After 9/11, I wanted the United States to destroy al Qaeda – not necessarily for revenge or punishment, but for security reasons. As long as they operated as a viable organization, Americans and the West were at risk. I believed this knowing that even if we wiped out al Qaeda, there would always be other terrorist groups to fill the void left behind. This is the risk and cost of a “superpower” spreading its tentacles around the world. Whether or not we should be doing that is a topic for another day. For now, it is a reality – we are a superpower and we are everywhere. Or at least we think we need to be everywhere. Oh wait, that’s the topic for another day.
I supported the initial stages of our post-9/11 efforts in Afghanistan. I thought, even though Afghanistan was a country riddled with tribal loyalties and shifting alliances and had gone through more than two decades of near constant war, if we did it right, we could achieve some success and send a message to the world. We might actually bring peace to a country that seemed so desperately in need of it. Those initial stages were in some respects brilliant and unexpected. The use of small numbers of U.S. special forces and relying almost entirely on Afghanis to do the fighting, Taliban and al Qaeda forces were driven out of the country or deep, deep underground.
Unfortunately, things went south almost immediately. Figuratively, in the sense that the trap for Osama in Tora Bora wasn’t closed and, literally, because the focus shifted to an unnecessary war. Once Osama escaped, Afghanistan became a quagmire, sucking more and more troops and resources into a situation that was no-win and has remained no-win for more than a decade. I wonder these days if the Bush Administration wanted Osama to escape and that is also why they never looked too hard for him. With Osama alive and on the loose, he was a convenient boogeyman to keep the fires of war stoked. With him dead and al Qaeda on the run, what was the justification for continued war?
And then there was the debacle in Iraq. A war fought on the cheap, with no clear plan for the aftermath. Corruption, greed, torture, tens of thousands killed, trillions wasted, a country left in an absolute shambles.
I’m fascinated with the rest of the world. Not in the sense that I want to travel to far away places and see exotic locales. Instead, my fascination is with the people and the history and the politics and the dynamics of how countries have been formed and fall apart. In college, I developed my own minor that was approved by the university — Middle East Studies. So, you can say that this particular part of the world has been of interest to me for the past 30 years. After college, I enrolled in a Masters program in International Relations. I quit after a couple of months because it was too much work to complete while holding down a full-time job. Went to law school instead.
So, that’s a little bit of background to explain that I’m not uneducated on the matters of the Middle East and international politics. I don’t claim to be an expert. Far from it, of course, but I think I know more than the average bear. Unfortunately, I think I also know more about it than a lot of our policymakers these days. Let me give you an example.
One of the higher-ups in the Bush administration cited a number of reasons why he thought the last invasion of Iraq would be a success. One of the reasons given was that there was no history of conflict between the Sunnis and Shias. Well, yeah, if you only ignore the past 1300+ years of conflict between the two major sects of Islam — all based on a dispute over who should have been the successor to Muhammad after he died. Anybody who knows anything about the history of Islam knows that Sunnis and Shias pretty much can’t stand each other.
I’ll give you another example. One I’ve mentioned here before. Condi Rice, several days after 9/11, publicly stated that nobody would ever have thought that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons. Yes, sure, nobody would have thought of that. Except me — every time I get on an airplane, including before 9/11.
There are a whole lot of other misunderstandings and fallacies that provide the foundation for so much that is wrong with our approach in the Middle East. One giant bugaboo here is our policies with Israel and the Palestinians — but that’s another topic for another day.
Basically, I have done a lot of reading about the Middle East. Books. Magazine articles. Blogs. A lot of reading. The area is a mess. Filled with tribes and clans and sects that earn more loyalty from individuals than any nation can. And those tribes and clans and sects frequently shift their loyalty to each other depending on the direction of the wind. In the Middle East, your friend today may be your enemy next week and your friend again next month. It is simply a dynamic that doesn’t work for how this country does things with its power.
As our effort in Afghanistan bogged down and the Bush turned its attention to Iraq, I opposed the invasion of Iraq from the first suggestion of it. It was never going to be a winning opportunity for this country because of the demand for lives and resources it would require. And the simple reality that bringing stability to the country would be next to impossible.
