KILIS, TURKEY—Syria’s civil war has washed over Turkey’s border, flooding the latter with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Washington’s efforts to solve the crisis so far have yielded few positive results. George W. Bush’s grandest foreign policy “success,” the ouster of Saddam Hussein, is turning into an even more dramatic debacle.
The region is aflame and U.S. policy bears much of the blame. Washington’s relentless attempt to reorder and reshape complex peoples, distant places, and volatile disputes has backfired spectacularly.
The blame is not limited to Barack Obama. However ineffective his policies, they largely follow those of his predecessors. Moreover, his most vociferous critics were most wrong in the past. Those who crafted the Iraq disaster now claim that keeping U.S. troops in Iraq would have prevented that nation’s current implosion ignores both history and experience.
Rather than acknowledge their own responsibility for that nation’s implosion, they prefer to blame President Obama, who merely followed the withdrawal schedule established by President George W. Bush, who failed to win Baghdad’s agreement for a continuing U.S. force presence before leaving office. Exactly how President Obama could have forced sovereign Iraq to accept a permanent U.S. garrison never has been explained.
Even less clear is how American troops could have created a liberal, democratic, and stable Iraq. Intervening today would be a cure worse than the disease. Air strikes, no less than ground forces, would simultaneously entangle the United States and increase its stakes in another predictably lengthy conflict.
In Iraq, the Sunni radicals are unlikely to conquer the Shia-majority country. Their success already has mobilized Shiites, and predominantly Shia Iran will ensure Baghdad’s control over majority-Shiite areas, at least. Ultimately de facto partition may be the most practical solution.
Further American intervention in Syria would be no less foolish. America has no reason to fight over who rules Damascus.
The civil war is destabilizing the region, but American involvement would not impose order. Moreover, Assad’s ouster likely would trigger a second round of killing directed against regime supporters, such as Alawites and other religious minorities. With multiple parties engaged in the killing, there is no humanitarian option.
Nor does anyone know who would end up controlling what. The assumption that Washington could get just the right arms to just the right opposition forces to ensure emergence of just the right liberal, democratic, pro-Western government of a united Syria is charmingly naive.
If there is a bright spot for the administration, it unexpectedly is Iran, where a negotiated nuclear settlement remains possible. However, the underlying problem is almost entirely of America’s creation. In 1953, the United States overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, transferring power to the Shah, who brutalized his people. In 1978, the angry Iranian people overthrew him and radical Islamists took control. Fear of Iranian domination of the Persian Gulf led Washington to back Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his bloody aggressive war against Iran.
After an emboldened Iraq sought to swallow Kuwait, the United States attacked the former and deployed troops to Saudi Arabia, which became one of Osama bin Laden’s chief grievances. President Bush later invaded Iraq, which empowered Islamist Iran—then feared to be developing nuclear weapons. Now Tehran is sending a rescue mission to save the Iraqi government installed by Washington.
American intervention has broken pottery all over the Middle East. Washington should stop trying to micromanage the affairs of other nations and start practicing humility. This would not be isolationism. America, and especially Americans, should be engaged in the world.
However, as I point out in my new Forbes online article: “the U.S. government’s expectations should be realistic and ambitions should be bounded. American officials should abandon their persistent fantasy of reordering the world.”
President Obama’s foreign policy may be feckless, but that’s not its principal failing. As long as Washington attempts to dominate and micromanage the world, its policies will end up harming American interests.