On this day in 2011, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, following massive protests in the streets. It was the first victory of the Arab Spring. The lessons, Laila Lalami wrote in The Nation at the time, were several: “To the Arab dictators: you are not invincible. To the West: you are not needed. And to the Arab people: you are not powerless.”
Five years later, those parties—as well as newer arrivals on the scene, like Russia, Turkey, and the Islamic State—remain locked in a gruesome struggle for the future of the region. In war-torn Syria, half of the country’s pre-war population of 11 million have either been killed or forced to leave their homes; the government has targeted its own citizens with barrel bombs and chemical weapons; an apocalyptic death cult has conquered territory the size of Britain; and the architectural remains of some of the world’s earliest civilizations have been looted and destroyed.
Contrary to President Barack Obama’s claim in his State of the Union address that the crisis in the Middle East is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 lit a match to the region’s sectarian divisions, and the fire is burning out of control—as this magazine repeatedly warned would happen. Yet even those on the left who accept this basic reading of recent history disagree about what should now be done. Some believe that the United States still has a responsibility to fix what it broke in the region; others that continued US presence in Iraq and Syria will only lead to more death and destruction.
To launch “That’s Debatable,” The Nation’s new series of online forums about questions that remain unsettled on the left, we asked four experts to answer this question: “Is it time for the United States to pull out of Iraq and Syria?”
Why is this our fight?
The war is already lost. None of the US governing class’ shifting war aims—stabilizing the region, defending human rights, ending terrorism, establishing democracy—can be achieved. There is no future “diplomatic” solution that justifies continuing the waste of life, treasure, and national honor.
Our ongoing intervention in the Middle East cannot succeed for the same reason that it could not succeed in Vietnam: We are foreign invaders, brutal enough to alienate the people of Iraq and Syria but not brutal enough to subjugate them. By expanding and re-escalating the war with enough US troops and bombs—and bribes to every warlord in sight—we might (with or without the Russians) degrade and perhaps even destroy, the Islamic State organization in Iraq and Syria. But it would leave the region an even more ungovernable wasteland of death and destruction and hatred of Americans.
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ISIS is but one of many groups using that hatred as a ladder to power. In order to hammer down others who would inevitably pop back up in this grisly game of whack-a-mole, the United States would have to indefinitely maintain a heavily armed presence in the region. The cost would be enormous, and American voters—who have not even been willing to pay higher taxes to support the current level of occupation—will have no stomach for it.
We cannot predict the consequences of a complete US withdrawal. But we do know that without the American presence, extremists would no longer be able to position themselves as the Islamic defenders against Western crusaders. Moreover, if ISIS really is the existential threat to the region that the bipartisan Washington war chorus says it is, then, if left to themselves, the Sunnis and Shiites, Turks and Kurds, Iranians and Saudis would be compelled for their own survival to join together to take it down. Their combined armed forces are at least 15 times larger, and are far better equipped, than the army of ISIS, which does not even have an air force. If the prospect of an ISIS caliphate is not enough of a threat for them to unite, why is this our fight?
Leaving would be logistically complicated and probably, at times, undignified. It would cost money up-front; we have obligations to people we would have to compensate and probably resettle. But the longer we fight, the more expensive it will be.
Meanwhile, the costs at home are piling up. We are diverting vast resources from an economy that is becoming less equal, less fair, and less competitive. We are exhausting our moral capital. Fear-mongering fans the flames of bigotry and frightens the public into ceding civil liberties in the name of national security. Endless war means the endless erosion of our democracy.
Despite the grisly sensationalism of the pro-war media, most Americans think the invasion was a mistake and oppose the redeployment of troops. At least a third of the electorate has consistently opposed any US military involvement at all. This should certainly be enough of a base upon which to build an anti-war constituency.
But with or without an anti-war movement, we will eventually pull out. The question is how many more people have to die before we do.
Toward a more responsible alternative
By now it is clear that US policy in Iraq and Syria is a disaster. In neither country has the situation been improved by the US military presence. In Iraq it empowers the same sectarian militias that forced alienated Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. In Syria it ignores, even accommodates, the regime whose brutality spawned the jihadi menace in the first place. In both countries its actions address symptoms rather than causes and alienate people without providing any commensurate security gains.
But would the situation improve if the United States were to withdraw? Ask the Yazidis of Iraq, whose tragedy would have been much larger had it not been for the timely US intervention; ask the Kurds of Syria, who would have been routed in Kobani had it not been for the sustained airstrikes that helped them repel an ISIS offensive. The Sunnis of Iraq might well ask who would protect them from the revanchist fury of the newly empowered sectarian militias, absent a US presence.
The issue then is not so much the fact of US military involvement as the nature of this involvement.
The United States bears responsibility for much of the current turmoil in the Levant. Had it not been for George W. Bush’s war and the fracturing of the Iraqi society, the region wouldn’t have turned into an incubator for jihadism. Had it not been for Barack Obama’s betrayal of the Syrian revolution—by making lofty promises and offering meager support; by following brave words with conspicuous inaction; and by demanding that Syrians submit their political aspirations to US security concerns—a quarter-million people would not have lost their lives, millions would not have been displaced, and thousands would not have drowned. The region suffers today from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission.
The United States could exit the Middle East and, in Sarah Palin’s immortal words, “let Allah sort it out.” But it would have condemned the region to perpetual war. Isolationism in the face of serious geopolitical challenges is not only an abdication of responsibility but also a recipe for disaster. A US withdrawal from the region would not herald peace and harmony; it would encourage regional powers—and their myriad proxies—to step into the vacuum and fight for territorial or strategic gain. Such wars would inevitably draw the United States back into the region and in an even weaker strategic position—to resolve a problem that has become more intractable, and as a hostage to someone else’s interests.
