For all of the rhetoric about our supposed liberal international order, the world is more chaotic and unstable than it has been since World War II. Disorder reigns.
And for the technocratic, democratic globalist elites in the West, this disorder can only be repaired with the right combination of U.S. tax dollars, the blood of American servicemen and women, and a desire to remake entire societies in our image (or, at least, in the distorted image of postmodern, Western elites).
Yet, with each new U.S. intervention, we have detached the use of military force from serious national interests and, in so doing, done real damage to our interests. As the disorder caused by American intervention proliferates and becomes systemic, rival powers, such as China or Russia, step into that chaotic void, eventually benefiting from the chaos that the United States has sown, even as we squander our temporary gains.
Flipping Gaddafi: The One Upside of the Iraq War
For instance, the disorder caused by the United States in Iraq won us the initial benefit of newfound cooperation from a long-time adversary, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. We managed to get him to abandon his pursuit of nuclear weapons and to engage with the West.
Whatever may have been the other failings of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq, we could always point to Gaddafi and his decision to give up his nuclear weapons as a win. For a time, Gaddafi even turned Libya into an essential partner in America’s ongoing global war on terrorism. Throughout North Africa thereafter, Libyan intelligence worked hand-in-hand with the United States and its allies to thwart jihadist threats there.
Thanks to the alliance with Gaddafi, the George W. Bush Administration was also made aware of the illicit nuclear weapons proliferation cabal led by Pakistan’s preeminent nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan. Washington was able to disrupt Khan’s highly successful nuclear proliferation scheme, which entailed moving nuclear materials and know-how from places like Russia, China, and Pakistan and into the hands of desperate, rogue regimes, like those of North Korea, Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and at one time, Libya.
Despite having benefited from its alliance with Libya’s insane strongman, though, Washington’s planners eventually led the successful international effort to topple Gaddafi in 2011.
How Washington Spreads the Contagion
What followed were years of instability in Libya, as no central government could assert enough control over the vast country to quell the disorder. The chaos quickly proliferated to neighboring countries, such as Mali, prompting greater Western military intervention. Soon, Islamists began taking over provinces of Libya (such as Benghazi), where they promptly imposed Sharia law, slavery, and other horrors upon the citizenry.
The more the chaos in Libya compounded, the less ability the United States (and the West) had to influence events there. Yet Russia experienced a concomitant increase of its own influence over powerful actors in the region. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Russia had been cut out of the region by U.S. foreign policy. As a result, nowadays people in the region view Russia in a more positive light than they do the Americans.
Thanks to this perception, Moscow has had a much easier time inserting itself into the region. Further, Moscow and Beijing have a firmer and more fundamental grasp on realpolitik: play all sides against each other, keep the locals distracted, and rarely take sides, while waiting to see how the pieces fall before fully asserting one’s own will.
This is precisely what Russia is doing in Libya today. As the U.S.-backed Libyan government of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli founders, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, led by the autocratic General Khalifa Haftar, steadily marches toward Tripoli. Things have gotten so bad that the State Department issued an order for all U.S. government personnel to leave Libya until the dust settles.
Many analysts are convinced that Moscow covertly is supporting Haftar’s military juggernaut. After all, Prime Minister Sarraj’s regime in Tripoli has proven itself incapable of asserting control over Libya. Plus, Haftar’s forces control most of the oil-rich parts of Libya, meaning his is the force with all of the money and resources behind it. The always-cash-strapped Moscow wants influence over Libya’s natural resources as well as access to Haftar’s wealth. By backing his claim to power, Moscow hopes to gain exclusive access to Libya.
Civil Wars as State-Building Exercises
The instability and chaos created by American intervention in Libya have, therefore, been a boon for the revanchist Russians. In fact, we’ve witnessed the resurgence of Russian might all across the Middle East and Africa (what Andrew J. Bacevich refers to as the “Greater Middle East”), where American forces have intervened. From Syria to Libya to the Central African Republic, Russia is yet again reasserting its power in ways that it has not been able to do since the heady days of the Cold War.
None of this would have been possible without the feckless policies of America’s permanent bipartisan fusion party.
As Edward N. Luttwak once exhorted, “Give War a Chance.” Civil wars are brutal (just look at our own). But, if they are expected and allowed to play out naturally, the result is often longer-lasting and more stabilizing than any peace imposed by outsiders. Wars—particularly civil wars—are a harsh remedy. But just as wildfires sometimes help cull forests in order for them to thrive again, wars can be a necessary and natural part of state building. Intervening to stop them can have grave unintended consequences for the long-term development of a country, such as Libya or Syria.
Because Washington waded into countless civil conflicts with little understanding of the dynamics involved, in many cases even more bloodshed and instability resulted. As instability expanded, strategic rivals, like Russia, managed to court the chaos and use it to their geostrategic advantage. In Libya, Russia has not only courted Haftar’s forces but, until recently, it appeared to be courting Haftar’s rival, Prime Minister Sarraj as well. This pattern has repeated throughout the world in the post-Cold War era. As states breakdown internally and intrastate conflict—driven by ethno-religious tensions—takes hold, American forces repeatedly are drawn into the conflict by well-meaning but ignorant elites.
The U.S. military is good at killing people and breaking things, but it often cannot discern one tribal faction from another—especially when everyone fighting are bad guys (such as in Syria). For instance, the group of belligerents who captured a cowering Muammar Gaddafi and then gruesomely executed him on the side of a Libyan highway, the National Liberation Army, were not secular “freedom fighters” looking to create Western-style democracy in Libya. Instead, key elements of this American-backed hodgepodge force were unapologetic jihadists looking to spread Islamist governance to war-torn Libya (which, they eventually did until Haftar showed up and started killing them).
When America intervenes in civil wars to “protect universal human rights,” very often American forces end up having to take sides in a civil war with no clear good guy, thereby incurring the wrath of those who are fighting against our preferred side, while our supposed allies use us, and eventually turn on us.
Plus, we often end up removing the players in a civil war who might be able to lead their country to some semblance of stability. Once such forces are destroyed, we have then created a permanent vacuum for others, like Russia, to exploit.
We’ve Met the Enemy and He Is Us!
Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are case studies in how the United States completely destroyed its own dominance in a vital part of the world and allowed for its weaker rivals—particularly Russia—to benefit from the ensuing chaos.
Given this, the United States should stop trying to bring order to chaos and instead start courting that chaos as the Russians and Chinese have so effectively done over the last 20 years.
Why doesn’t Washington ever wait to see what Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran intend to do in a given civil war? Why do we always have to go first?
It is time for Washington to realize that, in an age of durable disorder, there is simply no way to impose stability from the outside. Instead, the goal should be to do the least amount of harm both to ourselves and allies while enhancing our national strategic interests—and our understanding of those should be far more limited than it currently is. At times, the United States should not intervene in a civil war, regardless of the human suffering involved. Other times, we might benefit by replicating Chinese and Russian strategies and exacerbate the chaos; playing all sides against the middle. Rarely, though, should American forces deploy to engage in unwinnable humanitarian warfare as they have done on multiple occasions since the end of the Cold War.
The disease of humanitarian military interventionism has infected the minds of America’s permanent bipartisan fusion party; this disease has made those purported great minds dull and has gotten countless American servicemen and women needlessly killed while wasting trillions of hard-earned U.S. taxpayer dollars. More importantly, these unnecessary wars have quantitatively hurt U.S. strategic interests around the world.
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Photo credit: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images