U.S. Fails to Learn from Mistakes in Middle East

Sean Para, Columnist

A remarkable and nigh-apocalyptic period of tumult and war is occurring in the Middle East. An order that grew out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and was cemented after the WWII has collapsed across the region. The first step in this process was the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, which destroyed the Iraqi state that grew out of the British mandate and was dominated by Sunnis. The invasion showed that the dictators who had been in power since the Cold War — the Assad family, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi — could be toppled. The Iraq War also demonstrated the disastrous consequences that would ensue. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and certainly did not rule a legitimate government. However, the current state of Iraq speaks to the dire consequences of the American invasion.

American policy in the Middle East has been severely misguided for more than a decade. It has failed to take into account many key factors, most importantly the role of other powers in the region and the importance of choosing effective allies. The U.S. has failed to foresee the possible consequences of its actions; the mismanaged occupation of Iraq is a perfect example. In 2003, a whole class of experienced administrators from the previous regime was purged from the government, and the Iraqi army was disbanded. The U.S. government also failed to predict the repercussions of supporting a Shi’a-led government in the place of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated one. While the reasons for these measures are clear — to create a new Iraqi state free from the tyranny of the past — they had disastrous consequences. The new Iraqi bureaucracy was hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, and the military collapsed into organized and well-trained armed groups with a vendetta against the new government; sectarian tensions were inflamed to the point of civil war. It is worth reflecting on the mistakes of 2003, given the way that the United States has consistently repeated them in the past 12 years.

The Arab Spring of 2011 shook the Arab world to its core and destroyed many of the dictatorial governments that had enforced sectarian tensions, minority rule, poor government and bad economic policy. The Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and Yemeni governments collapsed, while the Assad regime launched a brutal crackdown that turned an initially peaceful opposition movement into an armed rebellion. Surprisingly, the U.S. made many of the same mistakes in 2011 and onwards that it made in 2003. After a military intervention to depose Muammar Gaddafi, Washington failed to provide enough support to the new Libyan government, and Libya has collapsed into civil war. Policy towards Yemen was also misguided, as the U.S. supported the post-2011 government, despite its mismanagement of affairs.

The dire consequences of the U.S.’s policy towards Syria are also clear. After failing to support a moderate opposition in the early part of the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. was left with few palatable allies against the Islamic State or the Assad regime and has nonetheless been draw into the war.

The Islamic State is the most dramatic repercussion of the U.S.’s failed Middle East policy. The Obama administration continued to support the Maliki government as it alienated the Sunnis, whose appeasement had created a brief respite from the violence that engulfed Iraq after 2003. This, combined with the emergence of a powerful Islamist element to the Syrian rebel forces, allowed the Islamic State to coalesce and take advantage of disaffected Sunnis on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, creating the jihadist state of today.

The United States’ half-hearted and misguided interventions and poor choice of allies in the Middle East has inflamed tensions across the region and contributed to the pervasive state collapse. U.S. policy-makers have failed to take into account longstanding historical trends, not understanding the underlying weaknesses of the Middle Eastern dictators or the collapse of civil order that would follow their loss of power. Democracies and effective government do not spring out of the ground. They take a long time to emerge. Behind the peaceful rhetoric of Western governments lies a dark history of violence, genocide, ethnic cleansing and oppression. U.S. policy-makers fail to take into account the underlying processes that lead to peaceful development — strong, accountable states with clear goals and reasonable economic agendas. These factors have led to shocking economic growth in East Asia since WWII. Until they exist in the Middle East, no change will come about. The United States must therefore stop its misguided interventions and create policies that work. What does Washington see as the future of U.S. involvement in the Middle East? It is not clear. The current policy — treading the line between constant political, military and economic intervention and withdrawal — is helping no one.