On Wednesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul seemed to reverse course on the crisis in the Middle East, calling now for the military destruction of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization. In recent weeks, Paul has vacillated between downplaying the threat of ISIS to ruminating that previous US action was somehow responsible for the group’s rise. Christian Whiton rightly takes Paul to task for this, but, in his critique, suggests that more robust intervention by the US in the Syrian civil war would have blocked ISIS. The two arguments are flip sides of the same flawed coin.
Both Paul and Whiton overstate the consequences of US actions in Syria for the rise of ISIS. Paul argues there was too much intervention, Whiton argues not enough, or, at best, not enough to the right people. Has the US armed the “moderate” opposition to Assad, Whiton implies, the rise of ISIS would have been checked. The Islamic State was not checked, however, by an Iraqi army showered with billions of dollars of US military aid and years of expert training. It is unlikely that the supposedly moderate “Free Syrian Army,” made up of “farmers and dentists,” would have fared any better.
Three years ago, Whiton argued for a more robust US intervention in the Libyan civil war. He noted that in the fight against Qaddafi, “[t]he Libyan rebels are doing remarkably well politically and militarily. The cities they control have been governed justly and show they are not inclined toward Islamist-style tyranny.” The US did coordinate with the Libyan rebels and launch airstrikes against Qaddafi, amid the cheering of Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but not with the long-term results one would have hoped for. The blood of three diplomatic personnel stains the sand in Benghazi. Today, our vacant embassy in Tripoli is “guarded” by an Islamic militia.
Paul’s existential mistake is to try to apply a libertarian political philosophy to foreign policy. Libertarianism has much to say about how we organize affairs among ourselves domestically, but almost nothing relevant for relations with other nations. The book “I, Pencil” is a brilliant dissertation on the wonders of the free-market economy, but generally worthless when people are literally crucifying opponents.
Paul argues that actions like these create unintended consequences and “blowback” that turn people in the Middle East, and elsewhere, against the United States. Subscribers to this belief are on a perpetual search for a “root cause” that would explain any current crisis. Paul’s father once argued on the floor of the US House that Israel had “created” Hamas, believing this “fact” was somehow relevant to our dealings with the terror group.
In the Middle East, this “Gordian Knot” is often found in the establishment of Israel or the Sykes-Picot pact during World War I. In an Islamist’s fetid imagination it was probably the assault of the Polish “winged” cavalry outside the gates of Vienna. THAT September 11th attack, after all, ended the high-water mark of Islam as a political power.
History, especially in the Middle East, is a long catalog of unintended consequences. One can always find a chain of events stretching back millennia to provide context for any current conflict. The challenge in the Middle East, however, is that the past is still very much present. The sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia muslims dates back to disagreements about Mohammad’s successor in the 7th Century, before Charlemagne strode the plains of Europe. Imagine today if there were still marauding bands of Visigoths and Celts fighting it out across Europe and one can get a sense of the scale of the problem here.
Paul worries that any US intervention will supersede this centuries-old conflict and turn Islamist aggression towards us. Whiton believes, however, that “smart” US intervention can tame it.
Several months after the US toppled Saddam Hussein, I met a young Bush appointee who was soon going to Baghdad to work as a civil servant in the country’s health ministry. He told me proudly that one of his top priorities in Iraq would be pursing a smoking ban in public places. One would have thought he was going to Iraq to staff a city council or, even, a PTA meeting. Institutionally, Iraq wasn’t ready for 18th Century America, never mind the 21st Century.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was not a foreign policy mistake. If the immediate aftermath of the US victory, Libyan dictator Qaddafi voluntarily gave up all his chemical and biological weapons. Syria made loud noises about seeking reforms and even Europe considered greater assistance for a post-Saddam Iraq. North Korea even expressed more eagerness for negotiations over its nuclear program.
The mistake was in the Bush Administration’s attempt to build a civil society from scratch, along an American model. It believed it could create a peaceful and democratic Iraq. It has taken us more than two centuries to work out the most obvious kinks in our system and we don’t face a millennia of ethnic and religious animosity. It was our failure at this task and its projection of weakness which embolden people to do us harm.
Intervention isn’t the problem. Failed intervention is.
The core of a sound US foreign policy really comes down to one simple proposition. We reserve the right to kill bad people at a time and place of our choosing. This should be added as an asterisk to any treaty, agreement or memorandum of understanding that our nation signs. We aren’t going to build a society for you or ensure you have fair elections or mutually assured respect. If you do something bad, however, we will have something to say about it.
The world is a much safer place if it believes America is a little bit crazy. Ronald Reagan’s hot-mic joke that he was ordering bombing against the Soviet Union provided stand-up comics with hours of material. It is doubtful, though, that anyone in the Kremlin was laughing. Their obsession with Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense program caused them to spend their country into oblivion.
American foreign policy today, however, is predicated on being seen as the “most reasonable” person in the room. We want to engage in talks with every possibly relevant party to a conflict. We announce exactly what we don’t do. We rush to “take things off the table.” In some cases, we will even announce when we will stop doing whatever it is we plan to do.
Basically, we want to be Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In the end, though, Stewart still needed John Wayne to set the town right.