The Root of Our Foreign Policy Blunders

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Huffington Post

The Root of Our Foreign Policy Blunders

(Credit: The U.S. Army/cc/Flickr)

And so the inevitable is unfolding: a possible collapse of the U.S.-imposed Iraqi state, the apparent triumph of the most brutal extremists in the world, and more to come in Syria, Afghanistan, and possibly Jordan, Mali, Libya, and who knows where else. The first step to recovery -- if recovery is even feasible -- is an honest reckoning of why this is happening.

The discourse in Washington, as always, will be superficial, partisan, and knowledge-free. The blaming of Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011 will be the Fox News mantra of coming days and weeks (and, judging from the Benghazi flap, for years). Even the New York Times on Wednesday morning -- reporting that the forces of the extremists, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, had overrun Mosul and were headed toward Baghdad -- mentioned that this was another blow to the White House's faltering foreign policy. But while Obama has his share of missteps, the responsibility for this catastrophe rests with the neocons of the George W. Bush years and the liberal hawks who can't help but propose war when they see a wrong that needs righting.

Middle East historian Juan Cole explains the tumultuous history in his excellent blog, and makes the useful point that the Iraqi Parliament had rejected the U.S. proposal to keep a residual force in Iraq beyond 2011. Their rejection was rooted in eight years of mayhem that the U.S. invasion wrought. As I have argued exhaustively, the scale of killing was enormous -- likely 600,000 or more Iraqis died in those years as a direct result of the war. That and displacement and impoverishment create and sustain bitterness that no amount of training and equipping the Iraqi army can salve. Many people would ask me why the mortality figures were so important (and a source of contention). This is why. The country was left a ruin, torn by sectarian politics and crippled by mistrust and fear and death. It is easy prey for the jihadists.

The second charge against Obama is that he failed to arm the moderate rebels in Syria, thereby giving the extremists an advantage. Obama should not have encouraged rebellion. The human-rights lobby has been at the center of the Arab Spring fiasco, egging on the rebels and feeding the media narrative of despicable despots that needed deposing. That the likes of Al Qaeda has appeared at virtually every newly created power vacuum to wreak its own special havoc seems to have escaped the notice of every do-gooder from San Francisco to Oslo. The same thing happened in Afghanistan 13 years ago, when prominent feminists argued for war to liberate Afghan women. As my colleague Anna Badkhen points out in her brilliant on-the-ground account, The World Is a Carpet, Afghan women don't need such patronizing attitudes. And, in any case, the Taliban will be back in power in two to three years: war for human rights is increasingly being exposed as an oxymoron.

The question of whether arming the "moderates" among the rebels in Syria would have made a difference in dealing with Assad is anyone's guess. The argument is that it would put pressure on Assad and his supporters, and enable the "moderates" to defeat ISIS. A bigger civil war might unseat Assad (and might not), but the only certainty of that course is more civilian deaths, already at 200,000, and more immiseration of ordinary Syrians. Meanwhile, our longtime buddies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, have been pouring their oil treasures into ISIS and other extremists. Why the U.S. has not used its leverage to stop that is a more important question than why Obama has been reluctant to arm rebels. It is that Gulf pipeline of oil lucre and weapons that has enabled ISIS to win Mosul and Fallujah, march toward Baghdad, and possibly threaten the next obvious target, Jordan.

That all of this was spurred by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a truism, though one often smothered by the blame-Obama meme. Much else has contributed to this fiasco, including the Clinton-imposed sanctions on Iraq that weakened society irreparably, the failure to leverage Israel to settle with the Palestinians (which would have isolated Assad), and the absence of an energy policy that would diminish the political and social power of the petro-states. And lest we forget: the arming of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Reagan's gift to jihadism that keeps on giving. Arming dodgy rebels has enabled enormous scales death and instability, yet we continue to treat "rebels" as if they were the loyalists in 1930s Spain -- a trope much beloved by Christopher Hitchens and other would-be Orwells. The American news media is enamored of this brave narrative too, framing a debate in which a small liberal cohort can shame the president for not arming the Syrians and now will blame him for the disaster in Iraq.

The fundamental lesson here -- though much more needs to be explored -- is that the root of our blunders is the heavy reliance on military solutions, whether invading countries, imposing sanctions, arming proxies, or propping up authoritarians. The authors of these "solutions" have not all retreated to right-wing think tanks; many are in powerful posts at the UN, the White House, and the presidential campaigns of the future. If we and they don't grapple with this failure of common sense, the catastrophe will continue to unfold.

John Tirman

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies. Tirman is author, or coauthor and editor, of twelve books on international affairs, including, most recently, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars and Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War. Follow John Tirman on Twitter @JohnTirman.

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