On Monday the White House announced the deployment of 275 American soldiers to Iraq to protect the American embassy in Baghdad, a city currently in the crosshairs of the militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That group, which was repudiated by al Qaeda in February, captured the city of Mosul last week and is charging southward toward the capital. It may be the case that this relatively small group is moving too quickly and will be unable to hold the territory it’s captured, let alone topple Baghdad and the government. Nonetheless, the deployment of U.S. forces raises an obvious question: Then what?
Although it doesn’t seem likely at the moment, the fact that we’re even talking about Iraq War 3: Beyond the Thunderdome is representative of a broader shortcoming of U.S. policy in the region; namely that the U.S. has no coherent policy beyond two main objectives: protect the flow of oil and protect Israel from attack. As more than a half century of policy has shown, U.S. policymakers have had little interest in how these objectives are achieved — save for some vague notion of regional stability — so long as they are.
Take Iraq. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein because he was at war with Iran, which the U.S. had been supporting until 1979, when its preferred dictator which it had installed in 1954 after orchestrating a coup, was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution. The U.S. withdrew its support of Iraq — not after Saddam gassed to death some 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons in the infamous Halabja massacre in 1988 — but after he invaded U.S. ally Kuwait.
Bizarrely, during the Iran-Iraq war where the U.S. backed Saddam, Israel was selling arms to Iran and bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor. As the Iran-Contra affair showed, the U.S. didn’t have a problem selling arms to Iran either to secure the release of hostages. (So much for refusing to negotiate with terrorists.) Now the U.S. and Iran look like they’re about to work together in some capacity (if they’re not already) to help beat back the ISIS advance in Iraq, which may very well serve as a test case for more U.S.-Iran cooperation in Pakistan. Like the U.S., Iran does not want to see the Taliban in control in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter.
In Afghanistan (which isn’t really in the Middle East), the U.S. supported the mujahideen after the Soviets invaded in 1979. Having armed these radical fighters and successfully helping them repel the Russians, it was mission accomplished, until those same fighters would help form a government that would eventually harbor al Qaeda. By the way, the U.S. has held peace talks with the Taliban.
Contrary to refrains from U.S. leaders, democracy in the Middle East is not a policy objective. In fact, it is an inconvenience as the protests against Hosni Mubarak showed in 2010 and 2011. The U.S. publicly supported Mubarak — in power for three decades — right up until it became clear that the protesters would not relent. Sensing change afoot, the White House called on Mubarak to step down so it could be on the right side of the outcome.
In Bahrain in 2011, there was little concern or support for the protesters against the monarchy there, which hosts the crucial American fifth naval fleet in the Persian Gulf. No doubt there were great sighs of relief when the emir’s power was solidified when the Saudis sent over British-trained soldiers to crush the rebellion.
Speaking of Saudi Arabia, it’s a country that has never really entered modernity thanks to decades of Wahhabist rule retarding any chance of social progress. The House of Saud seems wholly disinterested in making economic progress as well by diversifying its industries, as it’s content to sit atop its pools of finite crude oil while doling out welfare checks to keep the population pacified.
And on and on with this geopolitical mess of a region where no doubt the legacies of colonialism and imperialism are still felt, but nonetheless where sectarianism and religious fervor shape worldviews. Sunni vs. Shia. Arab vs. Kurd. Israeli vs. Palestinian. Democracy vs. dictatorship. The U.S. has been trying to navigate these waters for years and the unrest keeps coming; the violence keeps coming; the American hypocrisy keeps coming. The region is so unstable right now that working toward any long-term objective seems like a pipe dream.
As Iraq is showing once again, the U.S. has no idea what it’s doing and it has nothing to do with Obama. It’s the problem that results when one power wants to bend an entire region toward its will. And even were this aim morally acceptable, it wouldn’t make the objective any easier to obtain.