When will the foreign policy establishment learn?

By Daniel DePetris

As the foreign policy establishment in Washington should have learned over the last 16 years, nothing in the Middle East is straightforward or clean. There simply isn't a black-and-white, good vs. evil paradigm that Americans can use to navigate the treacherous and complicated politics of the region.

Sure, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is undeniably a war criminal whose forces have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, wiped out entire city districts through merciless bombing, and sent over 11 million Syrians to leave their homes. Assad is a bloodthirsty authoritarian, but his opponents in the Syrian civil war aren't angels either.

Indeed, the moderate forces that many U.S. policymakers pinned their hopes on in the beginning of the civil war have largely been overtaken by events. The anti-Assad rebellion in the 2017 is predominately Islamist in orientation, with the most militarily powerful being Al-Qaeda affiliates that have no compunction in driving a van full of explosives into a civilian neighborhood. How are Americans supposed to choose between those two forces? What long-term, sustainable political outcome can we achieve through deployments, arming various warring rebel groups, and sending the U.S. Army to keep Turks on one side of the city and Kurds on the other?  As the last 16 years has proven time and time again, the answer is none.

The situation is just as complicated in Iraq, a nation that the U.S. has been involved in militarily for over a quarter of a century. The central government in Baghdad, an authority that Washington has spent considerable American lives and dollars building up, is largely reliant on irregular militia forces backed, funded, and advised by the Iran's Quds Force. Many of these militias have committed summary executions of Sunni civilians in the process of fighting ISIS and have literally gotten away with murder.

ISIS is supposed to be the main enemy in Iraq, and in many cases, it is; Shia paramilitary forces, Iraqi counterterrorism units, Iraqi federal police, Sunni tribal fighters from the area, and Kurdish Peshmerga in the northeast have worked relatively well together in and around Mosul over the past four months. The problem, as my colleague Daniel Davis has astutely pointed out during his own field work on the front-lines, there is little hope the glue holding this multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic coalition together will continue to stick once ISIS is pushed back into the desert.

Killing ISIS militants is about the only thing upon which Iraq's Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations can agree. After ISIS is a spent force, questions about Kurdish autonomy, federalism, and more Sunni representation in the Iraqi government in Baghdad—the same problems that have bedeviled Iraq in the modern era—will persist or become worse now that they have even more weapons to point at one another.

U.S. forces who have provided air support and advised local forces involved in the counter-ISIS campaign for nearly three years are in the unenviable position of learning these dynamics on the fly. Several days ago, to stave off a potential disaster between Syrian Kurdish fighters and approaching Turkish soldiers, U.S. commanders sent a small team of American soldiers into Manbij to convince everybody in the area that the guns should be aimed at ISIS rather than each other. What the Pentagon is calling "a deliberate action to reassure our coalition members and partner forces" and "deter aggression" is in reality a short-term version of a peacekeeping mission manned by U.S. troops in the middle of a civil war—a mission that is far more expansive than simply assisting local forces with funding and killing ISIS wherever they reside in Iraq and Syria. Yet again, American soldiers are being ordered by their superiors to do police work with no hope of solving intractable problems that have persisted in the region or thousands of years.

Many Americans look at these and other developments and understandably wonder why U.S. personnel and money should be sacrificed to troubleshoot this complex sectarian mosaic of historical animosity. The American people realize U.S. foreign policy since 9/11 has been overly ambitious, has often been predisposed to militarism and interventionism, and hasn't made America or the world more secure. The American public wants the foreign policy elites making the decisions of life-and-death to be much more cognizant of what American power can achieve.

The U.S. unquestionably has interests in the Muslim world that it should defend and promote. Ensuring a steady supply of crude oil in the global marketplace is one. Protecting the American homeland from a terrorist attack planned in the region is another. Helping Arab governments get along reasonably well with one another and ensuring that Iran never acquires an active nuclear weapons program are two more reasonable objectives. Sometimes serving the U.S. national security interest requires the deployment of the U.S. military.  But even then, the military should always be used as the means to an end rather than an end in itself.  As 19th century general and renowned military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously explained, “war is the continuation of politics with other means.” It’s not a separate effort to be undertaken on its own just for the sake of exerting power; it’s inextricable tied to everything we’re trying to accomplish through diplomacy, trade, and all the available powers of statecraft.

Contemporary military scholars like Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich should wonder with abundant justification why the policymakers in Washington are again neglecting to see the danger and slippery path of mission creep — a mission that America’s field commanders may view as a short-term necessity but one that won’t directly enhance American security in any way over the long-term.

The political problems effecting the Middle East are best left to the region, for only they can cure them. The question we must ask is how much more time must we wait for Washington to finally wake up to this inescapable conclusion? 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on March 16, 2017. Read more HERE.