“We have been there for 16 years,” writes an American reader of mine in response to my yesterday’s piece on Turkey and the Kurds, “and if you say that we have no exit at this time, how can we end it?”
The title above is the short answer, or rather non-answer, to that question. Yet I feel duty-bound not to leave it at that.
The general comment is that the best way to correct costly mistakes in foreign policy is not to make them in the first place.
That, however, is seldom the option, given the calibre of those in charge of global affairs. Today’s politics simply doesn’t attract people capable of thinking as deeply and broadly as this subject demands.
Emotions, ideologies, short-sighted electoral needs, press campaigns, inflamed public opinion all conspire to push our intellectually and morally challenged leaders towards precipitate, often foolhardy, action. Such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Fear of Saddam’s WMD, which he didn’t have, was only a pretext for it, not the reason. The reason was an overemotional reaction to the shock of 9/11.
WE MUST DO SOMETHING!!! was the battle cry, and it had merit. Something indeed had to be done, but what?
The answer to that question depends on whether 9/11 is believed to be an isolated incident, one of many such ad hoc events, or a manifestation of a certain pattern of long standing.
Any person whose mind isn’t befuddled by self-righteous ideologies will know that Islam has been waging war on the West for 1,400 years. That religion is doctrinally committed to expanding ad infinitum, and disposing of as many infidels as that goal required.
Obviously, no nation can afford 1,400 years of non-stop action. Even conflicts of considerably shorter duration, such as the Thirty Years’ War, didn’t feature 30 years of uninterrupted hostility. Long wars always ebb and flow, they have peaks and troughs. Islam’s war on the West is like that too.
Whenever the Muslim world is at its most impassioned, and the West at its weediest, the war flares up. When Muslim passions attenuate and the West’s strength increases, there are lulls. Yet the underlying hostility never abates.
At present, the West enjoys an overwhelming military and economic superiority over the Islamic world, sufficient for keeping Islam at bay – provided it doesn’t experience a sharp peak in uncontrollable passion.
The West’s strategy should then be keeping things at an even keel, trying to preserve the status quo and not to inflame too much rage. And, if a major hostile act is nevertheless committed, it must be punished with a sufficient deterrent value to discourage further attacks for a long time.
Under such circumstances the West is justified to treat Islam at large as the enemy, not just the group, or even the state, immediately at fault. Islam must be held collectively responsible for the crimes committed in its name.
A cataclysmic event like 9/11 called for a no-holds-barred response. For example, since the strength of the Islamic world is solely dependent on oil, I would have been in favour of occupying the oilfields throughout the Middle East and administering them long enough for the passions to quiet down.
No force, regardless of how apocalyptic, required to achieve that objective would be off-limits. The West would explain to the Muslims that hostile acts would be punished severely enough to prevent them in the future. They’d get their oil back when they learned to behave, but not until then.
Throughout I’d ignore political realities – the war between Islam and the West isn’t political, but existential. Hence it wouldn’t matter how often, if ever, this or that Muslim state held elections. Elections mean little in Islamic countries that are all theocratic to some extent.
Now, we understand that no Western leader would allow such thoughts as much as to cross his mind. They all fall over themselves like ninepins screaming: “Islam is a religion of peace”.
I’ve heard these very words uttered by a platoon of US presidents and British prime ministers. Clearly, 1,400 years of history fall silent when ideology speaks.
Yet SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE!!! And that something had to be justified, for America must always have a noble reason for any military action.
Enter the neocons, so many Iagos whispering into Othello’s ear. You have a mission in life, Mr President. The Middle East is being run by dictators, the Saddams, Mubaraks and Gadaffis of this world. And yet their people are gagging for US-style democracy, the acme of political virtue and sagacity.
We must get rid of those undemocratic tyrants and bring democracy to every goatherd and Bedouin out there. They’ll become our friends once they’re exposed to the delights of a bicameral legislature elected by universal franchise. That’ll be our response to 9/11.
Er… yes, well, but do we have any proof that Saddam is responsible for 9/11? Oh, Mr President, that’s not the point. The point is that he’s a nasty dictator and has to go. Enter 2003.
I remember talking at the time to a British copycat neocon who has since become a media star specialising in anti-Islam invective (in his case largely inspired by personal resentments). He was all fired up about the attack on Iraq, while I spoke along the same lines as I am here.
“You may be right,” said the copycat. “But let’s just poke the hornet’s nest and see what happens.” Well, we’ve seen it now. The nest has been poked and murderous insects are flying all over the world.
The tyrants were indeed contemptible, but they more or less kept the wild-eyed fanatics under control. Once they were ousted, it immediately turned out that those goatherds and Bedouins didn’t want a bicameral legislature and independent judiciary. They wanted a free hand to kill anyone they didn’t like: Jews, Christians, Europeans, Americans, one another – whatever today’s appetite craved.
The Middle East was aflame, and it instantly became blood-soaked. Millions have died, millions more have fled, mostly to Europe, where they are encouraged to see themselves not as immigrants but as colonisers. And blood is gushing all over the region.
Suddenly the US presence, while criminally idiotic in the first place, has become essential to contain tribal and religious enmities that have been bubbling just under the surface for 14 centuries.
Americans manifestly failed to follow the wisdom of De Niro’s tough character in the film Ronin: “I never go in if I don’t know how I’ll come out.” They went in, and now they are stuck.
In the process, Americans have developed an intricate – and fluid – set of alliances they can’t afford to abandon for fear of a global conflagration. Also, the chaos largely of their making has drawn in major strategic players, such as Russia and now Turkey, both run by quasi-fascist regimes with far-reaching objectives.
Given that situation, simply withdrawing US forces is tantamount to a massive strategic shift not just in the Middle East but all over the world, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
That takes us back to the title above as the only, albeit feeble, reply I can give my reader. There’s no satisfactory end to this situation, barring what sociologists call a paradigm shift in the way our leaders and opinion formers think about the Middle East.
That, as we know, will never happen: the weight of ideology cum piety would be too crushing even for stronger intellectual shoulders than those possessed by Mr Trump et al. Hence, with an apology to my inquisitive reader, I don’t have the same clarity now as I had in 2003.
“We deserve perdition, yet God might have mercy on us,” he concludes. I’ll pray for that; the best I can do.