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.