeper debate is between those of us who long to see the US with a much, much lighter footprint in that hellish region, see energy independence as a real opportunity to pivot away for good, and get on with more pressing needs at home, and more relevant questions abroad – and those who see the US as an indispensable hegemon in the Middle East for ever. Check out Dick Cheney yesterday on the Hugh Hewitt show – a hathos-fest if ever there was one:
[ISIS'] long term goal and objective appears very much to be that of driving the U.S. out of the Middle East. That’s very high on their list of priorities. And remember, that was Osama bin Laden’s objective when he came here and hit us on 9/11, to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East. Obama’s policies, in effect, have been taking us in that direction.
Well, he’s not wrong there, is he? But I bet you if you asked the average even Republican voter, they’d say that’s a thoroughly good thing. And they’d say that in part because the Bush-Cheney administration was a virtual crash-course in its merits. Trillions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of death, thousands and thousands of wounded or traumatized soldiers … and for what? You think Iraq’s Shiites have the slightest fondness for us? You think the invasion and occupation helped American power projection across the globe? You think it won over the hearts and minds of the Arab or Muslim worlds?
What Osama bin Laden wanted, it seems to me, was to bait the West into a direct fight on Muslim soil. That immediately elevated the cause of jihad, internationalized it, galvanized a generation of religious fanatics, and, even better for the radicals, broke a country in the heart of the Middle East so that sectarian violence could be exploited for further radicalization. Obama’s great achievement has been to steer the US, so far as possible, away from taking that poisoned bait. Cheney’s achievement was to fall for it, hook, line and sinker. I say this as someone who also took the bait – with good intentions and in good faith, but blinded by trauma and ignorance. The choice we face is really between those two long-term strategies for surviving the Islamist wave. I favor Obama’s. I favor the future over the past.
(Photo: Kurdish soldiers with the Peshmerga keep guard near the frontline with Sunni militants on the outskirts of Kirkuk, an oil-rich Iraqi city on June 25, 2014 in Kirkuk, Iraq. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)