This morning's New York Times reports that Republican candidates, with the sole exception of Ron Paul, are becoming more militant on foreign policy, and that several of them are arguing that we must meet ISIS in Iraq and Syria with ground forces. Among other things, they apparently see this as an effective way to attack Hillary Clinton, whom they will blame for going along with President Obama and ignoring the threat of Islamic radicalism during his first term and pulling out of Iraq too quickly. Already, of course, President Obama has committed himself to the "disruption" and eventual destruction of ISIS. This marks a profound step down the road to a new hell, involving an almost unbelievable ignorance of recent history. History is littered with such catastrophes, but I am very sad that I will apparently have to live through yet another during the last decade of my life.
What makes addictive policies self-destructive is that they are based on self-fulfilling prophecies: they bring about, or increase, the evils that they are supposed to combat. I first discovered this pattern writing my dissertation, which became the book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War. (It is the only one of my books, at right, not still in print, but Princeton University Press is going to make an e-book available some time this year.) Hitler based his plans for expansion on the idea that Germany could not afford to depend upon world trade and needed the territory necessary feed itself. As soon as he took power, he began rearming to prepare the conquer the territory he thought Germany needed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Rearmament took resources away from export industries and increased demands for imports--making it that much harder for Germany to meet its needs through world trade. That is why Goebbels, in 1935, had to announce that "we can do without butter, but we must have guns"--because there was no butter to be had in German groceries, since there was no foreign currency to import it. As I showed, the Germans found quick fixes in the late 1930s by trading grain imports from Eastern European states for arms, but their problems were compounded by 1939 by acute shortages of labor. When the war began they immediately put Polish and then French prisoners to work, and made enormous use of forced labor throughout the war. They still however had no chance in their war with three powers with vastly superior resources: Britain, the USSR, and the United States. In the postwar period the Germans have learned their lesson and depend proudly on their extraordinary skill at manufacturing industrial exports.
The US's disastrous addiction began, of course, with 9/11. President Bush immediately announced that this proved that terrorists all over the world threatened the United States, and that they, and any governments that sponsored them, had to be eliminated. As a matter of fact, the 9/11 Commission report showed how hard it was for Al Queda to get the necessary personnel (only 20 men) into the US to perpetrate that attack in in a relatively relaxed security climate, and it is really no surprise that no one has ever managed to pull off anything remotely similar again. In the United States, in Britain, and in France, a tiny number of local Muslim terrorists have managed to pull off a few outrages, but that is all, and frankly, it is unrealistic to think that we can stamp those out. Bush decided, of course, to overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that he could replace them with pro-American democracies that would deal with any terrorist threat. That was the disastrous mistake that we shall apparently be living with for much of the 21st century.
The intervention in Afghanistan initially drove the Taliban out of power, but they have grown much stronger since both inside of Afghanistan and, more critically, within Pakistan. The case of Iraq is much worse. There were no Al Queda terrorists in Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein would never have allowed them to operate. But when Saddam was overthrown and the US helped create a new, Shi'ite dominated government, a new Al Queda in Iraq took root among the Sunni population. General Petraeus's surge and the opening up of good relationships with Sunni tribal leaders quieted things down late in the last decade, but as excellent reporting by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker has shown, the Shi'ite government threw those gains away within a few years by repressing the Sunnis. Thus, last year, they welcomed ISIS into their territory--and ISIS is a direct descendant of Al Queda in Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States responded to the Sunni revolt against President Assad in Syria by demanding that he step down, rather than working for some kind of settlement. ISIS has become the strongest force within the Sunni rebels as well.
Last year, ISIS decided to behead several American captives that the US government had (rightly) refused to ransom on camera. That vaulted them to the foreground of our radar screen, and President Obama declared all-out war on them. It seems incredible to me that no one seems to understand that this is exactly what ISIS wanted: to be seen as the spearpoint of Islam, particularly Sunni Islam, in the struggle against the United States in the Middle East. It would have made far more sense to make one retaliatory strike, and to advise all Americans, in the strongest terms, to stay out of war zones in Syria and Iraq to avoid being kidnapped and murdered. (Such a declaration is obviously a logical corollary to the no-ransom policy, with which, once again, I agree.) Now we are trying to do in Iraq what we tried to do in Vietnam in 1962-4 and 1972-3: to use air power to buck up allied Iraqi forces in an attempt to retake the territory that has been lost. The problem, of course, is that those forces are Shi'ite forces who are very likely to commit atrocities and alienate the population once again if they do retake Mosul and other territories. Meanwhile, ISIS is getting stronger in Libya and even in the Sinai peninsula and on the Egyptian side of the Libyan border.
The leaders and the people of the Middle East must solve the problems of the Middle East. The process will be long and very bloody, and their solutions may not reflect western values. But there is no evidence that the United States can do anything but make things worse by intervening militarily. At home, a new war will escalate the federal deficit once again. Because the economy is now improving, it may well create pressure for a draft, since it will be very difficult to refill the ranks of infantry and armor units with new enlistees. It will divert attention from increasingly serious problems in Europe. And worst of all--if recent history is any guide, and I believe it is--it will create more chaos.
We are on this path, as I have said here again and again, because both Republican and Democratic foreign policy specialists have a neo-Hegelian world view and assume that American values are destined to prevail. Our higher education system, increasingly intolerant of any views other than its own, contributes to this as well. Politically Republicans once again see a muscular foreign policy as an asset. And the pro-Israeli lobby is delighted to have gotten America into an even larger endless war than the one Israel is fighting, since it inevitably relieves such pressure as still remains upon the Israeli government to make peace. The Republicans will also probably line up against any nuclear deal with Iran, setting the stage for a confrontation with Iran if a Republican President is elected. Jon Stewart, in his inimitable way, addresses the problem of repeating one's self beginning at about the 8 minute mark of this clip.
We are dealing today with chaos in regions that western powers ruled only very briefly, if at all. The British and French mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine lasted only a few decades. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled them effectively for centuries, is not about to be reconstituted, and a renewed western imperialism to secure and administer these areas is simply out of the question, not least because their population has grown so much. A coalition of Sunni and Shi'ite governments could, one hopes, defeat ISIS, although the process would be a brutal one. Yet it is not clear that critical governments such as the Turks and the Saudis want ISIS destroyed--at least not yet.
I have no idea where, and how, all this will end. I do not believe in the possibility of a good outcome. I know that some others hold these views, but there does not seem to be much that we can do. Nor, sadly, does there seem to be any real statesmanship within the Arab world prepared to cope with what it faces.