If you’re still not convinced that America’s embryonic campaign against ISIS terrorism in the Middle East is heading toward an epic crackup, check out today’s Washington Post. Its Outlook section features two articles on the subject that are diametrically opposed to each other, fully representative of two major factions in the policy debate, and equally moronic. Especially depressing – each author serves up an explanation for the Middle East’s woes noteworthy only for its looniness.
According to Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the region is a mess today because America has “walked away from its traditional role as the guarantor of global security.” The mistake most directly responsible for creating the current ISIS threat – and allegedly made by both President Obama and some supposedly isolationist Republicans? Failing to realize that “when the Syrian people rose up in 2011 in protest of Bashir Al-Assad’s brutal rule, our vital national interest was to prevent a protracted civil war in which radical jihadists from all over the world could rush into a vacuum. If they could seize operational spaces, they could use them to plan and carry out attacks against our allies and ultimately America.”
Rubio instead would have taken steps reportedly supported by many of Mr. Obama’s own senior advisors: promptly identifying and arming a “moderate Syrian opposition.” Interestingly, in this article, Rubio did not repeat the charge that the Obama administration needlessly and hastily pulled the last U.S. combat forces out of Iraq in 2011 and thereby helped ensure that the country we tumble back into chaos. But he did express these concerns once the President made his announcement in October, 2011.
There are certainly legitimate grounds for challenging both the President’s Syria and Iraq decisions. But there are no legitimate grounds for confidence that dramatically different policies on either front would have produced lasting solutions to the ISIS problem. On this score, the president is right. Iraqi leaders’ immediate return to score-settling once American troops left proves how artificial that country has been all along, and how far it remains from embracing anything like the pluralism needed for stability and cohesion.
The world’s Rubios apparently believe that decades-long U.S. military presences in places like South Korea demonstrate the need for and viability of patience. But Korea has always had a strong sense of “Korean-ness.” The idea of Iraqi national identity has always been a fantasy – even under so ruthless a dictator as Saddam Hussein. Just as important, the American public nowadays rightly has no interest in open-ended deployments of U.S. troops continually struggling to keep Sunnis and Shiites from each other’s throats.
And if Iraq has always been a disaster waiting to happen, the claim that aiding moderate Syrian rebels sooner would have fatally weakened ISIS becomes fatally weaker. For even if Assad’s most sympathetic enemies could have seized the upper hand militarily in that civil conflict, ISIS would still eventually have faced an open field in Iraq’s vast Sunni lands.
Moreover, more decisive U.S. policies against Assad would have done nothing to deal with the emergence of ISIS-like groups in dozens of other failed and failing states in places like the northern half of Africa. Rubio’s ringing call for “American leadership” to “shape” history and ensure “global stability” is nothing more than an historically ignorant formula for ensnaring the nation in an endless series of costly, bloody, and futile foreign interventions.
The Atlantic Council’s Ramzy Mardini convinced Outlook editors to run an article presenting what might be called the dovish equivalent of Rubio’s hawkishness. Actually, the word “half-hearted” needs be added to both descriptions – for just as Rubio stays conspicuously silent about the possibility of reintroducing sizable American combat forces into the Middle East to fight ISIS, Mardini writes that ISIS poses a problem that the United States should not “ignore.”
But Mardini insists that “while some military action is necessary to defeat the Islamic State,” he argues that this “effort should be driven by regional actors, not a Western power.” Because Outlook editors evidently never got around to asking “Like who?” I will. After all, look what’s happened in the mere days since President Obama’s primetime speech announcing the (current) anti-ISIS campaign. The Sunni countries have devoted most of their energies to proving my argument that none of them is internally stable or cohesive enough themselves to act militarily against an organization that, however abhorrent morally and threatening to their own regimes, uses the word “Islam” in its name. Indeed, just this morning came a report that the best the State Department can do so far along these lines is to claim (anonynmously) that an unspecified number of Arab Moslem states will be joining the air campaign at some unspecified point in equally unspecified ways.
Yet more incompetent than Mardini’s analysis of Arab security policies is his treatment of the roots of Middle East extremism dangerous enough and determined to threaten the United States. According to the author, “to the extent that the group poses any threat to the United States, that threat is magnified by a visible U.S. military role. Obama’s restraint in the use of military power in recent years has helped keep the Islamic State’s focus regional — on its efforts to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East rather than on launching attacks against the United States. It’s only with the U.S. military’s return to Iraq and the prospect of U.S. intervention in Syria that the group’s focus has begun to shift.“
Maybe Mardini is talking about some other ISIS? The ISIS that’s on everyone’s mind now is the one led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Yes, he (reportedly) was radicalized by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But if true, what does this say al-Baghdadi? That by the time he reached adulthood, he either was firmly convinced that maintaining the brutal nation-wide prison that Sunni Saddam Hussein created in Iraq was better than any conceivable successor, or that he was so convinced that repressed non-Sunni groups would retaliate violently against the Sunni community that he saw no alternative but extremism himself. Either way, it’s clear that he comes from a culture and society that was thoroughly debased and a breeding ground for savagery – along with the scapegoating of outsiders – long before America’s interventions.
It’s also increasingly clear that both the Rubios and Mardinis and their respective camps have no clue about the most promising long-term U.S. anti-ISIS strategy by far: Concerted efforts on the border security and energy policy fronts by Washington to marginalize the Middle East for America – to ensure that its extremists can no longer reach the U.S. homeland and that the nation and world greatly reduce dependence on the region’s oil. The nation’s opinion editors don’t seem to have a clue, either. Why else would they keep ensuring that their commentary pages – and the national debate – remain monopolized by hawkish and dovish versions of Middle East quackery?