A well-crystallized debate about how do handle ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) rages on among European leaders, and less so among presidential hopefuls from both political parties in the United States. Admittedly, it has been quite amusing listening to some of the skewed and demented suggestions coming from Republican candidates who are hell-bent on pursuing a course of Hollywood-styled military adventurism and thus spreading Middle East chaos – having convinced themselves and some of their supporters that simply invading Syria and other parts of the Middle East would eradicate the problem of terrorism and usher in more peace and democracy in the region.
By all accounts, America has spent precious resources in the Middle East floundering from one conflict to the next, with very little to show for its engagement. The helplessness of the world’s only superpower shows just how little influence it has in the Middle East – and with each failure, its influence in the rest of the world erodes as well.
Notwithstanding the usual empty platitudes from Republicans, no one was under any illusion that foreign policy was going to be child’s play in an age of global terrorism, increasing geopolitical conflicts and religious fanaticism. As a perspicacious diplomat once observed, the trouble with foreign policy is that it involves foreigners – and they don’t always do what they are told. Now it would appear that the troublesome Middle East region has totally ignored ideas of democracy, peace and stability coming from the superpower and may well be on their way to establish their own version of hell on earth.
Although no part of the world has ever been free of depraved conflicts, the situation in the Middle East seemed to have assumed a new terrestrial dimension. Religion has truly become the opium of the people. Shias don’t want to live under Sunni leadership and Sunnis are on a rampage to create their own state. The Alawite Muslims have historically been persecuted for their beliefs by the Sunnis – and the Kurds are simply not interested in sharing sovereignty with any other group. Ominously, Iraq is coming apart at the seams.
Moreover, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians bodes ill for any eventual conflict de-escalation in the broader region. In short, the debacle in the Middle East (particularly in Iraq), serves as a poignant reminder that American ideals of democracy and society cannot be exported to the Middle East, at least not in their Western form. Perhaps the painstaking and relentless attempt to export Western democratic values (considered by many as the most dangerous American export) to the Middle East is partly to be blamed for the hostility and animosity towards America, and for the spread and threat of militant Islamic terrorism.
Yet there is a certain paradox about U.S. foreign policy which probably explains Obama’s policy of “retrenchment” – the word Americans use to describe their retreat from the foreign policy front. Witness the results of America’s engagement (or lack of it) in Iraq, Libya and Syria: In the case of Iraq, America decided to invade the country in 2003 leaving behind a trail of destruction and ruin. In Libya, its partial involvement in the country’s quagmire left untold confusion and carnage. On the other hand, the decision not to get directly involved in the Syrian conflict did not alter the trajectory of monstrous events in the region. To be sure and irrespective of vantage point, foreign policy in such difficult circumstances is an unrelenting headache. Ostensibly, whether America and the West demonstrate full, partial or no commitment in this combustible region, it seems the results are likely to be equally disastrous.
Painful as it is to admit, the West, especially the United States, bears significant responsibility for creating the conditions in which ISIS has flourished. Most alarmingly, ISIS continues to function as a government, which has spun totally out of control – beheading men, crucifying Iraqi Christians and sexually enslaving teenage girls. The world’s most feared terrorist group has established its presence in Iraq to such an extent that it is able to sell oil to Bashar al-Assad and U.S. allies – generating revenue to buy arms to secure a caliphate, and to finance global terrorist operations.
When America invaded Iraq on a false premise in 2003, little did it know that it was actually unleashing the demons of religious fanaticism in a notoriously unstable region. The tragic occupation of Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of almost 150,000 Iraqis and over 4,000 U.S. troops, created the conditions and provided the space for al-Qaida and subsequently ISIS to evolve to fight against the American occupation – and further destabilizing the region and spreading terror around the world. Hence the U.S. invasion of Iraq played a crucial role in the rise of ISIS and the attendant chaos, violence and sectarianism.
Meanwhile, the bombing missions in Iraq and Syria have had minimal success, as ISIS militants have continued producing oil despite the air strikes. If indeed anything has been learned from the military action in Iraq, it’s that bombing Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance produces more recruits and supporters of ISIS.
Disquietingly, the practice of overthrowing governments (often regimes previously supported and financed by the U.S. itself) and installing new ones compliant with Western interests is one fraught with peril and characterized by hypocrisy. In effect, what such a practice has done is to destabilize target regions and bring great danger to America and Europe. The vicious attacks on Paris and the unfolding refugee crisis in Europe are both consequences of the absence of a comprehensive and cohesive strategy to combat this multifaceted global threat.
Further complicating the situation is the military involvement of Russia in the region – having itself played a conniving role in the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe by blocking Western-backed resolutions in the United Nations Security Council intended to expedite the fall of the Assad regime in Syria.
The Arab Spring after all (except perhaps for Tunisia) turned out to have put a spring in the step of aspiring dictators and Islamist militants. Essentially, Egypt is right back where it started. The new regime and its supporters are no more liberal and democratic than Mubarak’s. Libya went from totalitarianism to anarchy, descending from Arab Spring to factional civil war. Most critically, armed conflict is spilling beyond Syria’s borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, with absolutely no end in sight.
Being the world’s only superpower, the U.S. certainly has the wherewithal and systemic reach to build alliances and tackle terrorism on a global scale. Yet can America ever be trusted to do the right thing after a failed foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria? When will we begin to see foreign policy realism and common sense in relation to the Middle East? Can we take solace in the words of Winston Churchill that “America can be trusted to do the right thing after it has tried everything else”? My own humble view is that there is no use stirring up an apocalyptic hornet’s nest without first attempting to deconstruct the root cause of the problem and building a legitimate international alliance (including Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) through the United Nations – with an action plan and strategy to exorcise the fanatical demons before this kind of barbarism turns civilization on its head.
For comments, write to [email protected] – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.