Since the horrific terrorist attacks on the streets of Paris, there has been a steady drumbeat for war coming from many sources—especially the Republican Presidential candidates. But the Obama administration has been waging a war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq for years, and current events suggest the bombing and drone attacks have achieved little in the way of security for the United States and its allies.
Thus, we have the call for ratcheting up the conflict with a more intensive bombing campaign and the use of American troops on the ground in support of the Kurds and Iraqi forces. This is to be accompanied by closing our borders and expanding the power of the national security state to monitor citizens. In this scenario, Americans find themselves abandoning their principles and freedoms in the name of security—and the terrorists win.
The military solution is an attractive one in the short run; for it satisfies a simplistic urge to strike back at those who have committed an act of evil. As recent events demonstrate, however, the military answer may actually make matters worse. The complex political situation in the Middle East may, in fact, render the Cold War quagmire of Vietnam relatively simple. The George W. Bush administration military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq rather quickly toppled the regimes in power, but the security for people living in the region was not improved.
The complex political situation in the Middle East may, in fact, render the Cold War quagmire of Vietnam relatively simple.
The United States military has now been in Afghanistan for over a decade, and the deteriorating situation has led Obama to put his plans on hold for a complete military withdrawal. After a decade of fighting, the Taliban remain a strong insurgent force against the American-backed government that continues to exhibit official corruption.
In Iraq, regime change has destabilized the region and strengthened the hand of Iran. After getting rid of Saddam Hussein and combatting the Sunni insurgency, the United States left Iraq in worse shape than they found it. The “democratic” and predominantly Shia government is corrupt, and allied with Iran it has done little to assure the safety of the nation’s Sunni population. The suppression of the Sunni community in Iraq has led to support for the Islamic state; forcing many Sunni Iraqis into the terrible quandary of choosing which enemy do you fear the least.
The corruption of the Iraqi government renders it difficult to establish an efficient fighting force to combat the Islamic State, and the United States has become increasingly dependent upon the Kurds as a military force to combat the Islamic State. The success of the Kurds, who have established a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, is disturbing to America’s NATO ally Turkey who is opposed to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.
The Syrian civil war has also contributed greatly to the increasing instability of the region. And the complexity of the political situation makes it difficult to see how anything but a diplomatic solution will bring some conclusion to the hostilities. The Syrian President and dictator Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime has tried to keep a tight control over his Sunni population and has been supported by Shia Iran and Hamas. His response to the largely Sunni insurgency has been ruthless, but Assad has been able to stay in power with the support of Iran and Russia as Vladimir Putin has succeeded in using the crisis to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East.
The United States is opposed to Assad, and the American policy is to support the moderate opponents of the regime with military hardware and training. The opposition, however, also includes Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who has gained considerable territory in Syria. Meanwhile, the Russians have entered the conflict; insisting that their major focus is the defeat of the Islamic State. France has urged the Russians and the United States to join it in military action against the Islamic State in Syria; a strategy that might strengthen Assad’s position in any type of negotiated settlement. Is this the type of quagmire to which the American government wants to commit troops?
And the entire region is beset by a conflict between the American ally and Sunni nation of Saudi Arabia against the spreading influence of Shia Iran. Both sides are major contributors to the civil war in Yemen, and the Saudis have certainly fostered Islamic extremism through their financial support for the Wahhabi sect. Yet, the United States has been reluctant to push Saudi Arabia on this issue. Military intervention would have the potential of further dragging the United States into the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia.
Military action in Libya through a bombing campaign did help drive Muammar Gaddafi from power, but the situation in Libya remains chaotic; contributing to events such as the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the growth of terrorist organizations, and the increasing refugee crisis. In fact, the American military interventions have played a major role in creating the flood of refugees from the region, and it is unreasonable for the United States, with resources at its disposal, to leave the problem to the Europeans.
The United States has in place a program for vetting Syrian refugees, but the Congress and many of the nation’s governors are calling for a more stringent processing that would essentially halt the entrance of Syrian refugees into the country. Much of this is based upon the fact that one of the terrorists in Paris may have entered Europe in the wave of Syrian refugees. Some would have America depart from its positive traditions of religious toleration and offering a safe haven for the world’s dispossessed by creating some type of national registry for refugees and religious minorities. Yet, departures from these traditions in the past do not reflect well upon the country. During the 1930s, the United States refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler who were sent back to almost certain death in Europe, and the American government placed the Japanese population living on the West Coast in internment camps during the Second World War. We should learn from the past and do better during the current crisis.
The quick fix, advocated by some politicians, is to close the borders and pursue a military solution. While perhaps psychologically satisfying, these solutions certainly offer no long range guarantees of security. Americans must be careful of trading in liberties for the illusion of guaranteed security. And military escalation has not contributed to the security of the Middle East or the United States.
Americans must resist the drumbeat of war, while adhering to principles of respect for religious diversity and individual freedoms as we struggle to combat the terrorists who prey upon the insecurity of marginalized young people. It is easy to enter war, but much more difficult to conclude a conflict. Do Americans really want to have a military presence in places such as Syria and Iraq for the next twenty years, and would such a military/colonial occupation bring peace and security to America and the world?