A rigorously non-interventionist foreign policy poses a basic paradox. The worse the rest of the world looks, the more the anti-interventionists can say there are no good options to choose from, and we should just stay home and keep out of trouble. But the worse the world looks, the more intervention is actually necessary to improve the state of the world, give us better options to choose from, and keep all of that trouble from coming back home.
In short, intervention looks less appealing precisely to the extent that it becomes more necessary.
Today, as the consequences of the Obama Doctrine sink in, the world is looking worse than it has in a good long while, so the anti-interventionists are taking full advantage of the first half of the paradox. Particularly in the Syria-Iraq theater—it has become essentially one war—everything is so bad that it looks like there are no good options, and it’s easy to throw up our hands, write off the rest of the world, and do nothing.
But when we do nothing, our options tend to get a whole lot worse, fast. That’s how we got where we are right now, by refusing to choose among the not-so-bad options we had a few years ago and instead just letting things drift while a cross-border jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, gained strength. Will another year or two of letting ISIS and Iran have a romp through the Middle East give us better options?
But that raises the big question: if we need to intervene in Syria and Iraq, what can we do?
Let’s define specifically the dilemma we face. The conflict in Iraq and Syria is turning into a battle between two evil forces, in which neither side is friendly to our interests. If we intervene to fight ISIS, we’re supporting the Iranians’ proxies in Iraq. But if we refuse to fight ISIS, we let them take over and establish their terrorist “caliphate.” Either way, it seems, we lose.
But when we state this dilemma, we can recognize that we’ve faced it before on a much bigger scale. In World War II, we aligned ourselves with the Soviets to defeat the Nazis, only to have Stalin swallow half of Europe, so that we had to spend the next four decades fighting the Russians and their proxies all over the world. I think it made sense to fight the Nazis first because it allowed us to secure free societies among our natural allies in Western Europe, particularly Britain, and because it was coherent with our fight against the Japanese regime that actually attacked us in 1941 and started the war. Certainly, we had no direct casus belli for taking on the Soviets first.
This strategy also made sense within a larger framework. If we hadn’t intervened, Europe would have been divided between Fascists and Communists, leaving no room for peaceful, free societies. It would have given us only a choice of enemies and left us threatened by both sides.
We now face the same prospect in the Middle East: a region divided between a Shiite theocratic terrorist regime, Iran, and a Sunni theocratic terrorist regime, ISIS (or merely the Islamic State as they now style themselves). These two enemies will happily carve up the Middle East between them—there is some evidence that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad deliberately fostered the rise of ISIS—and they will wage sectarian warfare indefinitely along the fault lines between them, so long as they rule unchallenged within their own heartlands.
I don’t see any way in which this is good for us. ISIS is terrorist organization on the model of al-Qaeda that openly seeks to launch attacks on the US. Iran is one of the world’s biggest state sponsors of terrorism—you might recall that Iran’s Quds Force was implicated in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US by blowing up a restaurant in Washington, DC. Iran also seeks to dominate the Persian Gulf, giving it power over the flow of energy to the West, and its quest for an atomic bomb threatens to set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is the last thing we need.
When faced with two evil alternatives, there’s some appeal to just letting them fight it out, and certainly that was a component of our strategy in World War II; most of the fighting and dying happened on the Eastern Front. Then again, this is what we’ve already tried, by default, in Syria. Despite making noises over the years about supporting the non-jihadist rebel factions in Syria, the Obama administration never actually did so, at least not enough to make any kind of difference. Last year, President Obama removed the United States as a factor in Syria when he agreed to a Vladimir Putin-brokered deal with the Assad regime (an idea that proved every bit as bad as it sounds). The result has been to empower the jihadists in Syria while reducing the incentive for other rebel factions to oppose the jihadists. The result? The expansion of the Syrian jihadists into Iraq.
I don’t think we’ve realized yet what a disaster we allowed by letting jihadists take the lead in Syria. We gave them a genuinely sympathetic cause to fight for: overthrowing a brutal dictator. This has made it easier for them to raise money from Sunnis in the Gulf States who want to oppose Iranian influence, and it has made it easier for them to recruit jihadists from across Europe, giving them a pool of trained and indoctrinated fighters who hold Western passports. Which puts them in a much better position to organize terrorist attacks against us.
