Two main themes that dominate the public discussions on Syria and Iraq in the United States reflect the poverty and wildly unrealistic nature of this debate. The two themes are gut-wrenching, mind-boggling, heart-shuddering moral anxiety, political frustration, and old-fashioned anger at why the United States and others seem to do nothing about the frightening situation in Aleppo and other parts of Syria, and, what the next American president can and should do about this.
The discussion on these issues in the United States is other-worldly, because the moral anger and frustration about Syrian suffering and the next president’s policy challenges are totally detached from what the United States and many other governments actually have done and continue to do in the Middle East in the past 35 years. Debating Syria policy in the United States has become the political equivalent of fantasy sports games: Anyone can play; you can choose your own players and game plans; you can suggest and defend any strategy you think will work; you can change tactics in mid-course as many times as you wish; you can trade players (change allies and foes) at will; you can beat your chest and frown in deep concern several times a day; and, in the end, it will all be totally meaningless—because this is a game, not serious political or moral activity that can actually stop the suffering of the Syrian people, given how American and others’ policies have contributed to fostering the human suffering and state fragmentation across our region.
We should use a 35-year time frame to analyze U.S. and others’ options in Syria-Iraq because this is how long the United States has been actively involved in military and covert warfare across much of the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (MENASA) — since the early 1980s when the United States assisted Arab and Asian freedom fighters (mujahedeen) to fight the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Thirty-five years of non-stop warfare across MENASA has been the work of Arab, Israeli, Iranian, Turkish, Russian, American, and some Asian and European governments, all of whom created the environment that logically spawned Syria and Iraq today.
That environment comprises many brittle, mismanaged, mostly corrupt, often incompetent, and occasionally totally dysfunctional states and governments, some of whom retreated or collapsed in the face of the stress of 35 years of non-stop warfare and its consequences. Those consequences include economic disruption, sustained political autocracy, mass human dislocation and refugee flows, constrained job opportunities, shattered education systems, rising disparities in income and social protection, and steady emigration of tens of thousands of the MENASA region’s brightest educated young people.
Syria and Iraq’s security states shattered under the weight of 35 years of warfare all around them and decades of authoritarian mismanagement within them. So expressions of moral outrage and suggestions for further American and foreign militarism in the region to assist Syria are naive at best, and idiotic or sinister at worst. More American militarism would only make things worse, as have the recent heightened war-making actions of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France and others.
Since the early 1980s, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have led to the birth of Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Qaeda’s expansion and shift into Syria-Iraq, the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, expanding terror attacks around the world, full or partial state collapse in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, millions of refugees, displaced, and starving people, virulent new strands of sectarian violence, and a military free-for-all in northern Syria.
The cost of the U.S.-led global war on terror in the past 15 years has been $4.8 trillion (that’s trillion, with a “t”), according to a new Brown University study; that war’s outcomes above seem like this has been either a failed strategy or a really stupid investment of money and human life. Since January 2015 alone, according to a Council on Foreign Relations text, the United States has dropped 23,144 bombs on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, not to mention its indirect militarism in Libya and many other lands. That’s just in the past 20 months; 23,144 bombs! Imagine the figures for the past 35 years of non-stop American and associated militarism.
We do not have to imagine the consequences of this, though, because we see them in Syria-Iraq and all around MENASA. This is why I see the public debate about Syria in the United States today as infantile. The demands for the United States to intervene militarily seem to belie a total inability among Americans, Arab leaders and others to look within themselves and ask, “Did any of our policies have anything to do with how parts of the Middle East and South Asia have imploded? Will we achieve other outcomes if we use the same policies of military force and supporting Arab autocrats, without addressing any of the underlying socio-economic-political drivers of the tumult?”
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global