Well, I thought the frankness of that might provoke a response. I was asked whether I was an isolationist (no) and what I actually proposed we do with respect to the latest Sunni insurgency in Iraq – an insurgency I think will continue until the Sunnis regain what they believe is their rightful place running the whole “country”. A reader notes:
George Kennan was asked the same question. His reply (from his diaries) was this: “…there are two kinds of isolationist: those who hold the outside world too unimportant or wholly wicked and therefore not worth bothering about, and those who distrust the ability of the United States Government, so constituted and inspired as it is, to involve itself to any useful effect in most foreign situations. I… belong to the latter school.”
I won’t add to your very large dissent pile on Syria, etc., just to recall the State Dept conventional wisdom back in the day: if you want someone to diagnose a difficult problem, ask Kennan; if you want someone to manage or solve it, never ask Kennan.
Except, of course, it was Kennan’s careful and conservative case for containment that ultimately won the Cold War without the near-Armageddon that the predecessors of today’s chronic interventionists (Kennedy especially) nearly brought us to. So the State Department was wrong.
I favor US military action and leadership in cases where we carefully assess what we can do, have a clear strategy, a clear definition of victory and an exit plan. I favored the bombing in the Balkans to end genocide; I favored the Gulf War to get Saddam out of Kuwait; I favored getting the Falklands back. I opposed the intervention in Lebanon under Reagan; I opposed the Somalia intervention under the first Bush; I opposed the Libya intervention under Obama. And then, of course, in the wake of 9/11, I supported the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. And I have to say that living through all those events has only helped me better understand the wisdom of Kennan.
Of the two kinds of “isolationists”, I guess I’m around 30 percent who thinks the world is far too fucked up or irrelevant to try to intervene and 70 percent fully aware that the US simply does not have the ability to do anything but make so much so much worse. Almost every intervention in the Middle East – save the Gulf War – has made things worse. And the Gulf War, of course, gave us al Qaeda, in response to bases in Saudi Arabia. Just as the intervention against the Soviets in Afghanistan empowered Islamist terror in the long run as well. As for the CIA deposing Mossadegh, well … look what nightmares came from that. My contention is that the CIA has done more damage to the interests of the United States over the years than any other institution.
Another reader counters my perhaps too melodramatic dismay at Obama’s latest folly:
1. To the extent ISIS etc. hurts Dems in the polls, it will be because Obama is perceived to have let ISIS metastasize, not because he’s striking the group now.
2. No American president could have afforded to sit back and let ISIS overrun Kurdistan or assault Baghdad. And the first strikes in Iraq seem to have been effective. To the extent that minimalists have a beef with Obama, it’s about extending the strikes to Syria and purporting to build up Syrian “moderates.”
3. Just because the threat to the US from ISIS isn’t imminent doesn’t mean it’s not real. If that monstrous quasi-state continues to grow, or even gets equilibrium, it’s a bigger/stronger haven for worse nuts than al Qaeeda ever had in Afghanistan/Pakistan.
4. To “hope both sides will lose” is cruel and nihilist.
5. Both Obama’s rhetoric and his likely course of action are far more restrained than you give him credit for.
6. “Betrayal” is an hysterical term.
Let me respond to each point in turn.
1. My point is not that the Obama won’t get punished in the elections because he is perceived to have let ISIS metastasize; it is simply that by re-starting the war he was elected to end, and arguing that it will not end for years, Obama’s base is likely to stay home. I’m not advocating that, I’m predicting it.
2. We have no reason to believe ISIS can over-run Kurdistan or Baghdad without one hell of a fight. But if the ISIS-led Sunnis could do that – and ISIS is really a product of Sunni disempowerment – then it merely proves that the Shiites cannot really run Iraq, have no experience in doing so, and our propping them up in power will simply mean greater and greater strength for ISIS. We gave the Shiites, a vast, well-trained hugely expensive military and even then, they cannot beat back this insurgency. Hell, the US couldn’t really beat it back over ten years – until we bribed the Anbar tribes. What chance the hapless, militias of the Shiites? Propping up an inherently unstable power structure is not a recipe for pacifying Iraq; it’s a recipe for permanent warfare.
