Community Forum: Order vs. chaos in the Middle East
This week’s writer is Haviland Smith,a retired CIA station chief who served in eastern and western Europe and the Middle East, as executive assistant in the director’s office and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.
Our military involvement in the Middle East began with Operation Desert Shield in 1990. At the end of that invasion, we did the only intelligent thing we have done in that area: We withdrew without ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.
In the 15 years since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been militarily involved in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The purpose of this involvement clearly was a desire to bring democracy to Islam, based on American exceptionalism.
Thus, we effectively ended the reign of the existing governments as the first step in establishing democracy. However hard it was pushed by the neoconservatives as part of a “regime change” policy during the administration of George W. Bush, democracy was a goal we never reached. It never took because the countries and people in question had never had any exposure to democracy and had none of the prerequisites for reaching it successfully.
No, what we did was remove or try to remove the repressive governments in question. We succeeded in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and essentially, brought chaos to those countries, which previously had enjoyed stability brought on by repressive governance. We created that chaos by militarily removing those regimes and then not being able to install the kind of benevolent democratic governance we wanted to see in place.
Our current administration has been severely criticized by its political opponents for not having stayed on and maintained order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theoretically, we could have done that. The problem is that there would have been no end to those occupations because the countries in question have inherent internal religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that have never been fixed and that may never be resolved. These are problems in Islam that have been contained over the past 14 centuries through repressive governance. Any continued successful occupation of those countries by U.S. forces would have had to have been repressive as well as open-ended. Under those circumstances, the result of our ultimate withdrawal would most likely have ended in instability as it has today.
Essentially, what we have done is destroy existing, repressive order expecting to install democracy. Democracy doesn’t take and we end up, inevitably, with chaos.
Consider Egypt. The Arab Spring brought a revolution to Egypt. A military dictator was deposed and a new, allegedly fundamentalist government was installed. That terrified the military establishment, which engineered a coup and reinstalled a military dictatorship, which in turn reestablished stability on their own terms. Egypt went full circle from military dictatorship through free elections back to military dictatorship and imposed order.
It seemed to many that the Obama administration would have a different attitude toward the cycles described above. They would get us out of the convoluted messes that neoconservative policies had created in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Obama administration swapped their very own “liberal interventionists” for the Bush era neoconservatives. We began hands-off wars with drones and “clean” air power. No troops on the ground. We got involved in Libya, Yemen and Syria, adding to our declining popularity in the Middle East and to the mass exodus to Europe now under way.
Where are we heading in Syria? Our government opposes both Syrian President Al-Assad and all the fundamentalist groups aligned against him. We have supported some of the groups opposed to the government and trained a pathetically small number of others, but we have frequently said that it is too difficult to identify those who are really sympathetic to our democratic goals.
To further complicate an already complicated scene, Libya and Saudi Arabia support the rebels (most of whom are Sunni) against the al-Assad government, which is Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam). On the other side of the issue, Shia Iran and Russia, which has its only warm water military base in Syria, support the al-Assad government. Russia’s President Putin has said, somewhat cynically, that he is interested only in stability for Syria. It is difficult to say precisely what we seek for that same country, but let’s arbitrarily stipulate that it’s some form of democracy.
You can’t get there from here. If we depose al-Assad, whom do we support when he is gone? What we might consider, since our real enemy is ISIS and the other fundamentalist groups, is simply turning a blind eye, for the moment, to al-Assad and joining in a fight that others are now conducting against those real enemies, without moaning about al-Assad.
What we stand to gain from this is imposed, repressive stability, an end to the killing and to the terribly dangerous migration of hundreds of thousands toward our friends in Europe. Politically, Syria will have to evolve on its own through self-determination, not imposed democracy.