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3 Questions To Ask Before The Next Open-Ended Foreign Intervention


A recent Washington Post article, citing a Chicago Council poll, suggests President Trump’s base is arguably opposed to a drawdown from Syria. That seemed counter-intuitive to me, because in the last four U.S. presidential elections the candidate who promised to draw down from endless foreign entanglements has won.

Of course, none of them followed through. President George W.  Bush wanted to focus on China, and opposed the humanitarian interventions in the Balkans, only to face the September 11 attacks, which put the United States into overdrive. At least he had a genuine excuse in the early days of Islamist militancy. President Obama had none.

After promising a restrained, realist foreign policy based on national interest and not values promotion, Obama was blindsided by three, er, advisors—Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power—who pushed to double down in regime changes in the Middle East. The results altered the geopolitics and demographics of North Africa and Europe for decades to come.

As I delved deep into the Chicago Council Poll, it became a lot clearer. The key, you see, is in the question’s framing. The question asked is so vague and diluted that it is almost meaningless. It asked: Would Americans support the deployment of U.S. troops “to fight against violent Islamic extremist groups in Iraq and Syria”?

Well, of course, no rational individual would oppose that. But that doesn’t really give you much. Imagine if this same question was turned on its head, to “Would you support and pay taxes to champion the open-ended deployment of your cousin or colleague from Michigan to see that the Turks and Kurds don’t fight over Manbij?” The answer would be a lot more complicated.

Yet you would still see polls and surveys being shared by “journalists” that attest to the confirmation bias of the publications they write for. Why is this skullduggery tolerated? To paraphrase Peter Hitchens, polls and surveys have ceased to be objective ways to measure public opinion and instead aim to influence and channelize them. But the public deserves to know and deliberate, which is one of the beauties of democracy, unlike certain authoritarian countries, where bodies of soldiers are buried in the dark.

With that in mind, let us do a simulation, and discuss some key questions to ask any time someone is suggesting a foreign intervention.

1. Where Should One Intervene, and Why?

Are interventions for humanitarian purposes? If so, where and which countries deserve an intervention, and for how long? There are currently 17 civil wars going on in the world, other than the four one often hears about in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There are severe civil wars going on in Darfur, Somalia, Burkina Faso, Philippines, Eastern Ukraine, Libya, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Mali, and Myanmar. Should we intervene in all of these? If not, which, and why?

Last year, more than 14,000 people were killed by drug gangs in Mexico. What determines the criteria for intervention? Is it the job of American (and British, while we are at it) taxpayers to fund counter-insurgency operations and humanitarian interventions wherever there is evil in the world? Does that reflect the classical American grand strategy of “not seeking monsters to destroy” and “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none” realpolitik?

What happens when humanitarian interests collide with strategic interests? In Syria, for example, there are no friendly forces, but a trilateral proxy war between Saudi-Qatari backed Islamists, ISIS, and Assad-Iran-Russia axis. So the only forces America can realistically back are the Kurds, who intend to establish a Stalinist statelet. But is the United States willing to create a Kurdish state, even in the face of hostility and threat of invasion of Turkey and Iran, both of whom would lose portions of their country if Kurdistan turns independent?

The cynic in me doubts the prudent U.S. foreign policy would risk a scenario of Turkey drifting towards Iran and Russia, opposing an independent, U.S.-backed, Kurdish state.

2. What Constitutes a ‘Win’?

What are the end goals of intervention? Is it establishing civil society and liberal democracy in regions that have historically never been liberal or democratic? Every single region on the planet has its own system of governance influenced by history, geography, and culture.

The examples of Germany and Japan after the Second World War are often given, but Germany and Japan were both westernized advanced societies, even prior to the world war. The institutions were already there. In feudal and tribal regions, the way that could be changed is through hundreds of years of colonization.

An example might be India, which was feudal in the last days of the Mughal Empire but turned into a parliamentary democracy, even if not fully liberal. But it took more than 300 years of British colonization to set up and consolidate those institutions. So, to put it simply, are American taxpayers willing to fund the cost to colonize large swathes of Middle East, North Africa, and Central America to see if they turn to liberal paradises?

That would entail establishing colonial outposts and permanent constabulary forces to maintain law and order in frontiers like El Salvador, Honduras, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It is theoretically a valid strategy but, like everything else, it would need explicit approval of the majority of Americans and their representatives in the Congress, after careful cost-benefit analysis.

If the end goal is anything but this, I’m afraid there’s disappointment ahead. It is unlikely there’s going to be a geostrategic change on the ground, and that justifies greater Russian and Iranian interest in the region. Simply put, Russia and Iran had a client state in Syria since the 1970s, which is key not just to their naval and air bases, but also to their geostrategy in the region.

To use a Vietnamese phrase, when we fight to win, they fight to survive. Their will to escalate will always be more than ours, simply because we have nothing to lose in that region. The American regional footprint, to give an example, is more than 50,000 soldiers, and three naval bases.

No matter the humanitarian cost, Syria isn’t strategically important to the United States. Losing Syria for Russia, however, would mean they would not have a single naval base in the Mediterranean. The question, therefore, is this: Should we escalate and see how far this goes, over a cancerous and hostile hell on earth that is insignificant to greater American geostrategy?

3. Do We Have the Requisite Brutality to Finish Any Insurgency?

This is the most important question one can hear in talks in strategic circles. A recent research paper, for example, suggests that the Western way of a counterinsurgency operation is simply not brutal enough to end insurgencies permanently. Post-WWII, the rules of engagement by Western military forces broadly follow the dictates of human rights. It’s broadly because sometimes it gets impossible, like the evacuation operations in Raqqa.

But overall, the dogma is one of winning “hearts and minds”—that is, setting up institutions—to counter insurgencies. Research suggests otherwise. Of the recent successful counterinsurgency operations, the ones that succeeded, like against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Malaya by Great Britain, Punjab by India, and Grozny by Russia, didn’t aspire to win hearts and minds, but a more medieval, “Carthage must be destroyed” clean-up operations with minimal respect to rights-based engagement.

In sum, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that instead of winning “hearts and minds,” extreme and prejudicial punitive deterrence, circling and walling off the cancerous region, and establishing strongman client rules instead of liberal institutions has ended insurgencies. The alternative to that is this whack-a-mole forever war, which the West and especially the United States have been continuing since 1993.

These questions are admittedly more difficult than the sham surveys one can see justifying open-ended interventions and talking points in the media. Nor is it in the scope of this article to answer all these questions. But these are necessary nevertheless and needed to determine the course of a future conservative, restrained, and realist foreign policy, strictly based on narrow national interests and not some utopian, open-ended, idealistic endeavor to change the course of history.