President Bush declared the Global War on Terror. President Obama changed its name to the Overseas Contingency Operation. And President Trump, during the 2016 presidential campaign, promised to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and take their oil.
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we have a succinct history of our Middle Eastern foreign policy.
First, we declared a nebulous war on an idea. Then we tried to engineer a sterile solution through diplomacy, increased covert operations, and targeted strikes. And now, we might be getting to a practical approach that focuses on our national interest. As we stand on the brink of further entanglement in Syria, we should look back at the past two decades and ask what we can learn from our obvious failures in the region. Four lessons immediately spring to mind.
It is a Bad Idea to Declare a War on an Idea
A war on terrorism is virtually unwinnable. Even if we put aside debates over what exactly constitutes terrorism, ignore the geopolitical ramifications of going after the terrorist groups that exist in sovereign countries, and somehow accept that the United States could wipe out all organizations facilitating and funding terrorism, we’d still have a big problem: it would only take one deranged person stabbing someone on the streets of London in the name of an extreme ideology for terrorism to show that it was alive and well.
Our politicians could argue that terrorism was greatly diminished, but they could never truly declare victory—after all, the idea of terrorism would never raise a white flag. The lack of any clear sign of victory hurts morale and makes it hard to disengage without losing face.
Wars should be fought against specific people and groups who can surrender and there should be clear objectives that easily can be verified.
It is Difficult to Spread a Set of Values by Force
It is nearly impossible to change hearts and minds with a gun or with bribes (read: nation building). When threatened with violence, people will typically obey orders, but will only do so while the threat stands. The same is true for bribery.
We can’t force or pay people to change their values—they will comply only as long as the incentive or threat is applied and will revert back to their original beliefs and actions as soon as it is removed. But even if the United States were somehow able to change the beliefs and values of an entire country, it is not clear that we have a coherent vision of what exactly we want other countries to believe.
The United States vowed to support democratic movements and institutions in all nations and cultures. Although it is easy to support structures and forms of government, it is hard to inculcate respect for values such as freedom of speech or freedom of religion.
Fact is, we have seen plenty of Islamists winning free and fair democratic elections. And there are many democracies that are also relatively closed societies.
It is Hard to Engineer Solutions When the Enemy of Your Enemy May Easily be Your Enemy
Fighting a ground war is difficult and expensive, especially one happening halfway around the world. It is tempting to find groups on the ground that are already fighting our enemy and support them instead. But when these groups include poorly defined collections of insurgents with divergent motives and are supported by large global superpowers with conflicting goals, it is difficult to predict, let alone engineer, the outcomes of proxy wars. Even the most bookish foreign policy wonks in Washington often have no idea who we are funding and arming, let alone the potential ways that this support could backfire—we have directly and indirectly funded, supported, and otherwise helped many groups we later have had to fight.
We also often have a difficult time anticipating the actions of other superpowers. This is not to argue that we should never leverage existing actors in a region to achieve our goals, but we must constantly and vigilantly reevaluate who we are supporting and adjust our strategies accordingly. This type of constant adjustment, however, is not conducive to the development of a carefully concocted plan—it requires far a far more improvisational and intuitive foreign policy style than the wannabe social engineers who staff much of our government typically favor.
It is Helpful for Military Actions to Have Goals That Concretely Help Citizens
After the September 11 attacks, the country came together in support of our president, our government, and our military. We knew that we had to hold our attackers responsible and we were willing to spend blood and treasure to do so. But now, more than 15 years later, it is no longer clear why we are still entangled in the Middle East.
We are told that we have to engage with the region in order to secure the humanitarian rights of an arbitrarily chosen set of people halfway across the globe. We are told that we have to fight the terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them here. Meanwhile, we routinely ignore crises in our own country that affect our citizens and we have difficulty securing our own porous borders.
Even if intervening in the Middle East helps our national security interests and improves the lives of foreign peoples, it is insane to prioritize costly involvement in the Middle East to secure these goals when we have far cheaper means of taking care of problems at home that we refuse to implement. We should concentrate on common-sense solutions within our borders to protect and help our citizens before we start meddling in complicated and costly foreign affairs.
We shouldn’t be isolationists—we should just be smart.
Photo credit: Huseyin Nasir /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images