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When War Weariness Wears Off

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By MAX BOOT
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Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt—indeed the entire Middle East—are in a worse state than ever. Al Qaeda fighters are parading through Fallujah, car bombs are going off in Beirut, barrel bombs are being dropped on Aleppo.

Iran and its proxies in Hezbollah are stronger than ever, having gone all-in to preserve Assad in power while the United States has dithered on the sidelines. Iran has 19,000 centrifuges spinning and is closer than ever to acquiring nuclear weapons, free of any effective threat of American military action. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions may be slowed but are unlikely to be abandoned by a deal with the United States, which ratifies its supposed “right” to enrich. Even while negotiating with Washington, Iran is supplying Hezbollah with long-range rockets and the Bahraini opposition with arms. 

On the other side of the sectarian divide, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers are stronger than ever, with Sunni jihadists freely operating in western Iraq and northern Syria, and even in Lebanon, where they are matching Hezbollah car bomb for car bomb. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are so disgusted with U.S. foreign policy that they are pursuing their own path, which is drawing them into a de facto alliance with jihadists from Iraq to the Levant.

Much of this, it goes without saying, is due to the internal dynamics of the region’s dysfunctional states, but the United States has had a role in stoking the conflict. Democrats want to blame all this on Bush for invading Iraq, but that explanation is wearing thin five years after Bush left office. It’s true that Bush made a hash of Afghanistan and Iraq initially, and that the ripple effects of his early blunders are still with us. But he also set in motion a surge in Iraq that reduced violence by 90 percent and made it possible to imagine a more stable, democratic state developing out of the rubble. Except perhaps in Kurdistan, that promise has now been lost, in no small part because of Obama’s unwillingness to follow up.

Things might have gone very differently in Iraq if Obama had gotten personally involved after the 2010 hung election by lobbying for the selection of Ayad Allawi, a nonsectarian Shiite acceptable to Sunnis, as prime minister rather than rubber-stamping, in cooperation with Iran, the reelection of the more sectarian Nuri al-Maliki. So, too, things might have been different if Obama had launched a full-court press early on to win Iraqi agreement for U.S. troops to remain after 2011. In the judgment of many knowledgeable observers, Iraqi politicos could have been brought around to support a U.S. troop presence, had not Obama chosen to pull the plug on negotiations after some initial difficulties over immunity from Iraqi laws. A more activist American government might have prevented the emergence of a poisonous rift between a Shiite sectarian regime in Baghdad and the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar Province—a rift that has been exploited by Al Qaeda in Iraq to stage a dismaying resurgence.

In Syria, things might have been different if the president had decided to arm the moderate opposition at the start of the civil war in 2011, as urged by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA director David Petraeus. If such actions had been combined with the imposition of a no-fly zone, Assad’s regime might have been overthrown in relatively short order, as Qaddafi’s was. Instead the war has raged on and on, killing more than 120,000 people and destabilizing the neighboring states of Iraq and Lebanon. Syrian territory is now being divided by Hezbollah on the one hand and, on the other, Sunni extremist groups such as the Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

All of these catastrophic trends have been evident for a couple of years, at least, but they have only caught the public eye now that al Qaeda fighters are, at least temporarily, in plain control of Fallujah, a city that American forces sacrificed much to pacify in 2004. Even the New York Times, on its front page, is making fun of Obama’s frequent boast, “I ended the war in Iraq,” because it is evident that Obama’s troop pullout actually restarted a war that had been all but extinguished. 

It is time for the cycle to swing back to a more interventionist phase. There is an opening here for a presidential contender smart enough to grasp it. If history is any judge, the swing back to interventionism is coming, and soon. A smart contender would get out ahead of the cycle now by outlining how the United States can pursue a policy of strategically grounded, tactically adept international leadership.

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