It's Time for the U.S. to Disengage from the Middle East

Naji Dahi
June 10, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) Quick question: What do Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen have in common? You could say that they are all Muslim countries and you would be correct, but the more interesting answer is that since 1990, all of them have witnessed U.S. intervention in one form or another. Not only that, but the intervention has left all of them worse off than before. One of the ironies of history is that at the peak of its unipolar power (see below), the United States’ intervention in the affairs of other countries seems to have produced ever-worsening results.

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed as a state in 1989-91, the United States was the only superpower left standing. While the world has become economically multipolar (the U.S. today produces about 22% of the global GDP whereas in the 1950s it produced almost half), it has become militarily, for the time being at least, unipolar (the U.S. today accounts for 40% of the world’s military spending). Rather than reduce defense spending and turn inward to address badly needed domestic issues, U.S. decision-makers–regardless of party affiliation—took the stance that the U.S. should be the undisputed, perpetual, and dominant global power of the world. This decision was made long before 9/11 was planned and executed. It began under the presidency of George H.W. Bush and continued under Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.

The target of maximal U.S. intervention has been the Middle East. The U.S. has fought multiple wars there and has hundreds of military bases in almost every country in the Persian Gulf—with the exception of Iran. This is best summed by Marc Lynch in his masterful piece on regional international relations in the Middle East:

“Although it took several years to be fully felt, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a fundamentally new logic of unipolarity in the region and a much deeper, more direct U.S. role in every facet of the region’s politics. In the post-1990s Middle East, all roads led through Washington. By the mid- 2000s, virtually every regime in the region was either allied with the United States or seeking some accommodation (for example, Libya and Syria). U.S. military bases and troop deployments from Iraq to the ministates of the gulf created a fundamentally new military and security situation.”

And what does the U.S. have to show for such military and political dominance of the region? Has intervention produced the results that the decision makers sought? Is the region more stable and safer than before? Has U.S. intervention and dominance solved the most intransigent problem in the region, i.e, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Has Islamic revivalism and militancy declined as a result of U.S. intervention? Are the people who reside in the countries where the U.S. intervened better off than before?

In Iraq, for example, after spending close to $3 trillion, U.S. policy produced a weak, nearly non-existent state. The Kurds in the North are biding their time before they declare full independence from Iraq. The Sunnis in the center of Iraq have allowed an ISIS-led insurgency to exist and grow. The weak Shiite-dominated central government’s army runs away from real fights as it has done in Mosul and (more recently) in Ramadi.

Moreover, and contrary to U.S. decision makers’ wishes, the central government of Iraq is fully dependent on the support of Iran. Iran, we are erroneously told by American decision makers, is the archenemy of the United States and its interests in the region. If that is the case, then the invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. It is no exaggeration to say that Iran was the principle winner of the war in Iraq. It gained influence and strategic depth in post-invasion Iraq that it never had when Iraq was governed by Saddam’s dictatorship and other dictatorships before him. To make matters worse, Iraq, which had the best healthcare and education services under the Baathist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his cousin (Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr) before him, now has one of the worst healthcare and education systems in the Arab world. Finally, the status of women in Iraq was much better under Saddam’s Baathist dictatorship than it is today, with the possible exception of Kurdish women in northern Iraq. Overall, life for the ordinary Iraqi was much better before the U.S. began its wars and meddling in Iraq in late 1990. You have to be an ideologue or a sycophant to deny that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was, by any measurable standard, at least as large a blunder as the Vietnam War.

Similar results were produced by U.S. intervention in Libya. Libya, under the secular and eccentric dictatorship of Gaddafi, had one of the highest standards of living in Africa. Women’s status, healthcare, and education were especially high by developing countries’ standards. Following the U.S./NATO-led intervention against Libya and the assassination of Gaddafi, Libya today is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Several factions/militias supported by outside Arab and non-Arab actors vie for control of Libya and its oil resources. More alarming, ISIS has not only established a foothold by controlling the town of Sirte in Libya, but is also expanding its control to other towns in the country. It seems that the chaos that U.S. intervention brings with it is the necessary ingredient for ISIS to thrive and prosper. While it is too early to tell the impact that the chaos will have on Libyan development (education, healthcare, GDP/capita), the early trend is negative and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future. According to the World Health Organization:

Libya, with a per-capita income (PPP current international) of US$ 16,897 is ranked 64 out of 186 countries in HDI [Human Development Index], dropping from 53 in 2010. The Gender Inequality Index for Libyans is 0.216 and ranks 64 out of 186 dropping from 51 in 2011.”

The Arab Spring came to Syria in early March of 2011. For a while, the demonstrations against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad were peaceful. Gradually, however, they turned violent and the country was engulfed by a civil war that was extremely destructive and costly. As a UN report details,

the devastation of four years of war in Syria. Its findings: 80% of Syrians live in poverty and 64.7% in extreme poverty, the education system has collapsed, unemployment is at 57.7%, economic losses total $202.6 billion and more than half of the population has been displaced…The estimated average lifespan in Syria fell by more than 20 years from 75.9 years in 2010 to 55.7 years at the end of 2014.”

