There is a popular expression that says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. There are, of course, many different types of insanity. As one watches U.S. politicians and policymakers debate and form policy with respect to events taking place in the Iraq and Syria, one can’t help but contemplate that insanity in foreign policy is defined as adopting the same deluded and counterproductive policies around the world, decade after decade, expecting different results.
The United States is once again at a familiar crossroads in foreign policy. Faced with an international crisis involving thorny and fearful strategic, political, and humanitarian risks, the country finds itself in a murky and obtuse debate over what role the U.S. should play in the world. Today the question is whether, and to what extent, the U.S. should take military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The issues being considered and debated regarding American involvement in Iraq and Syria are evocative of, and resonant with, issues and conundrums faced in prior historical episodes involving Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In these episodes, American policy makers and decision makers were certain that vital strategic interests were at stake in the conflicts taking place. While political leaders believed critical U.S. interests were threatened in such countries, in each instance U.S. leaders found it difficult to articulate in a compelling and noncontroversial way the exact nature and scope of those interests, or to determine the degree to which those interests should be defended with American military power. In all instances, it would be impossible to characterize American foreign policy involvement in those countries as a success. It appears, however, that in U.S. foreign policy, hubris and folly, like hope, spring eternal.
There seems to be a wide consensus across the contemporary political spectrum that a casus belli exists for U.S. military action in Syria and Iraq. First, ISIS has engaged in acts of savagery that cause any civilized person to blanch and repel with horror, fear, and rage. The BBC reports that ISIS is “believed to have committed systematic and intentional attacks on civilians. They include targeted killings, forced conversions, slavery, sexual abuse, and the besieging of entire communities.” Ever since the Holocaust, it has been an accepted norm of international politics that major powers have a limited duty to act in the face of genocide. I say “limited duty” because it is clear that the duty is not in any practical sense obligatory, and, in practical effect, does not require action when it would require a major power to commit to a significant conflict that would involve substantial loss of lives or treasure to the intervening power.
Second, ISIS represents a direct threat to perceived U.S. interests in Iraq and Syria. ISIS threatens to undue years of coalition efforts to stamp out sectarian conflict and terror while building a viable national government in Iraq. ISIS also poses a threat to U.S. partners, particularly the Kurds, in Iraq and to the free flow of Iraqi oil, although this is not typically printed in public media in the U.S.
Third, allowing ISIS to flourish in Iraq and Syria would pose a significant source of conflict and instability in the region. Having declared a “Caliphate” whose goal is to unite Muslims under a unified Sunni-led government, there is little question that, like Shia Iran, ISIS would have an aggressive and expansionist political force that would threaten the Gulf States and Israel.
Fourth and finally, it is widely agreed that ISIS represents a direct threat to U.S. citizens abroad as well as to Americans at home in its potential ability to conduct and/or sponsor terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, such as Great Britain.
Fifth, the solidification and expansion of ISIS’s power over time would also present a significantly enhanced risk to Israel, over which America acts as a de facto protector, and would further complicate, if not doom, any resolution of the Palestinian problem. This last concern is not addressed by policymakers, naturally, as it would be counterproductive to provide ammunition to the Islamists to characterize American engagement as being in furtherance of Israeli interests. Of course, any such engagement will be used, and used effectively, in that fashion by Islamists, further alienating great swaths of Muslim opinion.
In light of these grave concerns, there appears to be a widespread agreement among politicians, policymakers, and pundits that the U.S. must take military action against ISIS. Indeed, a review of the recently published editorials by Senators Kerry, McCain, and Graham; the statements made by President Obama and his spokespeople; and a host of political commentators on all sides of the political spectrum demonstrates that the American political establishment has accepted as if it were a “no brainer” that America needs to intervene militarily and politically in Iraq and Syria. It is clear the American political establishment believes the question America faces is not if the U.S. should engage militarily with ISIS, but rather how. Policy formation is taking place without any profound reflection, inquiry, or debate about America’s long term strategic interests in the Middle East.
In addition to the consensus regarding the abundance of provocation for U.S. military action against ISIS, there also appears to be widespread consensus on two other critical strategic points. These points act as a type of Scylla and Charybdis for the formation of policy – and explain why President Obama made the rather shocking, if refreshingly honest, admission last week that “[w]e don’t have a strategy yet.”
