Disasters everywhere: Syria is in flames, Iraq is collapsing, Afghanistan’s election is disputed with riots, Boko Haram is still unchecked in Nigeria, Libya is breaking up in slow motion, Buddhists (Buddhists!) are massacring Muslims in Sri Lanka, tanks and armored vehicles are on the move in Ukraine. In these difficult times, when on all sides cries arise to “DO SOMETHING” is it vitally important to be selective in deciding whether doing something–anything–is really superior to waiting things out.
As someone who in the past was a firm advocate of intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, in Libya after the first rebellion in Benghazi, and in Syria from the beginning of the rebellion, it may surprise some that my advice regarding the advance of ISIS in Iraq is “Do nothing.”
But so it is. Just as the initial US intervention in Iraq in 2003 burgeoned into a disaster (except for the Kurds, who gained a de facto independent state in northern Iraq), further intervention will likely only make things worse for the U.S.
The fight between ISIS and Iraq is a fight between two undemocratic, extremist religious groups who seek to destroy each other. It is a mud and bomb-slinging match, with vicious propaganda and vicious weapons, and to blunder into the middle of this will only leave the U.S. or NATO dirty and scarred. On the one hand, ISIS is a fanatic Sunni group who wishes to destroy anyone who stands in the way of their goal of turning the historically rich and multi-religious regions of Syria and Iraq into a homogenous orthodox Sunni society under religious/military rule. On the other hand, the Maliki government in Iraq has acted like a fanatic Shi’a group who wishes to destroy anyone who stands in the way of turning the historically rich and multi-religious society of Iraq into a Shi’a dominated society under authoritarian rule. Maliki’s government has not been as photogenically violent as ISIS, but in its own way it has sought to destroy the role of Sunni Arabs in Iraq by marginalizing them, disdaining their votes and rights, and ensuring they have no dignified place in Iraqi society. So wonder so many Iraqi Arabs have in effect joined ISIS, given the choice between these two monsters — better the monster who believes in you than the one who has been your enemy!
To imagine that any good can come to the U.S. or NATO from associating oneself with the survival or cause of either of these contending parties is a terrible, destructive illusion.
President Obama has sent 300 “advisors” to Iraq to assist the government. Who are they, and what is their mission? They are not civilian advisors, but experienced elite military officers, SEALS and special forces. What is their mission? The cover story is that they are in Iraq to assess the fighting potential of the Iraqi army. Really? After the last few weeks, anyone can answer that question without entering Iraq — it is terrible! Maliki, like any aspiring personalist dictator, has driven out professional military officers and replaced them with personal supporters chosen for political loyalty, not military experience and skill. They are now enlisting tens of thousands of volunteers to be thrown in to a line of defense around Baghdad without any significant military training. Those who do not run will be slaughtered.
The only plausible mission for the “advisors,” given the movement of aircraft carriers into position in the Gulf, will be to gather intelligence to guide US air power in striking at ISIS forces. Yet this is a foolish hope. ISIS is not dumb enough to present nice massed tank or armored vehicle columns, as did Saddam Hussein, for US airpower to destroy. ISIS will bury itself in and around towns used as staging areas: Fallujah, Husaybah, and others. Use of US airpower will inevitably kill civilians, and the US will once again appear to the entire Sunni Arab world as shedding innocent Muslim blood. As is almost always the case with large-scale military actions, those actions taken in the name of trying to halt terrorists will in fact worsen our problems of terrorism.
Even worse, if that is possible, is Secretary Kerry’s visit to Egypt to meet with Egypt’s new President Sisi. This is an outrage of the worst sort. Sisi heads a government that overthrew an elected President in a military coup, and then when it tried to validate itself by popular elections — running virtually unopposed — it had to hold the polls open an extra day to try to persuade enough people to come out and vote for Sisi to make the election credible.
The Sisi regime has trampled on human rights in a variety of ways. The epidemic of violence against women has been supported, not stopped, by the Egyptian police. HUNDREDS of people have been sentenced to death–for what? For participating in a demonstration during which ONE policeman was killed. There was some hope that these sentences would only be for show, and that the death penalty would be thrown out on appeal; but that hope was forlorn. Yesterday an Egyptian court upheld the death sentences for 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, since last November, Egypt has had a law in effect that bans all public demonstrations unless they receive a permit from the government 72 hours in advance. This is a regime that jails journalists, brutally abuses women and political opponents, and intends to stamp out any democratic and civil freedoms, as well as any opposition.
And yet the U.S. continues to support this regime with over a billion dollars of military hardware each year. And an official accompanying Secretary Kerry to Cairo explained — to my utter disbelief — that the purpose of Kerry’s visit to Cairo, aside from trying to rally support among Sunni nations (!??) to support the MALIKI government (which is now backed by the chief nemesis of the Sunni nations, Iran!) is to “make the point that it is in Egyptian political and economic interest to build a more inclusive government. … ‘We do not share the view of the Egyptian government about links between the Muslim Brothers and terrorist groups,’ said the official. ‘With regard to the challenge that the Muslim Brothers pose, I would characterize it more as a political challenge than a security challenge.'”
This is foolishness on a scale that beggars the mind, even for the U.S. Is there no one in the U.S. State Department who can spare Secretary Kerry the embarrassment of appearing so ignorant? Has no one told him of the life-and-death struggle for the past six decades between the Egyptian military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood? This is like trying to encourage a cobra and a mongoose to form an inclusive government, persuading the cobra that the mongoose should be seen “more as a political challenge than a security challenge.” As soon as Kerry leaves, as long as he has ensured that Egypt will continue to receive U.S. military aid, I am sure that peals of laughter will ring out throughout Cairo at the Secretary’s naivite.
What the U.S. should do in Egypt is dissociate itself as fully as possible from the Sisi regime, and claim that the U.S supports the Egyptian people and their rights to dignity, free expression, and personal security. We should stop all aid and demand that only when a truly inclusive government has been provided through free and competitive elections, the military returned to their barracks and subjected to civilian rule, and journalists freed and women protected, will the U.S. find Egypt a suitable recipient of significant U.S. aid.
Every day that we support the government of Sisi, ordinary Egyptians and Muslims everywhere will conclude that the U.S is an enemy of democracy and of Islam, just as they did from our support for Mubarak.
Dare I say it: At this point in the mess that the Middle East has become (with the sole exception of Tunisia, which is making progress on building an inclusive democratic regime and deserves our support, and the possible exception of Jordan) the best thing, in terms of military action, is to DO NOTHING. There is a good case to be made for offering humanitarian support to refugees in Turkey and Jordan, who are suffering from the chaos in Syria and Iraq. But beyond that, there is little we can do that does not make things worse for those in the region, and the U.S.
President Putin, who the U.S. is warning not to intervene against the new regime in Ukraine on the grounds that Ukraine’s new government is a democracy, must be shaking his head as he sees the U.S. gather forces to support Sisi in Egypt and Maliki in Iraq. Clearly, the U.S. has no principles, nothing but naked self-interest, and so clearly Russia must act in the same way. Thus we sow trouble with our sorely misguided actions, and reap ever worse and worse outcomes.