Since the American withdrawal from Iraq just a couple of months ago, the Maliki government has not made the slightest effort to stick to the script that we had written, moving aggressively against Sunni political opponents and making it harder and harder for any Americans to remain in the country. Because no American can remain there without substantial protection provided by contractors--who are under heavy pressure to leave--it is quite possible that within a year or two there will be no Americans left in Iraq--an amazing denouement to a sad chapter in American foreign policy. And today comes the news that two more Americans--officers working in Afghan government buildings in Kabul--have been shot and killed by an Afghan, apparently as retaliation for the burning of Korans at an American base, an act that should lead to some court martials for sheer stupidity. Simultaneously, American activists are going on trial in Egypt. All this should lead us to face facts and gives President Obama an opportunity to do so, but I fear that he will not take it. It isn't his style.
As Andrew Bacevich pointed out in his latest book, Washington Rules (reviewed here on October 13, 2010), the United States after 1945 adopted the idea that we had to be keenly interested in any political changes anywhere on the planet, and to be ready to deploy military force to make sure things went our way. Although the American public has only been willing to stomach a prolonged major war every 15 to 25 years (Korea, 1950-3; Vietnam, 1965-73; Iraq and Afghanistan, 2001-present), Washington has continually intervened in other ways around the globe, and our pretensions to control events seem if anything to have increased after the end of the Cold War, despite the enormous shrinkage of our military forces. 9/11 led us into unfamiliar and unfriendly cultural territory in the Middle East. The time has come for a frank reappraisal.
No matter how tolerant we claim to be of Islam--and in practice, the burning of the Koran is only the latest of a long series of incidents in which Americans acted provocatively towards Muslims--we can never be anything but infidels and apostates in Muslim countries. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the supremacy of western civilization was almost unquestioned, and even in the Islamic world, revolutionaries like Ataturk in Turkey, Nasser in Egypt, and the Ba'ath Party in Syria and Iraq acknowledged this by trying to copy the west. Those days are gone. Militant Islam has returned to earth. George W. Bush's fantasies notwithstanding,there is not the slightest chance of a major Middle Eastern or Central Asian political movement adopting western models for the foreseeable future, much less agreeing to a large long-term American presence. The Far East, where we fought two wars in the 1950s and 1960s, has turned out to be far more hospitable to western civilization than one might have supposed. The Arab world has turned out to be less so. It will evidently have to work out its own political problems without our assistance.
There has been an oddly postmodern aspect to American foreign interventions for many years now. While nearly everyone but a few malcontents like Bacevich and myself accepts the necessity for them--and this includes leftists eager to intervene on behalf of human rights, as well as neoconservatives--administrations periodically have to realize that they are not worth the cost and wind them down. Yet they invariably so, as Bacevich pointed out, without calling the basic premises of American foreign policy into question. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 in large part because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, but he carefully balanced that stance by endorsing the war in Afghanistan. He faced no real political pressure to continue, much less escalate, that war after he came into office, but he decided to do so anyway despite warnings from the American Ambassador, perhaps because it seemed like a consensus, bipartisan thing to do. It depended however on a fantasy about the transformation we could bring about within the Afghan government. So far from reality was this fantasy that we are now literally in danger of being driven out of the country. One must assume, however, that Obama will do whatever is necessary to keep us there until after the election.
In 1961 John Kennedy went to Europe to meet Khrushchev and stopped in Paris to meet Charles de Gaulle. He asked for de Gaulle's advice on Indochina, and de Gaulle, after recapitulating the French experience there, commented that the West could maintain influence in the newly independent countries of the region provided that it did not try to intervene militarily. As I pointed out in American Tragedy, Kennedy in that same year refused repeatedly to send American divisions to Laos and Vietnam, showing that he understood what de Gaulle was saying. But Washington has never taken that lesson to heart more than temporarily. Obama in his first few months in office sounded as if he might strike a different note, but in practice, he has pursued more of the same. A lobby is now building for intervention in Syria, which is probably due for a long and bloody civil war no matter what we do. We should, in my opinion, stay out.
America intervention succeeded in western Europe and Japan and in South Korea because the political basis for pro-American regimes existed in those countries. It failed in Vietnam and Lebanon and is failing again in Iraq and Afghanistan because that political basis did not exist. Yes, American troops can accomplish something while they are there, but they cannot establish new values or a new regime. Younger generations would welcome a leader who could come out and say this, but I will be very surprised in Barack Obama turns out to be that man.