The Middle East suffers from an enormous problem: many nations lack any consensus on how they should be governed. Shi'ia and Sunni factions contend for power in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere. In Egypt, the military-backed government has just declared the Muslim Brotherhood, which won Egypt's only genuine free election in its entire history, a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, various states enjoying relative stability, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, are intervening in civil wars elsewhere. All this reminds me very much of early modern Europe, which I investigated pretty thoroughly back in the 1980s, and it isn't encouraging. But in the last two days, the Obama Administration has added a new element to the mix.
Sunni extremists, including Al Queda elements, are getting more powerful in much of Iraq, and their bombings are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the majority Shi'ite population. The Obama Administration wisely decided to get the United States out of Iraq a couple of years ago, and I do not think that a continuing American presence would have helped. Now, however, the US has decided to come to the aid What disturbs me deeply is the manner in which we have decided to do so.
A little historical background is in order. During the 45 years of the Cold War, both sides assumed that conventional war similar to the campaigns of the Second World War might occur at any moment. They spent billions preparing for it, developed sophisticated weapons, and, crucially, encouraged their regional allies to acquire such weapons as well. Billions of dollars worth of jet aircraft, tanks, artillery and much more went from the US, the Soviets and other nations to India and Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, North and South Korea, North and South Vietnam, and elsewhere. Occassionally this weaponry was used in local wars.
For the time being--and nothing lasts forever--the age of conventional warfare seems to over. The conflicts that rule the front pages are waged by insurgents of one kind or another against governments or occupiers, and terrorism has become the weapon of choice. Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist have also made extensive use of rockets. From time to time, Israel in Lebanon and Gaza and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq have tried to deal with such groups with conventional forces. They generally score temporary successes, but with the exception of the Israelis in the West Bank, no one has been willing to prolong such an occupation indefinitely. As a result, they have turned to other strategies.
The most common counter-insurgent strategy pursued by the most advanced nations originated in Israel: the use of aerial surveillance and air to ground missiles to kill individual militants. I don't believe I ever blogged about the excellent Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, which consists of lengthy interviews with retired heads of Mossad, but they described the development of this stragegy and the problems of applying them. They generally agreed, moreover, that it did not provide any long-term solution to political problems. And in one particularly chilling moment, one of them mentioned the Israelis had taught Americans these techniques after 9/11. "I know," he said, "because I saw them."
Drone strikes have now of course become the centerpiece of our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They kill individual militants. They often kill innocent civilians as well, and from time to time they are based upon faulty intelligence or analysis and kill nothing but innocent civilians. As in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no evidence that they reduce the supply of militants in the long run. Because they are aimed at militant leadership, they probably make it much harder eventually to negotiate peace. There is no evidence, in my opinion, that the contribute to building a more peaceful world.
Now it seems that the Cold War precedent is about to be revived in the age of terror. The United States' response to the resurgent Al Queda and Sunni revolt in Iraq is to supply the Shi'ite government of Nouri Al-Maliki with drones and hellfire missiles. The Iraqi government will be able to turn them on their own people. In an atmosphere of long-term religious war, I find it very difficult to believe that they will use better intelligence or more discrimination than the US has, or that this tactic will contribute to peace in Iraq. And where will this lead? Will Russia soon be providing similar technology to the Assad regime in Syria?
Researching my forthcoming book, I found that the leadership of the US government in 1940-1 believed deeply that civilized norms of behavior had to be preserved in international law. Americans throughout the twentieth century had shared that view, differing only on the degree to which the United States should try to compel observance of the norms in which it believed. That is why Roosevelt and his Administration designed the UN and other international institutions during the war. The richest and most domestically peaceful nations still have a responsibility, I think, to try to spread the rule of law. That is why I think the United States should be leading an international initiative to try to stop a long-term religious war in the Middle East. It is also why I believe that the United States should not be promoting the use of drones against domestic terrorists as a solution to anyone's domestic political problems. Yet I have not seen one word of protest against the new policy.