A more responsible alternative is for the United States to reorient its engagement with the region from states to people. It can build upon its limited successes—with the Kurds and the Yazidis, for example—to show greater solicitude for the interests and aspirations of the people. It can stop viewing the region exclusively through a security lens (a mode of understanding that has led it to embrace dungeons and dictators, alienating people and multiplying threats). The United States can change its role—and consequently the way it is perceived in the region—by respecting people’s rights to self-determination and by being more mindful of the underlying social and political institutions (not regimes) that ensure stability.
In Iraq, if the United States aims to evict ISIS without exacerbating sectarian tensions, it must end its exclusive reliance on Shiite forces and revive alliances with the Sunni tribes. In Syria it must end its ambivalent attitude toward the murderous Assad regime and provide meaningful support to the opposition.
A precipitate exit from the region will do nothing to bring peace, nor will it endear the United States to the people of Iraq and Syria, or beyond. But championing the region’s vulnerable populations might change its reputation from that of overbearing hegemon to that of indispensable ally.
You can’t bomb terrorism
While US troops and planes and bombs and drones should be pulled out of Iraq and Syria immediately, we can’t just walk away. We have to talk about what we owe the people of Iraq and Syria who continue to face the consequences of years or decades of horrific wars. We have an obligation to help support reconstruction, humanitarian relief, diplomacy, compensation, and much more.
But first, the United States needs to stop the airstrikes. They kill civilians and undermine the goal of ending popular support for ISIS. Bombing destroys cities, so ousting ISIS becomes a pyrrhic victory. And when ISIS loses territory, it reverts to old-fashioned terror attacks. Troops and weapons don’t work to stop terrorism; they aren’t keeping the Syrian or Iraqi people safe (let alone keeping Americans safe); and they prevent the implementation of many of the non-military strategies that even US officials agree are needed to counter ISIS. You can’t bomb terrorism—you can only bomb people. Sometimes the dead might include terrorists, but killing them just sparks more terrorism, not less.
We need powerful diplomatic action to replace powerful but failed military action—and that includes serious engagement with Iran, among other regional players.
We need to start talking about an arms embargo on all sides. As long as the region continues to be flooded by mostly US-made weapons, the United States has no credibility telling Iran and Russia to stop arming the Syrian regime. With escalating tensions threatening all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, any US effort to “avoid taking sides” requires Washington to halt its current support for Saudi military action (including in Yemen). Instead, the United States needs to exert serious pressure on its longtime ally to end Riyadh’s deliberate provocations, including by cancelling the multibillion-dollar arms purchases at the core of US-Saudi relations.
“Pulling out” is what we do with troops, planes, bombs and drones. But crafting a serious strategy does not end with pulling them out; we also need to take the money now being spent on a failing war and redirect it to serve domestic needs and to assist the countries and peoples we’ve been bombing for so long. That means welcoming refugees to the United States, and massive increases in our contributions to UN agencies struggling to care for the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as for reconstruction of devastated towns, cities, and countries.
The internationalist solution
It is not time for the United States to get out of Iraq and Syria, for that would undermine the military and diplomatic progress that has been made in recent weeks. But it is time for the United States to move away from policies that have destabilized the region and put us on the front lines of a war with radical Salafists. Over the past few months, the Obama administration has finally sobered up from its Arab Spring triumphalism and has begun to back away from its policy of regime change in Syria. This, together with the Russian intervention in support of the Syrian government and army, has begun to turn the tide against the advance of the Islamic State and other foreign-supported Salafist groups. For the first time since 2012, an end to the Syrian war is dimly visible.
But it will require a more substantive change in American strategy and, to some degree, a realignment of US relations in the Middle East. Our support of the Kurds and the Iraqi army will remain important. But the United States also needs to work more closely with Russia and its coalition of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, as well as with France and our European allies, to form a broader internationalist coalition committed to defeating ISIS and other radical Salafist groups and to establishing a more widely functioning government and economy in Syria. In the process, it will need to challenge, like it never has before, its Sunni allies—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—to end their double game of supporting Salafist groups and fanning sectarian tensions while pleading for special attention as American allies.
This shift in strategy toward an internationalist coalition would have three dimensions: military, political, and diplomatic. The first would entail coordinated military action between the Russian-supported Syrian army advance and the American-European Kurdish offensive in the north and east. The goal would be to seal the Turkish border so as to stop the flow of arms and foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. The political dimension would be the isolation of the three main radical Salafist groups—ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. It would also involve the expansion of the cease-fires between the Syrian government and local militias to create an end to the internal Syrian civil war and establish the framework for a lasting political settlement. The diplomatic dimension, started at Vienna, would be an international agreement to end international support of ISIS and to support an internal political settlement with a blueprint for elections and political reform.
It is critically important to US interests and to international order to change US strategy, because stabilizing the Syrian-Iraqi-Lebanon-Jordan core of the Middle East is essential for international stability and for any hope of progress in the Arab world. It will not end the threat of Wahhabi-inspired terrorism in northern Africa, Europe, and other places, but it will help prevent the further disintegration of the international order in Europe and the Middle East and allow the region to turn to a new narrative of economic reconstruction and social progress rather than a narrative of religious war. If the United States can’t adapt its strategy in this way, and it may not be able to do so given the alignment of political forces, then it may be better to withdraw entirely.