Here’s all one needs to know about what is happening in Iraq: As France 24 reported, “Iraqi security forces made no effort to stop the protesters as they marched to the heavily-fortified Green Zone after a funeral held for those killed in the US air strikes, letting them pass through a security checkpoint leading to the area.” Consider that for a moment, and let the anger surge through your veins.
These are the same people who begged for Western help during the Islamic State (ISIS) surge. Cynics argue that they didn’t even make an effort to stop ISIS from getting close to Baghdad. A lot of them are closet ISIS sympathizers, and the rest are Iranian-funded members of Shia militia. If you think the thousands marching to the U.S. embassy are all Iranian agents, and otherwise both Sunni and Shia Iraqis have a deep-seated appreciation for all things related to James Madison, my name is Ahmed Chalabi, and I have a nation to sell to you for rebuilding.
The same people who have repeatedly betrayed the generosity of Western tax-funded development projects now resort to violence. As the new year and new decade start, one can realize that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in Mesopotamia in the last two decades, with $1 trillion wasted and more than 20,000 killed or maimed and scarred for life.
The decade ends how it began, with American-funded, camo-wearing specially trained Iraqi troopers smashing U.S. embassy walls with a sledgehammer and ripping off the American seal. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsay Graham ended up begging and pleading “Iraqi allies” to understand that Americans are friends. From “we’d be greeted as liberators” to this, it was a hell of a civilizing mission, except the only ones who got chastised were on this side.
This won’t be discussed much in political circles or mainstream news, as the discussion on Iraq is still exactly what we have endured for two decades. Attempting to liberalize an entire swathe of land against the wishes of the majority of its populace can be attributed to two causal variables: Delusional idealism, and faith in the intrinsic goodness of human nature. The first one is a symptom of our flawed education system, which, like Star Wars, considers democracy a natural state of affairs; and the second one is based on a flawed, Whiggish interpretation of history. It results in an undying optimism.
A new paper in Foreign Affairs, for example, asks, if there’s a chance of a Westphalian peace in the Middle East, like one that happened in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire and centuries of religious warfare. This natural equilibrium developed as the warring groups realized the best way to save mutual bloodshed is through a policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. That led to the rise of the nation-state system, which forms the basis of international relations now. Yet the conclusion was depressing.
Since the collapse of the Ottomans, the Middle East has been under the hegemonic protection of the West — initially the British and the French, subsequently the Soviets and the Americans. Natural equilibrium needs a natural re-alignment of social, cultural, and religious forces, which comes inevitably after heavy bloodshed.
For any such “grand bargain” to appear, there needs to be an amoral compromise, based on relative gains. Fenrir needs to chain himself, so to speak. Ideologues and media pundits with no sense of history, and used to a quarter-century of hegemony, are not taught the art of any “grand bargain.” It is us who think we can only help those who are in need, and everyone is in need of a good-intentioned guidance, when it is not our battle to join in the first place.
The common arguments will always be common. Don’t we have to fight the war there, so it doesn’t come here? Don’t we have to promote democracy so there’s no civil war? No, we don’t. This is not 2001, and forward deployment isn’t needed on a mass scale to maintain a wary eye on a volatile region.
Technological advancements like drones, with a carefully drafted foreign policy that lets local actors balance each other, is sufficient, and the money spent on building bathrooms in Basra could be spent on intelligence and surveillance from within Western borders. In any case, small-scale terror attacks can never be completely eradicated, but they can be minimized with vigilance.
Large-scale threats like ISIS would invite balancing coalitions with ground troops mostly provided by local Shia and Kurdish forces. Power begs to be balanced. By all means, sell weapons to every side, but there’s no need for nation-building. As for democracy promotion in Middle East, the idea is so juvenile, especially in 2020, it borders on insanity.
That leaves us with Iran. Iranian influence will never be completely eradicated from its neighboring country with an overwhelming Shia majority. But Iran is also an adversary, albeit with a very limited area of influence. However, one way to stop Iran, which has not been tried, is a very old, forgotten art of bloodletting. It’s a grand strategy that was once taught to every rookie foreign policy wonk, when schools still focused on teaching amoral history instead of an ideological supposed end of history.
Let Iran bleed. Let Iran overstretch, from Tehran to Tartous. Let them spend their own blood and treasure and impoverish their wealth maintaining security trying to dominate the massive Sunni population of Western Iraq and Northern Syria. Persians and Ottomans were the natural balancers of the Middle East up until 1919. Why not have that back 100 years later?
We can already see the Turks are busy securing Libya and Northern Syria. Why not let Iran do that on their Western front? With the Iranian Quds force leader dead, Iran would look to escalate in asymmetric ways, like it did during President Reagan’s time, by bombing Americans in Lebanon.
President Donald Trump was not elected to civilize the Middle East. He was elected to secure his own borders, and focus on China. As Defense Priorities research shows, this new problem in Iraq is not a cause of concern but an opportunity to disconnect from a cancerous region for good. To rephrase Napoleon, never interrupt your adversary when he is bleeding himself dry.
Amoral, dry, cynical realpolitik was once in Western sinews. The 1920s saw the rise of Wilsonian internationalism. One can only hope this coming decade, a hundred years since, proves to be its final death knell and sees a return of a much older, and far more intelligent form of conducting foreign policy. Let’s finally stop going abroad to search for monsters to destroy. And let’s avoid permanent alliances and entanglements everywhere.