One of the surprising aspects of following U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East from within the United States, as I have done for several months now on an extended visit, is the peculiar gap between ordinary citizens’ sentiments and the fact that the United States is actively militarily engaged in several countries in the region. This dangerous trend means that the American president— it does not matter which party he is from, because they both act similarly irresponsibly abroad—can continue to use the country’s enormous capabilities to wage war around the world at will.
The last few months have been awkward for American foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. President Barack Obama has energetically entered the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and earlier this week it was reported that he has decided on a more expansive American military posture and actions in Afghanistan in 2015, including direct fighting by the thousands of American troops who remain in the country. Reportedly Americans will directly participate in attacks against Taliban and other forces, while American air assets, like jets, bombers and drones, will support Afghan troops.
So candidate Obama who pledged to end American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and indeed moved vigorously to keep that pledge, now finds he must reverse himself and expand or extend American military involvement in the region. If the American people do not weigh in with their views and openly discuss more vigorously the deployment and impact of American capabilities, the danger is that American presidents—the wise and the wild ones alike—will continue to use America’s considerable technological, logistical and manpower capabilities to wage wars that create more havoc in distant lands, and generate new dangers that did not exist previously.
The fact that the United States today is increasing its military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, after a decade of its intense warfare in the region, should be a reason for American officials and the public alike to ask some serious questions about how they use their military power around the world. The biggest problem that we see confirmed again this week is that American military action in distant lands usually only turns those lands into chaotic, dysfunctional, ungoverned and violent places. In the chaos that follows such warfare as we have witnessed in these countries a new danger now steps in—the militant Islamist killers such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The more that the United States and other foreign countries send their armies to wage war in the Middle East, and simultaneously support dictatorial and often criminal governments that kill their own citizens in the thousands at a time, the greater is the probability that thousands of disgruntled citizens will join groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Fighting and destroying these groups is a top priority for the region and the world, but the last two decades indicate that fighting them primarily through the double-barreled weapon of foreign troops and Arab security states only creates further chaos and citizen resentments that ultimately see these criminal groups expand.
Now that the United States and other countries are actively fighting ISIS, the terrifying new danger is that more and more people across the region—especially Sunni Arabs—will see their option as supporting ISIS or submitting to the proven failed legacy of American-supported Arab dictatorships. This is a cruel and ugly dichotomy but it is what we see across the region. Many disgruntled Sunni Arabs might come to view ISIS as the only successful movement that has challenged the prevailing Arab order that has been so brutal to its own citizens for the past several generations.
Equally troubling are the small militant groups in other countries in the region that have pledged their fealty to ISIS. They are small in size and few in numbers, but they are a sign that citizens in many countries have reached such a point of despair that they would even follow these killers. There are no easy answers to these issues, especially with the expansion of ISIS in the past year and its consolidation of power in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
It is surprising that the consequences of American military actions in the Arab-Asian region are so rarely debated in the public sphere in the United States, where the tendency—from football games to urban subway cars—is to wave the American flag in a show of patriotism for the troops fighting far away. That is understandable, when your troops are fighting abroad. It seems to me much more sensible to support the troops by more honestly debating the policies and decisions that keep sending these troops to foreign lands, where they have to go back again and again to kill and die, in a gruesome cycle that includes Arab dictatorships and foreign, especially American, militarism as its main drivers.
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