The variables the US government is trying to control in the Middle East are proliferating, but it has repeatedly failed to control far fewer variables and has made multiple situations worse. Other than as an honest broker of peace, no matter what form future intervention might take, it will be counterproductive. The government’s two major interests—oil and protecting the US from Islamic extremist violence—would be far better served if it left the region.
The Sunni Muslim group al Qaeda was born in Afghanistan in the 1970s, midwifed by US (CIA), Pakistani (ISI), and Iranian (SAVAK) security agencies to battle Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet regime and draw the Soviet Union into a Vietnam-style quagmire. It “worked” by US lights: the Afghan government fell and the Soviets withdrew, dispirited and spent, from a decade-long quagmire in 1989. However, the conflict illustrated what was to become a recurring pattern. It proved far less of a success for the people of Afghanistan. Between 850,000 and 1.5 million Afghan civilians died, and there were 6 million refugees. The country was riven by factions, many supported by foreign powers, and a decade-long civil war ensued.
The initial conflict gave rise to another recurring pattern: it sowed the seeds of future disaster. The Mujahideen who bedeviled the Soviets were led by Osama bid Laden, funded by wealthy Saudi Arabians (including the bin Laden family), and blessed by that country’s highest Wahhabi cleric (Wahhabism is a strict, fundamentalist Sunni Muslim sect). The Mujahideen, who were the toast of Washington (some of their leaders had a meeting in the Oval Office with President Reagan), Hollywood (Rambo III closed with onscreen text dedicating the film to the Mujahideen), and the US press, would later become al Qaeda.
During the first Gulf War, in which the US drove Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait back to Iraq, the US government stationed forces in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to assurances it gave the Saudi Arabian government, it kept them there after the war. The country’s Wahhabi clerics and their fundamentalist adherents, including Osama bin Laden and his followers, found the continuing presence of foreign, infidel military in the land of Islam’s two holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—intolerable. Another US “success” sowed the seeds of future disaster: bin Laden vowed jihad against the US.
From that vow came the 9/11 attacks. In response, the US invaded Afghanistan (the producers of Rambo III retroactively edited out the dedication to the Mujahideen) and Iraq. The mission in Afghanistan at the time was ostensibly either a short-term success or failure, depending on how those terms are defined. The US did not capture bin Laden, harbored by Afghanistan’s Taliban (some of whom had been part of the original Mujahideen), but it did succeed in driving the Taliban from power. It must, however, be reckoned a long-term failure. Fourteen years on, Afghanistan is in the same shape it was after the Soviets’ 1989 departure: riven by conflicting factions, some supported by foreign powers, including the US. One of the factions is the Taliban, which never went away. It battles the weak central government and the population has borne a multitude of miseries, including the recent US bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz.
The Iraq invasion was a quantum escalation of US intervention. It’s ruler was deposed, hunted, found, tried, and hung, and a democratic government installed. President George W. Bush made a well-publicized landing on an aircraft carrier displaying a large Mission Accomplished banner celebrating another ostensible US success. The celebration proved premature; Iraq produced a quantum escalation of negative, but certainly not unforeseeable, consequences. Democracy in Iraq gave Iraq’s Shiites their chance to exact retribution against its Sunnis, who had been favored under Hussein. Radicalized Sunnis became the core of al Qaeda in Iraq as the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government moved closer to Iran’s Shiite government.
When the Arab Spring movements swept through Northern Africa and the Middle East in 2011, the US government saw a chance to realize its long-standing goal of deposing Syria’s Bashar Assad. Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite sect. The region’s Sunni regimes—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Turkey—and Israel wanted him deposed as well. Israel has intermittently fought Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has been supported by Syria and Iran. Israel would like to disrupt or destroy that nexus. The US government, the Sunni regimes, and perhaps the Israelis, aided the “spontaneous” Syrian uprising. However, whatever desires for inclusive democracy and civil liberties may have animated the initial rebellion, it was hijacked by al Qaeda offshoots, the most bloodthirsty and repressive of which became ISIS. It joined with al Qaeda in Iraq and by force of arms established what it terms a “caliphate” in western Syria and eastern Iraq.
The US has maintained the fiction that there are secularly oriented moderate rebel groups who abhor both Assad and Islamic extremists. However, virtually all of the aid it has directed to the rebellion has ended up with the extremists, because the US’s real goal has always been the same as the Sunni regimes and Israel: to depose Assad. US duplicity was exposed when Vladimir Putin intervened at the request of Assad, a long-time Russian ally. Putin has mounted a real war against all of the rebels, bombing extensively and allying with Iran, which has provided the ground forces. He has exposed the futility of the US’s efforts against ISIS and left the US sputtering that he is only fighting the US’s mythical moderate Syrians, who are mostly either turncoat groups who funnel arms and funds to ISIS, or are ISIS affiliated groups, notably al Qaeda and the al-Nusra front.
The Syrian conflict is the latest recrudescence of the Sunni-Shiite schism. Centuries-old sectarian strife has been overlaid with the great power rivalry—the US allied with the Sunnis and Russia with the Shiites—that’s blown cold and hot since World War II. This is the latest iteration of the US’s Middle Eastern cycle: intervention, perhaps some short-term success, long-term misery for the people where the US has intervened, and escalating negative consequences—terrorism, refugee flows, chaos, and increasingly costly and bloody war.
The intractable rivalries and the number of nations overtly or covertly intervening in pursuit of their own interests presents a situation of mind-numbing complexity…and danger. The US’s history in the region decisively refutes those who argue that there is some sort of interventionist strategy it can pursue that will do anything but sow the seeds for more and bigger disasters. The Russian airliner and Beirut bombings, the Paris attacks, and Turkey downing a Russia jet serve notice that present hostilities could escalate to World War III. It may have already begun.
The US must immediately get off this madly careening merry-go-round. Oil in the low $40s per barrel, natural gas at $2.25 per MMBtu, and both in oversupply on world markets make a mockery of the notion that the US must be in the Middle East to secure petroleum supplies. The oil exporting nations, including Middle Eastern exporters, need the world’s largest oil consumer far more than the US needs any of them. War is expensive. Those nations that become further embroiled in Middle East conflict will find their needs for revenue ever more pressing. Oil has always been a fig leaf for the US’s military-industrial-intelligence complex, which lusts for perpetual and lucrative Middle Eastern tension and war. The rest of us have nothing to gain from it and everything to lose.
“Taking the battle to the terrorists will make us safer at home,” was one of the rationales offered for intervention by the US in the Middle East. Paris is the latest reminder of its deadly fatuousness; France has been in the Middle East longer than the US. Has the US government’s intervention made us safer? The start of a serious debate about coming home will show that it has made at least some of us wiser.
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