Einsteinian insanity is a defining characteristic of US foreign policy – and that goes double when we’re talking about the Middle East.
You see, America loves democracy so damn much, that the US is fully prepared to impose it upon recalcitrant countries by force. Sure, that may seem oxymoronic, but it’s really just well meaning paternalism. After all, what better way to endear the local population to an occupying force and sow the seeds for the establishment of democratic institutions than to come in shooting after you’ve leveled a couple of cities with cruise missiles and airstrikes?
Of course not all autocratic regimes are subject to America’s “democracy at gunpoint”. The Saudis, for instance, get to promote Wahhabism and push the same brand of orthodox Sunni Islam that ISIS and al-Qaeda espouse free from US meddling because, well, because they’re an “ally”, because they’ve got all the oil, and because they’ve helped the US perpetuate decades of dollar dominance. As long as they can afford to provide subsidies to the masses in an effort to effectively bribe the public out of staging a popular uprising, everything will presumably be fine.
Other countries haven’t been so lucky and the results have been a disaster.
America’s effort to rid Iraq of Saddam ended up transforming the country into an unstable Iranian colony plagued by sectarian violence.
Libya is a lawless wasteland in the wake of Gaddafi’s death.
Egypt has completely roundtripped and is now run by a former intelligence chief for Hosni Mubarak meaning that i) the entire “democratic” interlude touched off by protests during the Arab Spring was completely pointless, and ii) the loss of life in the countercoup which ousted Mohamed Morsi was entirely avoidable. In other words, if we were just going to end up with a Mubarak disciple, then why did we bother? Morsi has since been sentenced to death.
Now, Washington, Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha have helped turned Syria into what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently called “the worst circle of hell” and were it not from Russia and Iran’s interevention, Damascus might have already fallen.
What do all of these things have in common? They all represent failed attempts on the part of Washington to engineer democracies and influence the political future of sovereign states either by coercion or outright military force.
Put simply: that approach never works. Ever. And this fairy tale you’ll hear (see here for instance) about how things would be fine if the US would just send in 30,000 troops to subdue ISIS and back down the Russians on the way to holding “internationally recognized democratic elections” is the worst kind of nonsense. First, it completely overlooks the fact that the Iranians will fight before they’ll stand aside and let Assad be “voted” out, second, you can’t hold democratic elections in a warzone, and third, it’s not entirely clear that the US has completely thrown in the towel on the idea that if the Saudis and Qatar can just keep the various Sunni extremist groups battling the regime in the fight for long enough, there might still be hope that the Russians get bogged down and eventually lose.
Here’s what Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard – who on Friday tabled legislation designed to force the CIA into giving up the “illegal” effort to overthrow Assad – said last week when asked about whether the US should attempt to intervene with an autocratic government is oppressing its people:
“People said the very same thing about Saddam (Hussein), the very same thing about (Moammar) Gadhafi, the results of those two failed efforts of regime change and the following nation-building have been absolute, not only have they been failures, but they’ve actually worked to strengthen our enemy.”
It’s with all of the above in mind that we bring you excerpts from “The Cold Realism of the Post-Paris War on Terror,” an article by Emile Simpson originally published in Foreign Policy. As Simpson convincingly argues, “the time for supporting democratic regime change across the Muslim world is over. It’s accept Assad and his like, or embrace the chaos.”
* * *
While the Paris attack provides a fresh impetus for the West to defeat the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, it also shows how profoundly the post-9/11 war on terror has failed. After all, haven’t jihadi networks massively proliferated since 2001, leaving Western capitals and cities across the Muslim world perpetually on edge, poised for the next fresh carnage? Post-Paris, the war on terror won’t be part of a neoconservative project to remake the world in our own image, but a Burkean conservative posture that accepts the devils we know.
The Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity. Whatever the objective threat, the West cannot tolerate the humiliation of terrorist attacks from an enemy that, so far, it has merely sought (and failed) to contain. For all the self-congratulatory talk of “historic” progress at the recent diplomatic talks in Vienna, a “political solution” cannot fix the problem of ISIS and hard-line Islamists — for neither Washington nor Moscow would ever accept a negotiated peace with them. The territory they hold must be cleared and held by infantry. But whose infantry? The Kurds can retake only so much ground, given their limited resources and lack of desire to expand substantially beyond ethnically Kurdish areas. Non-Kurdish rebels are small in number and fragmented. And in many cases their “moderate” credentials are dubious, at best.
That leaves the West, Russia, or the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies.
There’s no chance the United States, France, or NATO wants to hold ground on its own, or back Assad. So scratch the first option from that shortlist. Handing the moral and military quagmire over to the Russians — who will, in turn, back the Syrian Army — begins to seem like the only option.
Assad’s fate is a weathervane for the future of the wider war on terror. Syria has, in three respects, turned into the graveyard of the post-9/11 phase of this conflict.
For one thing, U.S. policy towards Syria begins to dispel the notion that the war on terror is part of a broader freedom-promotion agenda. In hisaddress to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, then-President Bush defined the war on terror as a moralizing revolutionary project. The refrain was still alive six years later. “This war is more than a clash of arms — it is a decisive ideological struggle,” Bush said in his 2007 State of the Union address. “The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity.”
And what is Washington’s bipartisan answer to this “great question of our day,” from the perspective of 2015? A decisive “no,” unless you think that the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Cairo, which holds up to 40,000 politicalprisoners in its torture-ridden jails, is allowing Egyptians to share in the “rights of all humanity.” Or, perhaps, that our trusted ally Saudi Arabia doesn’t actually have a rancid human rights record after all.
Syria makes plain that we don’t, actually, have an alternative to Assad. Yes, the Syrian strongman himself may well ultimately be “transitioned” out of power, but his repressive regime will stay intact. Whatever Assad’s personal fate, dissolving his regime means removing any vestige of state order that remains in Syria, and replacing it with even more chaos. And surely we’ve learned by now that things can always get worse. Syria merely confirms the lesson the West should have learned from Iraq: that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is dead.
Second, we now know that the notion that regime change leads to a better democratic or a humanitarian outcome is decidedly false. From Iraq, where the West tried a heavy footprint strategy, to Libya, where it opted for a light one, the idea that Europe or the United States can actually execute democratic change by force has been exposed as a fallacy. In Iraq, $2trillion dollars, over 4,000 dead Americans, and over 200,000 dead Iraqis created a country run by an Iranian puppet who turned out to be a vicious sectarian maniac. In Libya, we simply have chaos, with much of the state run by hard-line Islamists.
Those who say the United States should have intervened in 2011 to topple Assad are left having to explain either how they could have rallied U.S. public support for an Iraq-like occupation and rebuilding of Syria, or, in the absence of that, how Syria would have avoided Libya’s fate.