SHARKS IN THE DESERT

President Obama means well. But the Middle East is where America’s good intentions go to die.


I was going to call this column “here we go again,” but Charles Blow at the New York Times beat me to the punch. The President may feel he has to do what he is doing, pressed by public opinion polls and the incessant demand to “do something” that seems to come from everywhere. But the policy he announced Wednesday night is yet another example of what Charles Lindblom, now an emeritus professor at Yale University, called in an article he wrote 55 years ago, “Muddling Through.”
In that article, Lindblom said policymakers don’t create policy by building huge architectures of theory and core values to arrive at exactly the right place for the right outcomes. Rather, more often than not, they simplify things and act incrementally on the basis of the policies they have carried out so far, in order to come close to what works in the real world and make a decision.
Simplification and incrementalism from previous policy is good enough, he said — better, in fact, than always trying to start from scratch on a blank sheet of paper. And thus it is what policymakers do, he said in anupdate 20 years later, because “drastic policy change” and “carefully planned big steps” are not ordinarily possible in the real world.
He was exactly right about the Obama “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic State. It is, as the President made clear right off the bat, built on the approach he has already been taking in dealing with radical Islamist terrorists not only in Yemen and Somalia, but increasingly, in the Sahel region and West Africa, including Nigeria.
Step by step, the United States is spreading its military wings to be the impresario for a confrontation with radical Islam. And whether Obama uses the words or not, he is doing so in the spirit of the United States as the “global stabilizer,” the “exceptional nation,” or, simply, “indispensable.” It is a hardy tradition of American statecraft, consistent with virtually every President before him.
But the downside risk of simplifying things, acting incrementally, and basing policy on this exalted mission, as Lindblom pointed out in 1959, is that we risk “ignoring important possible consequences of possible policies.”
Obama likes to contrast his policy with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. (And Dick Cheney is certainly looking for the same political daylight, from the other side.) But the danger the President’s policy faces is not a result of the contrast between his subtle approach to U.S.leadership (read: “stabilizer of the global system”) and W.’s more blunt approach.
The danger is in assuming that the policy being undertaken is, in fact, stabilising. Many would like to believe that U.S. policy brings order out of chaos on a global scale, the logical conclusion being that the more Washington does, the more stable the outcome. David Brooks, for example, argues that Obama and some of his predecessors have neglected the American task of “shoring up” the global system.
This self-defined mission, of course, grew out of World War II, when U.S. influence proved a counterweight to the forces of evil in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the USSR in the final decade of the 20th century, it metastasized into a dangerous myth, reinforcing the notion that America could do no wrong (at least in the long run). The first decade of the 21st century has borne out the folly of this belief, while the rebalancing of global power relationships has confused matters even further.

The “America must lead to balance the system” myth is dangerously misleading in two ways. First, it assumes that everything the United States has done has been to create stability — and has had that effect. But even a cursory review of the past 70 years shows that many U.S. actions have been destabilising — from the overthrow of democracy in Guatemala to the murderous but failed war in Vietnam, from the coup in Chile and systematic intrusion into Latin American governance to blind support for the shah of Iran. Then, of course, there’s the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Self-interested these actions may have been, but they were hardly stabilising to the countries or regions in question.

The “America must lead to balance the system” myth is dangerously misleading in two ways. First, it assumes that everything the United States has done has been to create stability — and has had that effect. But even a cursory review of the past 70 years shows that many U.S. actions have been destabilising — from the overthrow of democracy in Guatemala to the murderous but failed war in Vietnam, from the coup in Chile and systematic intrusion into Latin American governance to blind support for the shah of Iran. Then, of course, there’s the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Self-interested these actions may have been, but they were hardly stabilising to the countries or regions in question.
The other danger in this myth, closely tied to the first, is that while many U.S. actions around the globe have been welcome to the nations that received them, many have not. Our national curse is to think all our actions are benign, enhance our values, spread them about the world, and benefit all. Iraq is but the most recent demonstration. The impact of tossing Saddam Hussein onto the dump heap of history was to encourage Islamist extremism, the enemy we face today. Of course, we did not invent such extremism, but as even the most virulent advocates of wiping out such extremism note, the problem is not religious extremism, per se, so much as the policies we have pursued in the region for decades.
Stability can be bought, for a time, but often at the cost of a systematic, widespread disintegration of that order. And yet here we go again, dragging ourselves into yet another war in the region, pulling reluctant allies behind us, arguing for order and stability — but unleashing our military might. While many Americans may go along with Obama’s plan (because the Islamic State is indeed a cruel, inhuman, and dangerous organism), downstream we may find, once again, that we have unleashed further chaos, creating thousands more radical jihadists who see the United States as the source of instability in their region.
The task is not an easy one. The instinct to use regional ground forces recognizes that U.S. boots on the ground not only engender American casualties but spawn terrorists, as well. But airstrikes may prove not enough. What, then, is the next step? What happens when the regional militaries are inept or don’t show up at all?
Barack Obama has set America on a dangerous course, repetitive in rhetoric and action with what presidents before him have done. But the world has changed; our leadership is not taken for granted. And, ultimately, the responsibility for stability in the Middle East belongs to the new order that has yet to emerge there. So go carefully into these waters, Mr. President: They are full of political and historical sharks.
– FPM

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