The presidential nomination process is presently a circus, and the bright lights and noise have caused most Americans to lose sight of an important truth: international politics requires reasoned analysis. Hubris, arrogance, anger, and headless aggression are counterproductive. With this in mind, it is time to step outside the big tent, and carefully consider the situation in the Syria and Iraq.
America has spent almost fifteen years embroiled in an international war against terrorists; it is time to decide whether our country will learn from our experiences, or be mastered by circumstances we cannot control. Individuals with a modicum of common sense know this is true.
Unfortunately most hawkish Republican leaders worship at the altar of simplicity and strength. Shoot-first psudo-realists like Governor Chris Christie talk about security and leadership, but their policy prescriptions often involve the shortsighted application of military force. This was old news – until Governor Christie endorsed Donald Trump. Now Americans are faced with the disturbing possibility that a Trump administration could easily embrace Mr. Christie’s bellicose approach to foreign policy. Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is a perfect fit.
There can be no doubt that jingoism and preemptive military action can lead to a renewed sense of national power. Just ask Russia. Nevertheless, US policymakers must not choose this course of action. If the US reasserts its metaphorical masculinity through the naked use of force, our nation will engender international distrust and generate a plethora of unforeseen consequences.
The next president must navigate a complex array of allegiances, motivations, grievances, and material needs in every corner of the world. The simplicity of the Cold War is gone. Now every conceivable variable must be fully understood before it can be effectively addressed. Often success will be marked by uncomfortable coalitions, modest goals, and reasoned judgment. Most of all, US leaders must remember that actions have consequences: each domino the US pushes over causes unseen dominoes to fall. Hence every possible outcome must be considered in a multidimensional fashion. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East.
If the truth be told, the conflict in Syria and Iraq – driven by national, ethnic, religious, and economic tensions – is not amenable to a Desert Storm style intervention. But hawkish American politicians have yet to accept this view. Old fashioned defense hawks regularly advocate international paternalism. A unilateral no-fly zone in Iraq and Syria, regime change in Syria, and a ground war to defeat ISIS are all popular solutions amongst the paternalistic Washington DC set. History, however, urges extreme caution.
ISIS has already undermined the stability of the Middle East, and its goal of conquering, converting, and killing in the name of Islam is wholly unacceptable. Nevertheless, a massive US led ground war against ISIS is a quagmire waiting to happen. Excessive casualties and collateral damage would dampen public support for the war, ISIS would fight a guerrilla war with nontraditional combatants, and heathen invaders (Western soldiers) would turn ISIS fighters into religious martyrs. Worse yet, the underlying problem – a violent interpretation of Islam – would remain largely unchallenged.
Extremism in the name of Islam is a generational problem that infects many thousands of Muslims in the Middle East. Consequently even if the US turned back the clock to 1945, and leveled all ISIS-held cities, it would not be enough. The ideology behind ISIS cannot be fully defeated by a military campaign, a strong local economy, or the redistribution of wealth. History teaches us that only a new interpretation of Islam and the passage of time will undermine ISIS. The best example of this truth can be drawn from US history.
For more than a century after the US Civil War, overt racism was common in the south. Over time, education, societal evolution, and changing hearts relegated racism to the dark corners of American society. Likewise, the de-radicalization of the Middle East will not be a short-term endeavor – it will take decades, perhaps even centuries. A new generation of progressive Muslims has a great responsibility to the world: they must illuminate an interpretation of Islam that shuns violence and lives by the Golden Rule.
The distressing plight of men, women, and children in Syria and Iraq has moved American war hawks to ignore the lessons of history. In 1953 the United States and Great Britain unadvisedly overthrew the Iranian government; twenty six years later, violent Iranian extremists led a revolution that haunts the world today. More recently, US civil and military leaders underestimated the extremists in Afghanistan. Now, after more than a decade of US involvement in a superficially one-sided war, the forces of order, stability, and peace are facing a resurgent Taliban. In short, dangerous consequences follow immodest policies.
A costly generational war against violent extremists in the Middle East can be avoided if the US chooses to keep the war against ISIS at arms length. Armed with permission from Iraq and Syria, US involvement must be limited to bombing ISIS, extensive arms sales to regional allies, occasional special operations assignments, and the creation of safe zones for Christians and persecuted Muslims. The ground war must be fought by a coalition of middle eastern forces that is willing to earn peace and freedom by achieving theological and military victory over violent religious extremists.
This spring primary voters in the United States have a chance to decide: will America learn from history or be mastered by it? If voters reward politicians who cling to hawkish international paternalism, a quagmire awaits. But if voters demand a policy of modest realism, the next generation will surely reap the benefits.