I find the Middle East endlessly fascinating. This is due in no small part, I’m sure, to my profession, which requires a working knowledge of the various ancient empires of the Fertile Crescent, not to mention the later Classical accounts of Greeks and Romans running roughshod through Anatolia, Persia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.
Of course, I’ve also grown up with the Middle East constantly on American television. I was pretty young when the Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan, but we all remember Rambo III. (Go ahead. Try to forget it.) Desert Storm and the Gulf War made a big impact on me in elementary school because all of a sudden war wasn’t just something we learned about in school. Now, with cameras stuck on smart bombs, we could watch it live on CNN after class.
Everyone remembers the shock and horror of 9/11. I was in college at the time, and I vividly recall students having difficulty explaining what was going on to our morning professors, who clearly didn’t keep up with online news as obsessively as we did. Everybody was behind Afghanistan, right? Just War and all that.
But then we went back to Iraq—for absolutely no reason. Of course, at the time I thought we had perfectly good reasons. As yet I didn’t understand the deep hatred that Al Qaeda held for the Baathist regime (the finer points of Middle Eastern politics were largely lost on undergraduates) so I swallowed hook, line, and sinker when the executive branch informed us that WMDs were a “slam dunk.” Hadn’t the Israelis taken out an Iraqi breeder reactor years earlier? Saddam was trying to build nukes and give them to Osama! We had to do something, or there would be mushroom clouds over Manhattan!
What can I say? I was young and stupid. Scaremongering was more effective back then.
Today I have a seven-year-old son who has developed an insatiable curiosity about military history, empires, wars, that sort of thing. He still struggles to understand whenever I try to explain to him that a country’s problems can’t all be solved by shooting people. He doesn’t get how we could win every major battle in Vietnam, yet utterly lose the war. And he can’t figure out why Afghanistan and Iraq are such horrific, bloody messes when we steamrolled right over both opposing forces.
He’s in second grade. That’s a little young for me to recommend Sebastian Junger’s War or Evan Wright’s Generation Kill or Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War or Mark Owen’s No Easy Day. We’ll stick with Harry Potter for the time being. That series gets dark enough. But the rest of us are old enough to learn from history. I’d advocate gratis subscriptions to Foreign Affairs for every member of Congress, if only I thought they would read them.
Obviously Saddam was a Bad Guy. The world is full of such tyrants. And his sons, Uday and Qusay—these were not men who were ever going to die peacefully in their beds. But before we invaded Iraq, relegating Afghanistan into a sideshow and thus letting Bin Laden escape for another decade, there was no Al Qaeda there. It took our pounding a third world country into dust and grease to allow foreign insurgents to flood in as AQI—which in retrospect was probably the big picture all along. Create a honey pot to lure and trap the flies. We dutifully killed all comers, but not before a few AQI survivors were able to flee across the border to Syria (another theater we had to ignore, being elsewhere bogged down) and there recruit the masses by portraying the Iraq War as a Shiite-Sunni civil war. Which by that point it had become. Experts had warned us not to simply swap out Baathists for Shiites, but nobody really listened, it seems. Too many double vowels.
So now in 2015 we have to deal with ISIS, a twisted chimera of Al Qaeda, Baathists, jihadis, and bored Western teenagers. They’re bringing the Seventh Century back to the Middle East, only with Kalashnikovs and heavy armor. Honestly, these guys have risen to Bond-villain levels of evil. Who else could unite Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran against a common foe? Strange bedfellows doesn’t begin to cover it.
I know there’s a sort of “You break it, you buy it” argument for going back for Iraq War III. And certainly you couldn’t pick a more deserving group of psychopaths to bomb into paste. But every time we interfere—every time!—things get worse. Afghanistan is falling back into Taliban hands. Libya, Iraq, and Syria have ceased to exist as nation states. Iran and Syria are leading the Iraqi Army into a Shiite-Sunni civil war that’s already cost hundreds of thousands of lives. We’re 0 for 5 over there, folks. And to top it all off, the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East have been systematically eradicated in the wake of every American military venture. Every one.
Meanwhile, we seem to be doing everything we can to exacerbate the situation. Samuel Huntington predicted the division of Ukraine and rising spheres of influence for Russia and China back in 1996’s Clash of Civilizations, and things are proceeding according to his timetable. As the West escalates the conflict in Ukraine, which Russia has always viewed as its backyard, Moscow retaliates by destabilizing the Middle East. Putin is so determined to keep this sphere of influence that he’s doubling down even as the Americans and Saudis wring the life out of the Russian economy like a python.
China, the great power most dependent upon Middle Eastern oil, can’t believe that the US is really this incompetent and suspects instead a deliberate conspiracy to starve the Middle Kingdom of petroleum. Beijing will happily cozy up to Moscow and Tehran if Washington can’t get its act together. The spice must flow. Otherwise they won’t find much incentive to work with us in the progressively turbulent East China Sea.
It’s an increasingly multipolar world, and the US will have to work with Russia and China to pursue common interests if we hope to avoid further wars not only in the Middle East but in Europe and the Pacific. We have to ask ourselves which priorities we’re willing to fight for, and which we’re willing to negotiate. America has the ear of the Sunnis in Egypt and Arabia; Russia has the ear of the Shiites in Syria and Iran. If we want to prevent out-and-out genocide, we have to cooperate with all the regional powers. We cannot confront everyone, everywhere. Ask Rome about that. Or Great Britain.
We have many enemies who would rather be our allies, and blowing things up is not our only leverage. It’s not even the most effective. Economic sanctions work; they’ve brought Iran begrudgingly to the bargaining table, and they’re putting the screws to Russia. What’s the hard power alternative? Antagonize Iran, have them go ahead and build their nuke, watch Saudi Arabia and Turkey do the same to create parity, and—well, use your imagination. Clearly that’s not a road we wish to go down. These are not regimes that shy from mass casualties.
Look, I’m just plunking away on a blog in the middle of nowhere. But it seems abundantly clear that no amount of blood spilled on that sand is ever going to bring peace to the Middle East. Least of all American blood. And the sooner we finally learn that, the happier our children will be.
RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories. His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.