War has become the hallmark of America’s relations with the Muslim world. Every intervention seems to create more harm than good, triggering new military action to deal with the additional problems which result. Yet even President Donald Trump, who campaigned against America’s policy of permanent war, appears incapable of disentangling the U.S. from the Middle East.
America’s relations with Islamic nations and peoples were fraught with difficulty even before September 11, 2001. Washington’s steadily tightening relationship with the state of Israel created a source of perpetual friction. The Iranian revolution turned an important Middle Eastern ally into an adversary. The U.S. grew increasingly entangled when it backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein after he invaded Iran and later attacked Iraq after he invaded Kuwait.
The latter resulted in a closer relationship with the Saudi royal family, including placing a garrison in the nation which hosts Islam’s two holiest sites, which in turn generated additional hostility against America. Indeed, in the Middle East, Washington’s policy imperatives were driven by two often contradictory principles: absolute commitment to Israel’s security, even to the detriment of American interests, and firm backing for the oil-rich Gulf States, irrespective of oft-stated human rights concerns.
Still, since the latter countries typically offered more rhetoric than substance regarding the plight of Palestinians, in practice the two policies rarely suffered an irrepressible conflict. And Washington’s military involvement was episodic rather than constant, a response to unique circumstance rather than a fixed, perpetual, solution to virtually every problem and challenge.
Transforming America’s role were the September 11 attacks. It is hard to overstate the shock to both policymakers and citizens. Americans tend to view their nation through rose-coloured glasses, believing it to be virtuous and well-intended. The claim that others think differently often is greeted with disbelief and viewed as evidence of malign intent. Those who attack the U.S., most Americans assume, must be targeting their nation’s virtues, not faults.
Washington’s policy imperatives were driven by two often contradictory principles: absolute commitment to Israel’s security, even to the detriment of American interests, and firm backing for the oil-rich Gulf States.
Moreover, the U.S. had come to feel invulnerable. America made war on other nations. Other nations did not make war on America. The last serious foreign attacks on the U.S. occurred more than 200 years ago when Washington squared off against the United Kingdom during the Napoleonic wars. Al-Qaeda shattered that sense of security, creating near panic, with many people imagining additional attacks on their neighborhoods across the country.
A dramatic and intense response was inevitable. President George W. Bush and his hardline advisers, backed by the radical Neoconservative movement, drew up a lengthy target list. However, the Bush family’s ties with the Saudi royals insulated the regime in Riyadh, allowing it to avoid answering too many embarrassing questions about its possible involvement in 9/11 and past support for terrorism.
Instead, the administration started with Afghanistan. But Iraq was the Neoconservatives’ prime objective, despite the lack of evidence tying Baghdad to the latest terrorist attacks. Some policymakers wanted to take out Iran and Syria as well as if they were playing a video game and vying to make the top score. The only U.S. action which was justified on the facts—and good policy—was the initial assault on al-Qaeda’s operations and the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However, this mission was quickly accomplished.
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Washington stuck around for another 16 years so far, apparently in the attempt to create a Western-style democracy in Central Asia. It is a fool’s errand, an exercise of bloody hubris more to satisfy egos in Washington than improve lives in Afghanistan, and the results have been as expected.
To anyone outside of the Pentagon, Afghanistan is a catastrophic failure, an endless war in which the U.S. and its Western allies do little more than sustain a nominal central government, as it acts mostly like the mayor’s office of Kabul, with only nominal control of other urban centres. Most of the countryside is under Taliban control or contested, and without American military forces, much of the latter would revert to the Taliban.
Successive presidential administrations merely attempt to sustain the image of Afghan control, putting off the expected collapse to the next administration. Americans and Afghans continue to die for nothing other than political expediency. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump is continuing in this tradition.
The operation in Afghanistan appeared to be a work of genius compared to the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. President Bush and his aides had no idea what they were doing: they believed what they wanted about WMDs, imagined engaging in international social engineering, fantasized about the Iraqi response, and mismanaged every aspect of a hated occupation.
Americans tend to view their nation through rose-coloured glasses, believing it to be virtuous and well-intended. The claim that others think differently often is greeted with disbelief and viewed as evidence of malign intent.
The consequences were beyond imagination: sectarian war, brutal insurgency, organized terrorism, religious cleansing, and jihadist murder. But opposition under American military control proved to be only the first round. Al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State, triggering a new and more virulent phase engulfing both Syria as well as Iraq, and spreading outward to Libya and beyond.
The corrupt, incompetent Iraqi military collapsed, entire cities fell, religious minorities were slaughtered or enslaved, Syrian society imploded, and urban areas were left in rubble. For a time Daesh challenged virtually every state in the Middle East. But under the weight of American bombs, ISIS gradually lost its caliphate, shrinking back into an insurgent/terrorist gang, more akin to al-Qaeda, with continuing plans to commit murder and mayhem.
Washington achieved a similar, if less dramatic and costly, result in Libya. After America and Europe made a deal with Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his missile and nuclear programs, feting him in European capitals and sending U.S. delegations to Tripoli, Washington and Brussels used a UN Security Council resolution as an excuse to impose regime change.
Gaddafi suffered a gruesome death featured on YouTube, the central government disintegrated, tribal and religious war ensued, loose weapons flooded the region, and ISIS made a predictable appearance. Today Libya is another failed state and testament to the U.S. government’s inability to see even one step beyond the latest ideological fantasies animating current policymakers.
