One of the more unflattering qualities of American political debate is the tendency to see everything in the world through a lens of U.S. partisan politics.
Thus when the radical Sunni Islamic State — or, if you will, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS — suddenly emerges from the ongoing chaos in Syria and Iraq to pose a seemingly dire threat to the region, too many Americans just want to talk about whose “fault” it is, along strictly partisan lines.
President Bush and company led the United States into a dubious, idealistic — and disastrous (I need not add “in hindsight,” for like millions of others, I objected months before it began and clearly saw where it was likely to lead) — war in Iraq on the basis of lies in 2003, but complaining about that history gets us nowhere. There is plenty to debate about President Obama’s role — not to mention the wishes of the Iraqi government — in pulling out of Iraq and his seemingly rudderless foreign policy, but who cares? Sand under the bridge.
International politics is complicated. And almost by definition, hypocritical.
Left-leaning idealists tend to demand that the United States uncouple from unsavory autocrats, dictators and villains like Saddam Hussein, but as Franklin Roosevelt allegedly declared of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Of course, being America’s son of a bitch is a dangerous game. Just ask Saddam or Ngo Dinh Diem.
Meanwhile the John McCains of America are all realpolitik and seemingly no discernment, eager to unleash bombs on every perceived enemy or sign of instability around the globe, it’s the details that matter. New-style libertarians like Rand Paul — not as libertarian as he would like everyone to believe — counsel less involvement all around.
But what would those armchair right-wing screamers and morally outraged liberals have us do?
Take Saddam. The post-Ottoman fiction that is “Iraq,” with borders practically scratched out in the sand to suit the imperialistic whims of France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 and forcing together three wildly disparate ethno-religious populations, always required a “strongman” to hold it together, whether an invented king or a Baathist dictator.
ISIS is even more illustrative. Obama’s critics, from McCain to Hillary Clinton, blast him for not choosing sides in the confusing civil war in Syria, most notably for failing to arm the rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, inarguably a dictatorial thug.
But guess what? Assad, and his father before him, Hafez al-Assad, represent something much closer to Western values than any of the rebels opposing him. Though certainly willing to use religion to his advantage, he’s essentially a secularist. ISIS, so violent that al-Qaida keeps it at arm’s length, has roots in al-Qaida in Iraq — which did not exist before the U.S. invasion — and the rebels fighting Assad in Syria.
Now, as ISIS seems to be the most virulent enemy on the scene in Iraq and the Levant (basically, Syria and Lebanon), suddenly Assad looks like a “son of a bitch” we might want to deal with. Ditto for the other bogeyman in the region, Shi’ite Iran, which has an incentive to fight Sunni ISIS. Oh, and the long-time American “son of a bitch” Saudi Arabia bears enormous responsibility for helping to create Sunni radicalism and terrorism.
As Joe Klein wrote recently in TIME magazine, “It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies are in the region. We may find that Iran is part of the ISIS solution rather than part of the problem–a problem that Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni extremism helped create. We may even find ourselves on the same side as Syria’s disgraceful Bashar Assad: ISIS is the greatest threat to his continued rule.”
I certainly don’t have the answer to such questions, and there probably is no “good” answer. I’m sympathetic to Paul’s view that the U.S. needs to disentangle itself from such situations, stop carrying the Western world’s military water and recognize where our true interests lie. Yet there is danger in isolationism, too.
But here’s something I do know: When it comes to incredibly complex international conflicts that go back decades, centuries, even millennia, finger-pointing over current American partisan politics is an incredibly arrogant, myopic waste of time.