The Middle East, Einstein and the Definition of Insanity
President Trump recently ordered 3,800 troops back to Iraq, bringing the total in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to over 27,000. What if one of them were your child, your sibling, or your friend? Perhaps one is. How would you justify it? Is the mission clear? Is there an end in sight?
On 9/11, 19 radical Islamists executed a terrorist strike of incredible proportions, killing nearly 3,000 Americans. In response, the US invaded Afghanistan, home of the Taliban, who at the time controlled approximately 75% of the country and provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Within five weeks, and with virtually no casualties, the Taliban and bin Laden were banished to the caves of east Afghanistan or Pakistan. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong. For some inexplicable reason we stayed. Now, after 18 years of war and 2,400 American casualties, the resilient Taliban once again control significant parts of the country, providing the leverage to enter peace negotiations with the president. It seems fair to conclude that nothing has been accomplished.
In 2003, President Bush invaded Iraq based on the belief that the country had weapons of mass destruction and was a supporter of global terrorism. As we now know, neither was true. Nonetheless, we toppled the government and, in the process, destroyed the military. The result was a vacuum filled by radical Sunnis (ISIS) intent on creating an Islamic State. Their rise provided a reason to continue our presence. Like in Afghanistan, after 16 years and nearly 5,000 American casualties, Iraq is incapable of defending itself. Its government is a chaotic mélange of dueling Sunnis, Shiites, and Iranian-supported militias. Based on recent Washington Post reporting, we also now know that our government repeatedly misled the public about the absence of progress on the battlefield. In other words, we were lied to by the administrations of both parties.
So, given all this, why are we still there? In the absence of any reasonable explanation from the administration, we are left to speculate.
Is it still about the oil? Although oil was a compelling motive during the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, surely it no longer suffices in a world where the US is the largest producer, oil companies are selling rather than buying oil reserves, and surviving climate change requires the abandonment of fossil fuels sooner or later.
Is it about deterring Russia? In the context of our Commentary of 1/17, this is not compelling. Recall that Russia spent nine years trying to subdue Afghanistan without success. American assistance to the resistance enabled the rise of Osama bin Laden in the first place. Clearly that didn’t work out.
The most recent motive appears to be deterring Iran. Despite the urging of his administration and the entire global community, President Trump concluded that a 15-year deal with Iran was not enough. By unilaterally withdrawing, he has in effect shortened the deal to a five-year term. By imposing renewed sanctions on Iran, he has created a situation in which the regime has terrorized its own people to stay in power and begun to fight back through asymmetrical attacks on US and allied assets. Initially patient, the president recently committed what some consider an act of political assassination. Having “made the world safer” through this act, he has recalled Americans from Iraq, introduced more troops, and threatened greater reprisals. Somehow, this doesn’t feel safer.
We can only imagine that Presidents Bush and Obama hoped for the creation of stable, peaceful, democratically elected governments with thriving economies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. Today, however, embracing this same ambition surely invokes Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: continuing with the same behavior hoping for a different outcome.
To his credit, President Trump was against endless wars, apparently until now. So, who is left to make the argument for peace? Even Senator Sanders has not provided an unequivocal answer, hedging his calls to withdraw with the caveat “It must be done right.” When asked, he defines “right” as the cessation of terrorist acts in the region, aka more of the same, more insanity.
We should ask our leaders to engage in a fact-based rational discussion of Middle East policy as if the lives of their children depend on it – because the life of someone’s child does.