The first strategic point of additional consensus is that a full-scale, ground-based military intervention is neither feasible nor desirable. On the “left,” Steven Coll, political commentator for The New Yorker, wrote without elaboration or examination in an essay advocating an activist U.S. response to ISIS, that it would be “a catastrophic error” for the U.S. to wage a ground offensive against ISIS. On the “right,” Senators McCain and Graham, who rarely pass on an opportunity to advocate aggressive U.S. military interventions, wrote in an op-ed to chastise President Obama for “dithering” on ISIS, that “[n]o one is advocating unilateral invasion, occupation, or nation-building.”
If they are not advocating such, one can be sure no one is. The reason policy makers and commentators don’t feel the need to engage in any analysis of this point seems fairly obvious: after years of war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan with unbelievable expenditures of money, lives and international political standing, the U.S. has utterly failed to establish stable, peaceful political orders in those nations, or to eradicate Islamic militants and their appeal. Although few politicians, policymakers, or pundits acknowledge this fact, it is clear America has failed to accomplish its political goals in its conflicts and occupations in Iraq or Afghanistan. The rise of ISIS is the ultimate testament to this uncomfortable truth; a truth I take to be rather obvious, which is why I am shocked to see it disregarded by politicians, policymakers, and pundits.
The second point of consensus is that U.S. military intervention alone cannot solve the problem; that ultimately the only resolution, if there is one, to the problem posed by ISIS will be political. This, too, is an unavoidable lesson of the U.S.’s years of war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Success against ISIS, which represents as much a political and ideological threat as a military one, cannot come from short-term military dominance, but only from establishing enduring, stable governments in both Syria and Iraq; governments which are able to govern all the territory and all the sectarian and ethnic groups in their countries.
As demonstrated by our history in both Iraq and Afghanistan, such political resolutions cannot be achieved by cruise missiles and Special Forces operations, and they cannot be achieved by U.S. military ground invasions and occupations; particularly not without occupations that are prepared to engage in the most violent, brutal, and costly actions to dominate all the political, sectarian, and ethnic groups competing for territory, power, and ideological allegiance in those countries.
It is against the backdrop of these three strategic points of consensus that U.S. policy is being formed. There appears to be a general consensus forming regarding the strategy the U.S. should employ against ISIS that includes the following components: 1) an inclusive government must be established in Iraq that deals with Sunni grievances; 2) the Syrian civil war must end, and a new political order must be established in which neither ISIS nor the Assad regime is in power; 3) the U.S. should attack ISIS with missiles; 4) military assistance and armament should be provided to enemies of our enemy — in particular, to the Kurds in Iraq and “moderate” opposition forces in Syria; and 5) “coalition-building” on a regional and international level needs to take place among those who are threatened by the rise of ISIS.
There is an incoherence, a fundamental insanity, to the public discourse and policy making taking place regarding American policy toward ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Like an addict in denial, the American political establishment is locked in habitual states of mind, reflexively engaged in self-destructive behaviors in an uncritical and unmindful way, compulsively pursuing perceived interests that are not, in fact, in service of the well-being of the country. To see this, it is helpful to recite an inventory of fundamental strategic truths which will ultimately shape the outcomes of any greater American involvement in the conflicts taking place in Iraq and Syria:
1. America cannot defeat ISIS over the long term by military means.
2. America cannot defeat ISIS in Syria by political means. The only powerful competing forces in Syria today are the Asad regime and ISIS – and America has no ability to create a new, third political force in Syria by designating certain rag-tag groups as “the moderate opposition.” Nor is it politically feasible for America to try and defeat ISIS in Syria by allying itself with the Asad regime. Therefore, there is absolutely no rational basis for believing or assuming that America, with or without “coalition-building,” can, through military attack, economic incentivizing, or political pressure, create a new, stable, and effective political order in Syria. Without such a new political order in Syria, the military campaign in Syria will ultimately fail to accomplish its political objectives.
3. America cannot defeat ISIS in Iraq by political means. America has been persistently unable to dominate or steer the ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq toward a stable alliance and coexistence that would provide a basis for a Baghdad-based government to rule all of Iraq, and there is absolutely no rational basis for believing or assuming it can succeed now where it has failed before. Without such a new political order, any U.S. military campaign in Iraq will ultimately fail to accomplish its political objectives.
4. Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and Syria, and throughout the Middle East, are engaged in a competition, both religious and political, that existed before the U.S. came into being and will endure long after American troops leave the region regardless of what U.S. troops are able to accomplish in the short and near terms. Sectarian conflict is and will remain endemic to Iraq, Syria, and the region in spite of anything the U.S. military or U.S. politicians believe they are able to accomplish; a fact amply demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
5. Iraq and Syria lack the traditions, political culture, and institutions that are the foundation for a functional modern nation-state. Iraq and Syria are relatively artificial creations of Western statesmen imposed without consideration of tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions that govern the politics of the region. Sykes-Picot-inspired international boundaries are creations that have only been held together by the worst type of corrupt autocracies. There is no foundation upon which the U.S. could engage in nation-building in those countries.
6. There is no basis or tradition in Muslim history and political culture for democracy, political tolerance, constitutionalism, or respect for differing religions. Absent such – whether in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or Palestine – the U.S. will never be able look upon any government that comes into power in a Muslim country as an uncomplicated partner. The enemy of my enemy is not my friend; at least not for longer than a period of months. It is no accident of history that virtually all Muslim governments are undemocratic. It is no accident of history that almost all Muslim governments oppress their own peoples – with a focus on ethnic and sectarian minorities – and deny the most basic human rights to their citizens. Simply put, there are no options in the Middle East between repressive, corrupt autocracy and repressive, aggressively-expansionist theocracy. This is a truth President Obama appears to not understand, as he revealed at the beginning of his Administration in his hopelessly naïve and counterproductive Cairo speech, and again in his recent pronouncements where he fatuously opines about how autocrats and theocrats are on the “wrong side of history.”
7. America cannot rely on regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to provide any significant military or political support to defeating ISIS and rebuilding a stable Iraq and a stable Syria. Obviously, Israel cannot play any such role. Nor can America look to its feckless, weak, and economically-challenged European allies to provide significant support in a conflict against ISIS or an effort to rebuild Iraq and Syria. Without such support, the Americans will likely fail, and at tremendous economic, military, and political cost, as has been the case in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
8. American military and political involvement in Arab nations ultimately fuels and supports the cause of Islamic militants.
9. American domestic support for military campaigns and political over-entanglement in the Middle East is exhausted and disillusioned. Scaremongering regarding, and even legitimate fears respecting, ISIS will only overcome such exhaustion and disillusionment for a short period of time. Without domestic support, U.S. politicians will not be able to devote the vast amount of blood and treasure necessary to become imperial overlord over Iraq and Syria – which is what would be required to actually defeat ISIS.
Like an addict mindlessly disregarding the persistently self-destructive consequences of his addictive behavior, American policymakers are locked into reflexive policy responses to ISIS without any due consideration of the nine strategic facts listed above. If this inventory is accurate, then there is only one possible conclusion: American military involvement in Syria and Iraq – at least in the long run – is doomed to failure. America and its Western allies simply lack the ability to build stable, tolerant, reasonably democratic nations in Muslim countries; therefore any military campaigns we launch do not represent a genuine, lasting solutions to the threats posed by ISIS. America, however, is locked into a strategic “addiction;” a combination of naiveté, arrogance, hubris, and delusion that prevents it from seeing and admitting that it lacks the power and means to control and steer events in the Middle East.
At least to this writer, it seems fairly obvious and straightforward that current strategic policy making regarding combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is informed by a combination of hubris, delusion, ignorance, and blinding fear. What is less obvious, and more fundamentally important, is to identify the ultimate source of such confused and baleful strategic thinking; the source of the “strategic addiction” in our political culture. To do so, one must necessarily take a broader historical view.
There are four striking commonalities between contemporary American policy debate and formation regarding Iraq and Syria, and that of the conflicts faced by the U.S. in the post-WWII period in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. First, in none of the past conflicts did the U.S. actually face an existential threat. Only in the case of Afghanistan after September 11th, 2001 could one even remotely maintain that the conflict posed any direct threat to the homeland – and, of course, in that case, the risk was merely that a shadowy group of terrorists could use the country as a base of operation to train for attacks – a risk that was not at the time, or now, limited to the Taliban’s hold on power in Afghanistan.