However, Syria represented the most dramatic triumph of hope over experience—as well as rational thought. Not content with pursuing one unattainable objective, as in Afghanistan, American leaders insisted on simultaneously advancing several mutually inconsistent goals, imagining that the U.S. could do the impossible.
Washington insisted on ousting Syria’s Assad government and defeating ISIS, even though the former was the most powerful opponent of the latter. The U.S. continued to oppose terrorism while aiding fighters with Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
America claimed an opposition filled with nonexistent “moderates,” spending lavishly on groups that routinely collapsed and surrendered personnel and U.S. supplied weapons to radicals. Operating in their distant ivory tower, American officials, loud defenders of religious liberty around the world, offered nothing to the very same religious minorities who suffered most from the horror unleashed in Iraq: alas, the latter had seen the movie there and didn’t like the ending, and therefore supported Assad to prevent a similar result in Syria.
It is a fool’s errand, an exercise of bloody hubris more to satisfy egos in Washington than improve lives in Afghanistan, and the results have been as expected.
Intervening from another continent and thousands of miles away, Washington insisted that Moscow, which had been allied with Damascus throughout the Cold War, had no place in Syria, even in opposing Islamist radicals. The U.S. joined with Syrian Kurds against ISIS while America’s NATO ally Turkey tolerated Daesh fighters and supplies crossing its border.
Eventually, Ankara attacked the Kurds and threatened the American personnel cooperating with Kurdish forces. With no legal sanction, domestic or international, Washington occupied nearly a third of Syria’s territory in the north in an attempt to weaken the Assad regime—while criticizing Iran’s presence at the request of the legal government in Damascus.
Overall this policy could only be described as mad. And it was as effective as one would expect. The U.S. squandered its wealth, fueled the Syrian charnel house, and funded radical Islamists without providing a serious, viable, peaceful alternative for all Syrians. As if one war was not enough, Washington enlisted in Saudi Arabia’s aggressive, murderous assault on its impoverished neighbour, Yemen.
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The conflict grew out of decades of internal Yemeni strife, with Riyadh determined to reinstate a pliable, puppet ruler. In what was supposed to be a two-week conflict, now in its fourth year, the U.S. provides the Saudis with munitions, refuels Saudi aircraft, and provides the royal military with intelligence/targeting assistance.
The result has been the sustained slaughter of Yemeni civilians and destruction of Yemeni infrastructure, with no evident advantage to Washington, as if even that should matter when schoolchildren are being routinely killed. This is an extraordinary record. Yet Washington policymakers, having done so much to wreck entire countries, still understand nothing and admit nothing, blaming Iran and Russia for destabilizing the Middle East.
American politicians daily battle each other to be the strongest backer of Israel in its Apartheid-like rule over Palestinian territories. Successive administrations subsidized tyranny in Egypt, backed oppressive monarchies throughout the Persian Gulf, and turned American policies over to Saudi Arabia. But no matter, if only Moscow would exit and Tehran would effectively surrender, not just to Washington but Riyadh, eternal peace would descend, justice would reign, and the lion would lie down with the lamb.
Unfortunately, nothing seems likely to change. The American people are well-intentioned and good-hearted but pay little attention to international affairs. The public leaves those issues to involved elite, who share a commitment to global social engineering, almost irrespective of cost. Until the Trump presidency, America’s political leaders shared this arrogant globalist consensus.
Libya is another failed state and testament to the U.S. government’s inability to see even one step beyond the latest ideological fantasies animating current policymakers. However, Syria represented the most dramatic triumph of hope over experience—as well as rational thought.
President Donald Trump’s personal flaws are obvious, but he at least glimpses both the cost to America and devastation abroad. Unfortunately, so far he has made little attempt to exercise control over bureaucracies and interests determined to continue as they always have.
Thus, under Trump, the U.S. has given up even the barest pretense of maintaining balance between Israelis and Palestinians, reinforced failure in Afghanistan, continued to occupy Syria, and strengthened support for the Saudi royal family. Thus, the present policy appears likely to continue its present course; which will leave Washington constantly at war, especially against much of the Muslim world.
This is unlikely to end well. In fact, the future could be worse. If this president is unwilling to break with the status quo, it is hard to imagine what the president will do so. Presidential candidates who criticize conventional wisdom have been outliers—Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Rand Paul. No one with their beliefs is a favorite to occupy the Oval Office.
This means the current policy will continue to be based on ideological fantasies rather than practical results. War has failed to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the Middle East, but the war will continue to be Washington’s preferred policy. Indeed, another terrorist attack or well-publicized atrocity, or hotly contested presidential campaign, could lead this or a future president to launch new misadventures in an attempt to win political support.
The U.S. has a history of presidents using crises to get the public to rally around, only to see that support seep away as casualties and costs accumulate. So it was with the response to 9/11 and Iraq invasion and is likely to be the consequence in the future. The foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a dual commitment to Israel and the Gulf States, irrespective of human rights and other basic American interests, makes success unlikely for Washington, irrespective of what policy it follows.
Worse, the post-9/11 highly-militarized approach is a guarantee for disaster. And it continues even under a president who criticized its impact when he ran for office. Change is likely to come only when the costs to the American public rise to unbearable levels. What that would require is hard to predict. Until them, Washington is likely to continue to be the greatest source of instability and conflict in the Middle East.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.