"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing. But only after they've tried every other thing." Churchill's remark comes to mind when we consider our country's Middle Eastern quagmire, which strikes this observer as the road to nowhere.
The War in Afghanistan- the longest war in American History- is in its sixteenth year with no end in sight.
The War in Iraq- the second longest war in American History - was thought to be over until President Obama ordered the return of U.S. soldiers and airmen to that country in August 2014 when the rampaging forces of ISIS threatened the capital city of Baghdad.
Having launched a missile strike in response to Assad's latest use of chemical weapons against his own people and shot down a Syrian war plane in support of anti-Assad insurgents President Trump now falls heir to the burning question of how deeply the U.S. chooses to become militarily involved in a fourth Muslim country for the purpose of confronting the genocidal Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters.
Throughout this entire period these conflicts have been repeatedly used as a highly toxic political football, weapons used by both political parties to excoriate their opponents in the most hyperbolic language. Quaint notions of national unity in time of war were definitively wrecked in the rancor and bitterness of Viet Nam and the damage therefrom has proved permanent.
After a decade and a half of war it is fair for the American people to ask "Can anyone explain what our purpose is in the Middle East and how all this is supposed to end?"
Beyond retribution for 9/11 our purpose in invading Afghanistan was to prevent another attack being launched from that country. In a pattern that would be replicated in Iraq and Libya the formidably lethal U.S. military quickly overthrew the Taliban government but proved unable to end the war.
We invaded Iraq in search of WMD stockpiles, which unfortunately proved non-existent. Validating Colin Powell's famous dictum- "If you break it you own it"- as in Afghanistan we quickly became involved in "nation-building" while publicly proclaiming that we would do no such thing.
Already feeling some "Buyers Remorse" over Afghanistan and Iraq, in Libya we altered our methodology by "Leading From Behind" while still providing the military infrastructure that allowed our NATO allies to share complicity in the overthrow of yet another Moslem dictatorship. Wary of any more "nation-building"- no "boots on the ground" here- we settled for sending some economic aid, and hoping our tragically unsupported Ambassador Chris Stevens could sort out the local terrorists.
In Syria the Muslim dictator refused to be overthrown despite President Obama insisting for years "his days were numbered". Red Lines were drawn, and erased and finally we fecklessly relied on Vladimir Putin to collect Assad's chemical weapons for us.
As the death toll in the Syrian Civil War surpassed a quarter of a million people, there emerged from this Witch's Brew of sectarian conflict the loathsome phenomena of ISIS seeking to recreate the medieval Muslim Caliphate and demonstrating an alarming capacity for rapid territorial expansion in both Syria and Iraq while simultaneously issuing a siren call to potential "jihadi" recruits worldwide.
So, what are some things we should have learned however belatedly, from all this?
First, as a thoroughly secularized society we rightly honor our young warriors who are willing to die for their country, but we are utterly incapable of understanding young Muslims who are equally willing- even eager- to die for their religion. Their "hearts and minds" are simply not on offer for Western values, or the "irresistible charm" of democracy.
Second, persisting in Afghanistan is the height of folly. Continued support for a corrupt government and its inept army in hopes of overcoming the unquenchable fanaticism of the resurgent Taliban is not only mindless, but also unnecessary. Al-Qaeda and its evil twin Isis have conclusively proved that they do not need to control Afghanistan or any other country in order to mount devastating terrorist attacks worldwide. Therefore the original pre-emptive motivation for the U.S. invasion simply no longer applies.
Exiting unwinnable Afghanistan however painful would leave the U.S. with just one major theatre of war, and the attendant concentration of resources will greatly benefit whatever strategic priorities we ultimately choose.
It is a place where we have committed allies- Kurds, Sunnis, and Israelis- and where we confront our most dangerous foes- Russia and Iran. It is also a place where exiting is just not an option.
In the end there will be no easy solutions to this Middle Eastern Quagmire. Compounded over time our mistakes bear an eerie resemblance to those made by the British as they tried to fill the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. They sought stability in the region by inventing countries- Syria, Iraq,Palestine- that had little relation to ethnic and religious realities on the ground. They did not succeed, and their Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill predicted, "History will exact a heavy price for our failures".
It did. And now the United States inherits those century old failures in addition to our own. Difficult days lie ahead.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.