Analysts in the United States this week are debating the precise meaning of the statements Wednesday by John Allen, the ex-Marine general who now coordinates the U.S.-led coalition’s response to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He said that the United States is not coordinating with the Free Syrian Army, and instead plans to develop from scratch new local ground units in Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS on two fronts.
I have always felt that neither Allen’s recent track records in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and CENTCOM nor the legacy of U.S. training of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan provide any comfort about the current American strategy to defeat ISIS. His announcement that the United States plans to create what American press reports call “a home-grown, moderate counterweight to the Islamic State” should cause new concerns for Iraq, Syria, the United States any many others around the world who one day may be targets of ISIS reprisal attacks, or victims of the chaos it spreads in the region.
Sadly, and based on actual recent history, I suspect that the United States in fact cannot train Iraqi and Syrian forces to achieve this specific goal, because it continues inadequately to assess and respond to the frightening underlying trends across much of the Middle East that have seen the birth and expansion of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the first place.
I wish that were not the case, because ISIS-like fighters are knocking on the door of Lebanon where I live; and the chaos that has emerged from Syria and Iraq in recent years to threaten the integrity of many Levant states is to a great extent the consequence of…well, of the policies that well meaning folks like Gen. Allen and his colleagues and superiors have practiced since 2003, along with their Arab “allies” in the “coalition” that is now fighting ISIS after midwifing the conditions for its birth.
So when Gen. Allen says that the United States and its coalition partners will aim to strengthen the political opposition and make sure it is associated with “a credible field force” that would be intensely vetted, my eyes roll and my heart aches for the millions of people in the Arab region who will become refugees in the years ahead. The United States has tried to do precisely this kind of thing in recent years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, spending billions of dollars over ten years — but it has failed miserably on most fronts.
This is not because the United States lacks technical capabilities or good intentions — it is amply endowed with both. It is rather because the United States allows broadly ignorant and politically constrained political figures in Washington, D.C. to come up with strategies that are simultaneously hare-brained, unrealistic, inappropriate, detached from reality, and, therefore, unachievable — even predictably unachievable, and repeatedly predictably unachievable, at that.
Gen. Allen warned that, “It’s not going to happen immediately. We’re working to establish the training sites now, and we’ll ultimately go through a vetting process and beginning to bring the trainers and the fighters in to begin to build that force out.”
Of course it’s not going to happen immediately; that is because foreign policy catastrophes never happen quickly, but rather they build up over time as ignorance, arrogance, ordinance, confusion and romanticism all blend together to generate foreign policy failures so dramatic that politicians in Washington inexplicably seem to need to repeat them again quickly, perhaps to make sure that their initial failures were not a fluke.
The prevalent skepticism about this latest American plan is not about the United States or Iraq-Syria. It is about human nature and history, and the proven inability of a superpower’s army to travel halfway around the world and reconfigure local conditions to its liking. This lesson has been repeatedly reconfirmed since approximately the 4th Century BC, largely because local folks do not take kindly to foreign armies that come in and try to reshape their society according to alien values and goals. Why does the United States repeatedly ignore the fact that the single biggest driver of the birth and growth of criminal groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the past quarter century has been the direct involvement of foreign armies — mainly the USSR and the USA — in Arab-Asian-Islamic lands, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Lebanon and others?
Why does the United States repeatedly discard the relevance of human nature and history when it unleashes its guns and goes into action around the world? There are no indications that the United States today has any clearer appreciation than it did a decade ago of the critical political, strategic, cultural, historical and psychological contexts of Arab lands where it seeks to undertake larger-than-life military and political missions that have serially failed in recent years.
They have failed and will continue to fail, I fear, because American policy-makers fail to understand what their armed forces were doing so far away from home, in those always confounding realms of real life and society beyond McDonalds and Disneyland.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global