When the British Empire declared bankruptcy after World War II, we inherited many of the responsibilities for trying to keep order. Unfortunately we inherited some of the hubris too. By then the Brits had discovered that trying to run the world cost a lot in blood and treasure and fewer and fewer of the former colonials were willing to be bossed around. You’d think as former colonists and Monroe Doctrine isolationists we might have been alert to the pitfalls, but Greatest Generation triumphalism went to our heads.
We were enabled in our overreach by the terrifying specter of Soviet conquest. Questioning the premise had been made politically impossible by the McCarthy-Nixon wing of the Republicans who were not above calling Gen. George C. Marshall a commie dupe. The Red Scare justified follies in Korea and Vietnam as well as the support of a long line of vile regimes whose only selling point was that they were not in the Soviet camp (as long as we bribed them with weapons and cash and looked the other way as they abused their own people. You know, the Shah, Pincohet, and on and on).
When the USSR collapsed it stunned many to learn that the ever-unreliable CIA had grossly overestimated the threat. The GDP of the USSR, which had been alleged to be on track to surpass ours, was actually a puny fraction of it. The place was a Potemkin Country, aging, sick, unproductive, dysfunctional. If it wasn’t for oil and nukes we’d never give it a second thought. We ought to have paid more attention to our own propaganda. Freedom, democracy, capitalism, the rule of law really do beat the alternatives
The Middle East and its Islamist crazies have now become the nightmare that demands the spending of blood and treasure, but it is possible the disappointing results of a decade of misbegotten war are persuading the American public it is time to quit drinking the Kool-Aid.
The Brits bequeathed us the problems of a nascent Jewish state in the Middle East and several fake states run by made-up potentates created after World War I for the purpose of keeping the oil flowing. Having gotten on the tiger, we have been unable to get off since a cardinal rule of American politics is to never admit that anything, no matter how stupid, was wrong. One may never say blood was spilled in vain or money wasted or the wrong horse has been backed. So we double down on losers.
We booted out a democratically elected government in Iran in favor of the Shah who cheerfully tortured his own people. Guess what, the Iranians finally had enough and installed something even worse. Feeling dissed we backed Iraq’s brutal dictator Saddam in an eight-year Sunni-Shia war against Iran that cost 500,000 lives or more and upwards of $1.2 billion. Emboldened by our patronage, he attacked his neighbors. We got even eventually at a huge cost. And now we are surprised neither Iraqis nor Iranians want to be best friends forever, but do want to keep killing each other? How stupid are we?
Islamist terrorism, not even counting the endless terror war of PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah against Israel, has been a problem ever since we cleverly armed and tutored the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in order to poke the Soviets in the eye. We might have learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and our own in Vietnam not to get in a quagmire ourselves and to stand back as others flail. The Chinese certainly seem to have learned that when your rival insists on beggaring himself in foreign adventurers, let him.
What is to be done now? If our own behavior has taught anything in the pst 50 years it is that we lack the requisite will, brutality and staying power to be an imperial power. When the Romans arrived, they wiped out or enslaved the enemy, installed ex-military to colonize the place and breed with the women, built good roads, nice spas and planned to stay forever, with the wealth produced flowing back to Rome. The Brits attempted a version of that scheme, but by the time they folded pernicious ideas spread by us — democracy, self-determination, equal rights under law — had undermined the model.
Lacking the stomach for a reign of terror, the stamina for an endless colonization and suppression of dissent and the patience to understand the locals, getting out is the only realistic alternative. The old bribes don’t work. In a globalizing world, oil states have plenty of patrons and arms dealers and as our lack of interest in Africa and South America show non-oil states aren’t worth the trouble. Hawks may still believe everything can be solved by more military force, but the American people don’t and just want our men at home, rather than dead on the evening news.
The Middle East adventures of Bush I, Bush II and Obama, have probably cost us $5 trillion, including ongoing medical care and benefits for veterans. For what? A Shia-Sunni Civil War? The Arab Spring which has produced poison fruit? Five trillion would have bought a lot of homeland security, not to mention roads, bridges, walls along the border if you like that sort of thing, schools, research and development.
Since the dirty little secret of so much of our mucking around in the Middle East is oil, a sane policy would be to drastically cut our consumption of fossils fuels by mandating efficiency of every device from cell phones to semi-trailers to power plants and enforcing it ruthlessly. We would also frack and drill and build nuclear plants and ramp up solar and geothermal and wind and pay the geniuses of silicon valley who now get rich designing idiotic video games to solve the problem. We would also build the pipeline from Canada and make a deal to buy every drop they can produce and use it domestically. The goal would be to never again import so much as a thimbleful of sewing machine oil from abroad and never send another soldier to fetch it.
It may also be time to quarantine the Islamist world as we would any infectious disease. This would clearly be a catastrophe for those simply trying to live a decent life, but until enough of them are willing to fight the crazies there is no hope for outsiders doing the job for them. Until the region heals itself of the willingness to kill for religion and to export terror, the bloodbath will continue as did the scorched earth of the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants.
Finally, we will undoubtedly feel a responsibility to continue to aid Israel in the pitiable position of being a tiny island of 6 million in a sea of almost 600 million muslims who have been told by mad zealots and self-serving autocrats for three generations that all their troubles will end if only the jews are destroyed.
Israel may be able to survive, but a new, more ghastly holocaust can’t be ruled out if the Pakistanis or North Koreans (or lets face it, Russians or Chinese) decide to export their nukes to the highest bidder or Iran succeeds in producing a homegrown supply. Clearly their enemies aspire to do to Israel what Rome did two thousand years ago.
Call it defeatism, but we’d do well to offer every Jew in Israel what every country failed to offer when Hitler announced his intentions, a refuge. We should offer each individual dual American citizenship whenever they choose to exercise the prerogative. It will be objected that they will never abandon their hard-won homeland, but never say never. It will also be objected that we can’t bear anymore immigrants, but this is hogwash. It is a big country that already deals with plenty of immigrants and always has. A few million more with a high regard for democracy and the rule or law who are well-educated and eternally grateful would be far better than a new holocaust.
Will we do any of these things? No, we will put a few boots on the ground, drones in the sky, fight a not-so-covert war, seek allies who will hang back and cheer or carp from the sidelines. We will not make implacable fanatics into democrats or religious zealots into enlightenment liberals by force of arms.We can resolve to survive, prosper and prevail with a minimum of damage while the infection runs its course.
We can set an example for the people of the Middle East that leads them to conclude, as have plenty of others before them, that pragmatism, rationality, science, democracy, freedom of thought lead to a better life for more people than Medieval theocracy or autocratic oppression. We should try it. Nukes kept the Soviets from killing us, but it was the lure of a better life, of blue jeans, Corvettes in the garage of the house in the suburbs with burgers on the grill and The Beach Boys singing “Fun, Fun, Fun,” that won the Cold War.