Second, in each conflict, notwithstanding that the conflicts in such countries did not pose a real security threat to the U.S., policymakers nevertheless defined the conflicts as dire existential threats, with advocates of military engagement employing histrionic rhetoric that relied more on over-worn catch phrases (such “a grave security threat to our national interests”) than on any plausible, fact-based argumentation. A third salient feature of each of these historical episodes is that – bespeaking the non-existential nature of the threat posed by the conflicts in such countries – the U.S. did not ever consider, much less engage in, total (unlimited) war to defeat the enemies in such countries. In each conflict, as in Syria and Iraq today, American presidents and policymakers spent nearly as much time trying to limit and modulate American military intervention as they did trying to defeat the enemy.
This inevitably resulted from a fourth salient feature of the conflicts: in each, “victory” and “success” depended not on military destruction of the enemy, but on accomplishing a political reconstruction of the countries in question. These episodes of American military engagement were not about defeating an existential enemy, but about American attempts to control the politics and policies of countries mired in profound national conflict and dysfunction. In each case, the national interest inciting military engagement was not the need to defend America, but to defend perceived American interests in a particular international order. U.S. objectives in each country were not merely to defeat an enemy in military terms, but instead required America to build or reform the existing political order and institutions in order to accomplish the political objectives underlying the military engagement.
A fourth commonality with past conflicts is that in each instance, the case for American military involvement was met, either from the start or eventually, with significant domestic opposition and a lack of robust international support – reflecting the fact that in each instance, the case for a genuine strategic interest was attenuated or controversial, and the possibilities for clear victory were uncertain. I submit that these commonalities provided a perfect recipe for a foreign policy of military engagement that was inherently bound to fail, and that in the context of combating ISIS in Syria and Iraq, they will be a perfect recipe for failure in the future.
In a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Henry Kissinger – discussing the unraveling of old political orders in the Middle East and in the former Soviet empire – noted that U.S. foreign policy must address certain fundamental strategic questions. “To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and, if necessary, alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? How much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?” Kissinger has always been better at posing tough questions than answering them, and his op-ed piece made no attempt to provide answers to the questions he posed. They are questions that are not being asked but need to be asked regarding U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world.
There is no settled or widely-accepted understanding of the circumstances in which, short of direct attack, America should exercise its military power abroad. This has no doubt been true for as long as America has had a foreign policy. America was not founded with an eye to establish an imperial power to promote freedom and democracy at the point of a gun (or an ICBM or cruise missile). After the First and Second World Wars, however, a fundamental shift in the nation’s political culture took place that radically transformed America’s approach to foreign policy.
With the advent of totalitarian governments that pursued regional and global expansion of power through military conquest and domination (first the Germans, then the Russians), America – with its newfound economic and military power – adopted the role of world savior, the guardian and promoter of freedom and democracy throughout the world. In the face of such totalitarian threats, America adopted a “globalized” conceptualization of security interests. America’s security interests were no longer limited to the protection of its own territory and citizens, or even to its regional hegemony in North America, but were now at stake in every part of the world that was threatened by enemies of the international order it championed in the post-war era.
For a short time after the end of the Cold War and the demise of Soviet-led communist expansionism and ideology, it seemed as if the world had, indeed, been made “safe for democracy.” (So much so that one commentator, in what later would be taken as naïve hubris and folly, proclaimed an “end to history.”) Then the September 11th, 2001 attacks occurred, and America confronted a new global enemy; one that would threaten America and its global security interests in every part of the world: the Islamic terrorist. This enemy, however, was not embodied and contained within nation-states and conventional militaries. This enemy was transnational and ideological, seemingly immune to the rationalities of deterrence and coexistence that attend governing a nation-state. Consumed with a new sense of existential panic not experienced since the 1950s, Americans – with their typical naïve idealism – declared a “War on Terror,” resulting in two (and counting) major conflicts/occupations, a vast and worryingly unchecked Military-Intelligence Complex, and vast expenditures of national wealth.
America won the Cold War not by militarily engaging and defeating communist nations and by installing new political regimes in countries controlled by the Soviet Union, but through containment, and by living well (which is, a popular saying goes, “the best revenge”). In a similar vein, America cannot win the War on Terror by military conquest and imperial domination of Muslim countries. It can only contain the risks coming out of those countries; it cannot root the risks out at their source. Beyond that fundamental overarching strategic truth, there is another that is distressingly absent in the policy considerations of America’s political establishment: the primary driving cause of the risks Islamic militants pose to America arises out of the very conduct we engage in to deter and eliminate those risks.