We now know beyond any doubt that the US was indirectly involved in the civil war element of the Syrian conflict. While the United States’ Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish allies supported the largely Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war, Russia, China, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah sided with the Assad dictatorship. Not only that, the U.S. knew fully the possibility of blowback in the form of the rise of ISIS as a result of Saudi, Qatari and Turkish support. A newly released U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report found that

“If the situation [in Syria] unravels there is the possibility of establishing a…Salafist [Islamic fundamentalist] principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Deir al-Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers [Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey] want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime…This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as ISIS] to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi.”

Once again, we see how US intervention (this time via Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari proxies) made the situation in Syria worse. The war in Syria rages on, has killed more than 220,000 Syrians, and reversed most—if not all—of the socio-economic advances that Syria achieved under the Assad family dictatorship; worse still, the meddling via proxies has led to the rise of ISIS, allowing it to operate in both Syria and Iraq.

It seems that chaos is to ISIS what oxygen is to fire. The trend from the above cases is clear: The more the U.S. interferes in the Middle East and leaves chaos in its wake, the more groups like ISIS (Iraq and Syria), al-Nusra Front and many others (Syria), al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), Libya Dawn, Ansar al-Sharia (Libya), and al-Shabab (Somalia) arise.

And yet decision makers and presidential candidates from both parties continue to agitate for more intervention in the Middle East. This does not have to be so. The U.S. must recognize by now the futility of this policy. Just as the overuse of antibiotics undermine the ability to destroy viruses, the overuse of intervention will not only fail to create the desired outcome, but also create unintended consequences.

What the U.S. needs are elected decision makers who will adopt a non-interventionist policy in the Middle East. It is time to disengage from Middle Eastern affairs in toto. It is time to adopt a policy that is the complete opposite of the current one. One has to be in serious denial to think that more American intervention will produce positive results either for the people of the region or the long-term interests of the United States. Contrary to what the mainstream media tells the public, non-intervention is as American as apple pie. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison stressed the importance of a non-interventionist foreign policy with the outside world. They even opposed war and standing armies. Some even went so far to call war the “greatest scourge of mankind.” James Madison went the furthest in enunciating his opposition:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended…No nation could reserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare…If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy…The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home…The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad.”

Not only did Madison oppose war because it would bring debt, taxes, and give power to the few over the many, he also linked war and the legislative tools used to fight it to increased oppression at home (the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the the more recent USA Freedom Act). Basically, Madison’s hypothesis is: the more wars a country fights, the less freedom it will have.

Rather than view disengagement and non-intervention as utopian, unrealistic, and impractical policies, there are concrete steps that the United States can take to begin the process. So what will disengagement from the Middle East look like?

1. End all foreign aid to the two largest recipients of that aid: Israel and Egypt. Foreign aid is supposed to cultivate influence of the donor country over the receiving country. In both cases this has failed. Israel adamantly refuses to abide by UN Resolution 242  to stop the theft of Palestinian land or cease the building of illegal Jewish settlements on that land. The Egyptian military carried a coup d’etat against the only democratically elected president in the entire history of Egypt. The coup was carried out with the support and blessing of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

2. The Middle East is the largest importer of weapons of any region in the world. The U.S. is the largest seller of weapons to that region. It is time to end this. The five major powers at the United Nations must place an arms embargo on all states in the region. The fewer weapons that are sold to that region, the less likelihood of continuing pointless war (Iran-Iraq war being a prime example, the current war on Yemen is another) and carnage in the region. A multilateral embargo of weapon sales to Syria, for example, will go a long way towards reducing the intensity of the conflict and bringing the combatants to the negotiating table.

3. Gradually remove all U.S. troops from the region and close down the land and naval bases in the area. This will signal to all states in the region that their benefactor/protector (especially Saudi Arabia and Israel) will no longer be there as a last line of defense of their atrocious behavior. Lacking an outside benefactor, these states might mend fences and start getting along with each other.

We need to come to terms with the incontrovertible conclusion that the U.S. policy of trying to shape and dominate the Middle East since the end of the Cold War has been an utter failure. It is clear to anyone who looks objectively at the region that it is worse off today than it was when America set out to dominate the area. If one looks at the socio-economic measures of development (education, healthcare, economic growth, security, safety, crime, etc.), there is no way to escape the conclusion that the Middle Eastern countries where the US intervened, both directly and indirectly, are worse off now than they were before the intervention. It is time to change course in the Middle East and disengage from the region. Non-intervention will save numerous lives of Americans and Middle Easterners, divert our tax resources for badly needed domestic and infrastructure spending, reduce the likelihood of terrorism against Americans, and is in line with the founding fathers’ pronouncements on foreign policy. A non-interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East cannot produce any worse results than our current policy has created since 1990.

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