The American-led air attacks against ISIS in Iraq and Syria have triggered new debates in the United States about how the U.S. should respond to this and other challenges in faraway lands that may or may not directly threaten American interests. I have had enjoyable and substantive discussions with students and faculty at the University of Oklahoma this week, in which this question has come up repeatedly — and understandably so, given that most Americans had felt that their country was withdrawing from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than re-engaging in new combat action.
My response has been that there is no correct, obvious, simple answer. Rather, I have suggested, the thoughtful and questioning manner in which Americans seem to be approaching their military actions against ISIS contains within it the seeds of an answer. This is a far cry from the reflexive, massive military attacks that the United States launched against Afghanistan and Iraq after the 9/11 terrorism of 2001. Americans wonder whether their military participation will expand or continue for years, and seem more prepared than in previous years to ask whether they are doing the right or the most appropriate thing.
I have responded to questions on this issue by suggesting that what is needed now is a more nuanced and fact-based analysis of conditions on the ground, as well as the implications of renewed American militarism. The situation with ISIS in Iraq/Syria could well resurface in similar forms in other countries, should the ISIS brand of Islamist militancy continue to spread. The best recommendation I can make in this situation has been to suggest that Americans — or any other foreign powers — should ask and honestly answer three basic questions before they send their troops to fight and kill people in distant lands.
The three questions are about the legitimacy, the efficacy, and the consequences of military involvement. I mention these three critical issues mainly on the basis of the events of the last quarter century, when assorted American military ventures in Arab-Asian lands have resulted mostly in problematic long-term consequences. These include creating the kind of chaos in which groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS thrive, or providing new recruiting tools for such criminal organizations to attract new members who feel they are fighting a defensive jihad to protect Islamic lands from foreign invaders.
I suspect that if any foreign power asked about the legitimacy, the efficacy, and the consequences of its military involvement in other countries before actually launching such militarism, it might be possible to minimize the negative consequences that we have experienced in the Middle East in recent decades.
The legitimacy of foreign military action is probably the most complex of my three criteria, but also the most important. Legitimacy ideally requires consent and validation by both the local populations where the warfare will occur as well as the international institutions that are mandated to do this, such as the UN Security Council. This is not an easy goal to achieve, which is why it is rarely attempted. Lack of legitimacy, however, is almost certain to guarantee that the foreign military intervention will create more new problems than it will resolve existing ones — as happened in the war against Iraq in 2003.
The second criterion, efficacy, is closely tied to the legitimacy issue. If local and foreign actors agree on the need for military action, they can then define its specific aims more rigorously and precisely. This was not done in the NATO-led military action in Libya in 2011, even though that episode was widely seen to be legitimated by Libyans, the Arab League and the UN Security Council. The imprecision of the mission and its extension to overthrow the Libyan regime helped to create the chaotic conditions that prevail in the country today. Military action succeeds best when it has precise, contained and limited aims, which are essential to determining its efficacy beforehand.
The third criterion — the consequences of militarism — is the most difficult to ascertain before the fact; but this must be attempted in all cases if one wishes to avoid the kind of debacles we have witnessed in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq in recent years. In some cases runaway militarism generates unintended consequences that end up creating huge new threats, such as ISIS in Iraq-Syria, or the spread of such ideologies in North Africa via Libya.
It is not clear if the White House went through such an analytical process before deciding to attack ISIS targets, but it is heartening to see more and more Americans today — unlike in 2002-3 — asking about whether this is the right thing for their country to do.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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