3. There are terror enclaves all over the world. To name one: Saudi Arabia, a state that beheaded more people in the last few months than ISIS, a state that has funded this kind of extremism for a very long time, a state with enormous wealth it has poured into Islamist terrorism and from which the 9/11 attackers hailed. To name another: Pakistan. How many countries do we have to invade to prevent havens for potential Islamist terror? We are now doing this in Yemen and Somalia – and Obama actually called them a success! And in the end, these enclaves can only be defeated by the Arabs and Persians. The moment we take responsibility, the odds of any success collapse. And have we seen a mutli-sectarian government which not so long ago Obama said was a pre-requisite for intervention? Fuck no. Obama has already violated the one condition he placed on intervention. He’s making this shit up as he goes along.
4. Who would you want to have won the Iran-Iraq war? I’m with Kissinger on that one. Between Saddam and Khomeini, who would you have sided with? But in this case, the United States is actually trying to take sides in an ancient Sunni-Shi’a religious civil war! Why on earth should America have any position on that question whatsoever? A plague on both their sectarian houses! And it was not nihilist to see that in similar horrifying religious wars in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, both sides had to lose before either realized they had to get past that kind of insanity. But we keep preventing that outcome from happening in the current Middle East, arresting the very evolution that gave us some kind of Western toleration. It was horrifying, but we are not responsible for the religious hatred and violence of others, and we should stop deluding ourselves that we are.
5. No, we haven’t invaded with a full army. But in the first weeks, we have more than a thousand boots on the ground – and the neocons want more, and under a Republican president, will doubtless ramp it up still further. And as ISIS fails to lose territory, and gains credibility because they are now fighting the Crusader forces, they may well gain even more support. We have already elevated their status in the crazy Jihadist world; we have already won them at least 6,000 more recruits; we have already turned the Syrian “moderates” against us. And we are told this “mowing the lawn” will continue way past this presidency – and if we get a Clinton or a Cruz in power, it will only intensify. You know what “mowing the lawn” really means? It means the mass killing of civilians – as already seems to be taking place once the easy targets have been hit. ISIS is adapting. They will do to us what Hamas did to the Israelis. And do you really think the Israelis have a winning strategy? “Mowing the lawn” is the real nihilism.
6. Maybe betrayal is too strong. Obama’s in a tough position, in which ISIS and the GOP and the terrified, so-easily panicked American public are demanding action. I don’t envy him. But hey, he asked to be president. I know that standing back and insisting that ISIS is the region’s problem, not ours, is tough to do as president. But avoiding this quicksand is precisely what he was elected to do. He is not up for election again. He has a critical task not to empower the very forces he was elected to defuse. Sometimes a president has to make a tough call – like Eisenhower in Korea – and say no.
And I would be far less depressed if we had not just spent a decade fighting the very same insurgency, based on the very same fantasies of a multi-sectarian democratic Iraq, and failed so spectacularly. Indeed, every single time a foreign power has attempted to somehow keep Iraq together, it has failed. Every. Single. Time. Just take a look at the British in the 1920s – which prompted the cartoon above. A book just came out on that history, and its title is from an Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” To believe that this time, it will work, when Americans are far more incompetent and clueless imperialists than the British once were, is a form of insanity. Some things cannot be solved by outside forces.
I would also be far less depressed if this president hadn’t already done exactly the same thing in Libya – to prevent an alleged impending humanitarian disaster – and created far more deaths, far more chaos and far more disorder than existed before. To repeat this catastrophic error with the same bland notions of this is America’s indispensable role is just madness. In the Middle East, our role has long been to generate chaos and conflict and mayhem. At what point will Americans not realize that they are just not capable of solving problems in places we do not understand, beset by forces more powerful than even the mightiest military in the world can counter?
But maybe this time, I’m wrong. Maybe this time, a new American war in the Middle East will succeed. Maybe this time, history will defy everything that history has proven before. But I remain a conservative, not a utopian. And those who in Elysian fields would dwell do but extend the boundaries of hell.