The false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy

Shadi Hamid writes: The Middle East, as a region, is more unstable, divided, and rife with extremism today than it has been at any other point in recent decades. It would make little sense to blame these developments on American military intervention. The past six years have been characterized not by the use of force, but by a very concerted desire on the part of the Obama administration to reduce our regional engagement, in general, and our military footprint in particular.

The presumption was that with the withdrawal from Iraq, a key Arab grievance would be addressed. The Obama administration could, then, re-establish a relationship with the Arab world based on “mutual respect,” leading to a “new beginning.” It wasn’t unreasonable to think this. After all, it was precisely our over-engagement, and the waging of two costly, tragic wars, that appeared to provoke such anger toward the United States. Yet disengagement and detachment haven’t helped matters. Anti-Americanism persists at strikingly high levels and, in a number of countries, attitudes toward the U.S. are more negative under Obama than they were during Bush’s final years.

The Bush administration’s fatal mistake wasn’t military intervention per se, but rather the misapplication of military force under false pretenses. In other words, not all military adventures are created equal: Bad interventions are bad, but good interventions are good.

The two most destructive conflicts in the Middle East today are in Syria and Iraq, two countries that have imploded not because of too much intervention, but because of too little. In Syria, our failure to intervene with air support to help rebels hold territory and targeted military strikes to diminish the regime’s ability to kill not only exacerbated the humanitarian toll, but also undermined “moderates” — who have begged endlessly for the most basic weaponry — and strengthened extremist groups like ISIS. The claim, oft-repeated by opponents of intervention, that “there is no military solution” is a straw man, setting up a false dichotomy between military action and successful diplomacy, when the two, in fact, go hand in hand. Assad has no real incentive to negotiate in good faith in the absence of a credible threat of military force.

Consider ISIS’s recent capture of territory in the strategic Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The group’s military success had very little to do with hatreds of any kind, ancient or otherwise, and more to do with the failure of the international community to support the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who warned American officials, including Samantha Power, that ISIS was closing in. For weeks, they pleaded for assistance but were ignored. “The FSA numbers are big, but we don’t have weapons, we don’t have ammunition, we don’t have anything,” complained one FSA commander.

In Iraq, the original sin was the Bush administration’s decision to invade in 2003 (or was it the elder Bush’s failure to back the Iraqi uprising of 1991, effectively allowing Saddam to stay in power?). But, again, there was nothing inevitable about the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June and the eruption of civil war in Iraq. To emphasize, as Obama has, that this is a conflict between Iraqis and must be resolved by Iraqis, is banal and self-evident, but it also implies — in the context of Obama’s broader approach to the region — a certain studied detachment. This is not our civil war, but theirs. Except that the U.S., through a staggering combination of incompetence, neglect, and myopia, is directly implicated in the country’s political deterioration. As Ali Khedery, the longest continuing serving U.S. official in Iraq, writes: “The crisis now gripping Iraq and the Middle East was not only predictable but predicted — and preventable. By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

If anything, the lesson of Bosnia, Kosovo, and, for that matter, Rwanda, is that supposedly “primordial” conflicts over religion, sect, and ethnicity are the very ones, due to their intractability and viciousness, that are more likely to require outside military intervention. Ultimately, the end of the Bosnian war did not mean that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats hated each other any less; it meant that, despite their hate, they would agree to abide by a peace agreement. This return to “politics” would not have been possible without, first, the resort to force by NATO and the international community. [Continue reading…]

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