The political program of al Qaeda and the attacks of September 11th, 2001, as everyone knows, stemmed from America’s neo-imperial role and presence in the region, supporting ruling clans such as the Saud family in Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and other corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Islamic militants harbor revolutionary aspirations stemming from America’s military presence in the region, and from its unconditional military support of Israel, without requiring as a condition for such support, a resolution of the Palestinian question. In short, America was in the cross-hairs of al Qaeda militants because of its neo-imperialist role in the region.
ISIS is a strategic risk not because it threatens to kill citizens of Syria and of Iraq, and not because it beheaded a couple of foreign journalists (America saw no dire strategic threat requiring military action in Afghanistan against the Taliban prior to September 11th, 2001 even though that regime was as repugnant as ISIS threatens to become). ISIS is a threat because it is a danger to the political order of the Middle East and to American “allies” in the region. Having decided, without proper reflection and judgment, that it is vital for the U.S. to have a neo-imperialist role in the Middle East, any threat to that role and any challenge to that role (including in the form of terrorist attacks) poses a grave strategic threat to the security of the United States.
This reasoning is inherently flawed and self-defeating. If the U.S. determined, as I maintain it should, that it has no vital interest in being involved militarily and politically in the politics of the Middle East, and if it determined (like it did with respect to Soviet power during the Cold War) that it cannot promote its interest in a peaceful, democratic, and stable Middle East without undue self-destruction by military means, but must rely solely on containment, then it could withdraw its military from the region, disengage from making war against Islamic militants and dictators throughout the region, and let Muslims create their own history, for better or worse. If America withdrew in this manner from the Middle East and stayed out of its affairs to the degree, say, that it generally stays out of the affairs of African nations (which also witness humanitarian and political crises on a near daily basis without extensive American intervention), then Islamic militants would focus their attention not on America, but on the political regimes and sects who are their immediate and natural enemies.
In response to this, many will no doubt refer to two supposed interests America has in the Middle East: oil and Israel. To this, I briefly respond that it is immoral as well as economic and political folly for the U.S. to act as imperial overlord, making war and trying to dictate political orders throughout the region in an attempt to maintain a low price for imported oil. I think it is fairly obvious that Islamic militants will not end U.S. access to oil, given that oil is a commodity sold on a spot market, and given that such militants would sell any oil they acquire to fund themselves. Moreover, America unquestionably needs to become, for political, economic, and environmental reasons, independent of dependence on Middle Eastern oil, so dependence on such oil is not a persuasive reason for our excessive and self-destructive engagement. Moreover, given the cost of America’s neo-imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is impossible to believe that an economic case for further wars and interventions is can be made.
As to Israel, I submit that Israel can and should defend itself and that it is not in America’s interest to commit unlimited lives and money – not to mention political capital – to make war on every Islamic militant group that hates and wishes to destroy Israel. Israelis accept that their existential survival depends on themselves, not on the American military, and we should also accept that unquestionable wisdom. If we want to provide Israel with economic and military aid, that is one thing; but to argue we should make war in countries throughout the region to prevent them from ultimately attacking Israel is a very different, very stupid, and very dangerous proposition.
As long as America is committed to its neo-imperialist role in the Middle East, it will forever be required to commit unlimited amounts of blood and treasure to intervening in the conflicts throughout the region; siding up to unwholesome, corrupt, and undemocratic regimes which abuse their own people; living in unending fear of terror attack; and sustaining a Military-Intelligence complex that drains our pocketbooks and our constitutional freedoms. It commits us to the impossible task of reforming a civilization that does not share our history, traditions, values, or institutional beliefs. It commits us to impoverishment and political failure, constantly engaging in wars and political battles that cannot succeed. It is time to end the hubris, the folly, and the delusion about what we can and should try to accomplish in the world and to realize that America’s superpower role in the Middle East is itself the problem ; the real source of our security dangers. The problem is not ISIS. I have seen the problem, and it is us.
Dean L. Jarmel is a graduate of the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University and the New York University School of Law. He is an attorney specializing in product liability and commercial litigation.
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