Kind of like Afghanistan.
Way back then I read The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, who is an Englishman who set out years earlier to hike the old trade route that crosses most of Asia, linking it with Europe. The one part of the road he couldn’t hike was the portion in Afghanistan. So, as soon as the U.S. invaded and threw out the Taliban, he was there to complete the effort. He then wrote The Places in Between about his walk through Afghanistan. If you want to understand why the U.S. will never be able to achieve its objectives (stability, democracy, free markets, capitalism, development, etc.) in Afghanistan read the book. If you want to understand why the U.S. will never be able to achieve its objectives in Iraq, or most any other Middle Eastern country, read his follow up book, The Prince of the Marshes, about his year in Iraq serving as an English diplomat after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There are plenty of other books out there about both countries. There is a wealth of information about the societies and culture and histories and traditions of these countries and their people that are readable and informative. And what they all point to is that we don’t belong there in the role we have assigned for ourselves. It will never, ever work.
I’ll give you an example. In Syria, one of our putative “allies” is ISIS. Hard to think that, because ISIS is tangentially linked to al Qaeda. I say tangentially, because it appears they are going further than al Qaeda, which believes ISIS is too extreme. They certainly have many of the same philosophies as al Qaeda. So, ISIS is one of our “allies” in Syria because they are one of the rebel forces trying to drive out Bashar al-Assad, who we have decided is the bad guy. Meanwhile, in Iraq, ISIS is our “enemy” because they are marching on Baghdad, gobbling up territory, killing thousands, and threatening our “ally” in the form of the Maliki government in Iraq. Meanwhile, our putative “ally” in combating ISIS in Iraq may just be Iran because Iran is interested in supporting the Maliki government. Meanwhile, Iran is our enemy everywhere else.
Got all that.
And now, because ISIS is on the march in Iraq, all of the neocons who banged the drums for the last invasion of Iraq are banging the drums again.
The Cheneys. Notice that both in this video and in their WSJ op-ed piece they propose no solutions but simply attack the President. (Totally different subject — have you ever seen a former Vice President (or President) attack the sitting President as much as Cheney has in the past seven years? This is one of those things that I find so repugnant about the current crop of Republican “leaders” — they have no shame and no respect for the institution of the Presidency. Which is really ironic since they are conservatives and that’s supposed to be one of the principles of conservatism.)
There are all sorts of neocons, like Bill Kristol, John McCain, and Paul Wolfowitz, and others who were behind the foreign policy failures of the Bush Administration who are all ready to do it all over again. As though the past twelve years never happened. As though the two wars didn’t bring this country almost to its knees, creating havoc and damage that we are still recovering from and practically bankrupting the country. No, there were no lessons learned. We must do it all over again. It boggles the mind and makes one wonder why they keep beating this drum? Why are they still given a platform to spread their toxic ideas? Why would anybody consider their opinion worth anything other than winding up on a toilet paper roll for use later on?
This is one of these things I will never understand. This idea that somehow power can solve any problem. And anything that goes wrong in the world must be met with American military might. Bomb, ground forces, whatever it takes. Who cares how many more lives are lost. Who cares how much the cost. Who cares whether we know the consequences or as President Obama apparently likes to ask, “And then what?” This is why I still believe that President Obama is the only adult in the room on these issues. I only hope he stays strong on this. If he takes action that sucks us back into the quagmire of Iraq, I will no longer support him. This is a non-negotiable point. This is where he makes the right decision and not the expedient decision to quiet the opposition. This is a must. It is a no-win situation. It’s cruel and harsh, but as far as I’m concerned if the Iraqis are going to kill themselves, let them. That’s not my problem, it’s not our problem and there is nothing we are going to do to stop it from happening. Nor are we ever … EVER … going to stop terrorists, particularly as long as we throw our weight around and use our military to exert our influence in the world. Soft power will do more to soothe the anger and fear than military power ever will. It’s amazing how that lesson has never been learned, even after centuries of evidence.