In my lifetime we have seen the post-Vietnam era, the post-Cold War era, and the post-9/11 era. For some time I have felt that we’re in another “post-” era that we are scrambling wildly in the dark to understand. I call it the post-Arab Spring era. When the revolts in Tunisia and especially Egypt erupted, it seemed as if the Middle East were going to embrace Western-style democracy and revel in peace and prosperity. But the backlash to those many protests has been vicious, as extremist Muslims have come screaming out of the woodwork to protest the engagement with the West.
I believe it was David Brooks who said on the PBS Newshour a few months ago that for the first time in history, every country in the Middle East except Oman was at war with someone. This is a sobering thought. A retired general estimated that the war against the Islamic State could last 30-40 years. Jon Stewart illustrated the tangled alliances of the Middle East, where our goals are aligned with Iran against IS but we’re opposed to them in Yemen. Reza Aslan has said that the West keeps saying that Islam needs reformed but what we’re witnessing is a reformation. He pointed out the parallels between this one and the Christian one in the 16th century, where one-quarter of the German population was killed. And I ask you, who would you have armed, Luther or the Pope? We are in a post-Arab Spring world that is extremely complex and confusing and we cannot impose Pax Americana. It cannot be done.
I’ve been reading about the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, where the elected Republicans defended themselves against the Franco-led fascists. Italy enthusiastically supported Franco, Germany less so. The Russians supported the Republic. And the rest of the West? Neutral. Or at least, neutral on the surface. Many Americans volunteered to fight on the side of the Republicans in the International Brigades. Leftist Western writers descended on the country, convinced that the war in Spain was just a precursor to a wider world war between fascists and democrats (they were right). Meanwhile American companies such as Texaco and Standard Oil kept Franco supplied. (My grandparents worked at Standard Oil in the ’30s and it horrifies me that their labor went to support the fascists.)
Ernest Hemingway called it a “new style war,” a war “where there is no such thing as a non-combatant,” a war that “comes right smack into everybody’s home and drips blood all over the carpet.” Prescient.
Leftists argued passionately for the American government to pledge whole-hearted support to the Republicans but Roosevelt didn’t want to get involved. Like so many leaders in the West, he didn’t want to “provoke” the rapidly re-arming Germans.
Stalin supported the Republicans to keep the Germans off his western border. He wanted the war kept far away from his homeland. Sound familiar? It was sick and twisted and perverse to have a proxy war but it worked as long as the Republicans held. But it also gave the Germans the opportunity to hone their methods for their wider dreams of conquest. One can draw a parallel with the United States and IS today, where we are supporting the Iraqis to keep IS from our doorstep, where IS is developing infrastructure and recruitment techniques and fighting styles to create a sustainable regime. I’m not saying we should put boots on the ground and take the fight to IS. Quite the contrary. But it’s these lessons from history that I wish politicians like Lindsey Graham would look to before blaring “whatever it takes, as long as it takes.” Does he have any idea what he’s talking about? He’s talking endless war. He’s talking nuclear war. And he thinks that is a solution.
If you use the Spanish analogy, you could make the argument that we should be arming “moderates” in the Middle East, much as the leftists wanted governments to support Spanish Republicans (as opposed to the Russian Communists who later came in and replaced them in leadership roles). But what would that accomplish? First we’d have to identify who the moderates were, which has proven extremely difficult. I think we’ve trained, what, 400 “moderates” in Syria so far? When we’d planned on thousands? Who decides what “moderate” is? What is the litmus test? Must they be committed to secular Islam or democracy or just hate IS? Who is making that decision—the army? The CIA?
Moreover, what happens when “moderates” engage in a war over ideology? Hell, what happens to everyone in war? They get radicalized. Views become more polarized, technologies become more vicious, and in many cases the side with the most extreme views wins (Vietnam, Afghanistan, ad nauseum). Do we really want the people of the Middle East more radicalized? Do we (perish the thought) want IS more radicalized? Because that’s what we’ll get if we get more involved in this war. The Crusades have not been forgotten. And our support of Israel remains a grievous problem for Arabs in the region. We are playing into IS’s hands if we go in full force.
One of the elements I find totally baffling about the American response is our sending in more “trainers and advisors.” What could we possibly say to the Iraqis that we haven’t been saying for the last 14 years? And how much experience do we have with successfully fighting a foe like IS? What exactly makes us the experts?
Even if the Iraqis, Kurds, Iranians, and others push back IS, what then? No one seems to be talking about that. I predict what almost always happens in these situations: war amongst the parties who are left standing, with a strongman regime eventually emerging as people grow tired of the chaos and just yearn for order. Any kind of order. See Germany in the 1930s. Or Egypt now. And then you have guerrillas, and purges, and all the terror and mess that goes along with a totalitarian state. Saddam Hussein will be cackling with glee. All that war for nothing.
If we support any side in this war (and by “this” war I mean primarily the Syrian civil war and the war against IS), we are saddled with continuing to support it after the war is over. And when will it be over? In 30 or 40 years as that general predicted? Once again we will be supporting another Mubarak or Saudi Arabia because they’re the only ones holding the reins and we’re terrified of the alternatives.
We are compromised if we involve ourselves in this war, no matter what we do. We lose even if we win.
As for what we should do, I would like to see the best reporters in the world on the ground, giving us information and analysis unfiltered by our governments. We need to make a serious, on-going commitment to peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians and accept nothing less than a resolution to this festering wound. We need to listen to residents of the Middle East and North Africa to hear what they want from us. We have to close Gitmo and get the prisoners out of no-man’s-land. We need to re-commit ourselves every day to democracy and pluralism and civil rights so we have a thriving, multicultural society that stands as a viable alternative to IS. We should be welcoming Muslim refugees. As Americans, we need to breathe new life into a secular, pluralistic, democratic union and daily feel an allegiance to it. Not to kill for it, but to be an example, an alternative to the extreme views of IS. We should be investing in interfaith work in Iraq and Kurdistan and bring Americans back with a better understanding of the many textures of Islam, beyond just Sunni and Shiite. We should be investing in education and economic development and birth control for women and girls where we are welcomed in order to help build viable regimes that are less susceptible to radicalization. I am not saying we should impose our ways on others. I am saying we should be strong in ourselves and simply offer ways to help that don’t involve stamping “U.S.” on the side of a weapon. And then we should stay out of it.
This is not our war. We do not understand it. We were shocked by the Viet Cong. This is Vietnam ten times over. The supporters of IS are completely alien to the majority of the American people and unless we do some serious self-schooling, we are in no position to provide military aid to anyone. One step down that road leads to chaos. Chaos that we will not be able to extricate ourselves from for decades.
This is not our war.