Syria was a great example of the “no good options” dilemma, and it demonstrated that often the worst option is to do nothing. Early on, I favored immediate support for the original, non-sectarian rebellion, on the grounds that the longer the fighting went on, the more it would play into the hands of the jihadists. Later on, I favored backing the overthrow of the regime, then turning our efforts to the fight against ISIS and other Syrian jihadists. But I concluded that, given the president’s reluctance to act, we would have to revisit the issue “once we see what things look like after another year or three of minimal, ineffective American involvement.” It has been about a year since I wrote that, and now we can see what things look like.
The hell of this is that we’ve faced exactly this same dilemma before, in 2006, when Iraq was being torn apart by sectarian fighting between al-Qaeda in the Sunni west of Iraq and the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army in Baghdad and the south. So what did we do? We attacked the al-Qaeda threat first, flipped the Sunni tribes to our side and brokering a political accommodation with the central government, and then turned our efforts to fighting Iranian influence by suppressing the Mahdi Army.
That’s what you do when you’re faced with a choice between two hostile forces. Yes, in some cases, it can make sense to let them fight each other for a while. But in the end, you have to decide to take down one side first, then turn around and take the other side down later.
So the question in Iraq and Syria is not which of the combatants we should oppose, but which we should oppose first.
What makes this question legitimately difficult is that the answer may be different on either side of the Iraq-Syria border.
In Syria, we still have an interest in toppling the Assad regime first, if only to get it out of the way. Right now, it makes sense for the Gulf States to send support to Syrian jihadists as a way of backing their fellow Sunnis against an Iranian satellite regime. But once Assad is toppled, Syria’s jihadists—particularly ISIS, with its absurdly ambitious plans to establish a vast caliphate that would rule over the rest of the Arabian peninsula—will become a clear threat to the Gulf States, who will suddenly discover a very intense interest in supporting a more moderate regime. As for whether we could find local proxies against ISIS in a post-Assad Syria, see the success of other Syrian rebel groups in driving ISIS out of the key city of Aleppo.
In Iraq, we have an interest in backing the central government against ISIS—but we also need to reform the central government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian administration wrecked the political accommodation with Iraq’s Sunnis, and it can’t be restored while he is still in office, so he needs to be pushed out—a move that would probably be quite popular with a variety of Iraqi factions. But no political solution in Baghdad will work unless ISIS is also being defeated in the field. More broadly, the only reason anyone in Baghdad is going to pay attention to the US is if we demonstrate that we’re committed to sticking around and ensuring an outcome that fits with our interests. If we can’t show that, then all of the factions will make other arrangements with allies whose interests are contrary to our own. Which is exactly what got us to this point.
After ISIS is defeated in Iraq, then we can turn back to our previous indirect, Cold War-style strategy for undermining the Iranian regime and containing its influence.
I should point out that these solutions do not require sending 150,000 troops back into Iraq for a new “surge.” The threat from ISIS is serious enough to warrant direct American military action, and as in Libya, an air war against the Assad regime may be necessary to tip the balance to the rebels. But most of what I am proposing can be accomplished less directly, by providing our chosen allies and proxies with money, supplies, weapons, training, intelligence, and diplomatic support. One of the signatures of the Obama administration is that they talked down the importance of military action and talked up the power of diplomacy—then proved particularly disengaged and inept in their use of diplomacy.
Might someone have better ideas for how to deal with Syria and Iraq? Possibly. The main issue is that we have to stop just standing on the sidelines gawking and hoping that everything turns out all right. We need to pick a strategy, pick sides, and do something, because we’ve been doing nothing for long enough to realize that this conflict isn’t going to turn out fine if we leave it on its own.
Unfortunately, this discussion may be moot, because there is little point in offering advice to this ideologically blinkered administration. They have made some noises about doing a few of the things I recommend—arming non-jihadist rebels in Syria, providing military support to fight ISIS in Iraq, pushing Maliki out of power. But President Obama has done it in the same lackadaisical, half-hearted way he does everything in foreign policy. For a crisis fueled specifically by a vacuum of American credibility, this is not likely to be enough.
So why discuss it now? To defuse the paradox of the non-interventionists by answering the fatalistic notion that we have no viable options in the Middle East. Yes, we do—we’re just not choosing to act on any of them. Remember that when our options get even worse.