America digs deeper into Middle Eastern quagmire—a headline that could be written at any time over past 50 years!

One comment on National Public Radio this morning should jolt anyone into an epiphany about the brutal absurdity of the United States foreign policy since at least World War II.

When asked about the attitude of Syrians regarding the prospect of U.S. help to fight ISIS, a Syrian photographer answered that Syrians were either confused or angry. His main point was that it was difficult to understand why America held fire when the regime killed 200,000, but are acting when ISIS has killed two or three thousand.

The crimes of Assad against innocents seem much greater than those of ISIS, even if ISIS does a better job of instilling fear into westerners. But is the horror of five or six beheadings of professionals who willingly put themselves in harm’s way more compelling than the brutal murder of 200,000 people?  When we start asking that question, it sends us sliding down a very slippery slope: Why didn’t we invade China after Tiananmen Square or Russia during its genocide by famine against the Ukrainians in the 1930s?  Why haven’t we invaded North Korea lately? Why aren’t U.S. troops all over Africa? Clearly ending brutal repression has never really been a priority for U.S. foreign policy, except when we can use it to support other ends.

In seeking an explanation of why we are fighting ISIS but not the Baathists (at least not yet), let’s start with a beautiful example of circular reasoning. Some assert that we are more concerned about ISIS than Assad because Assad’s Baathist government is at least recognized and legitimate. Of course how do we then explain going after Saddam Hussein in 2003?  Since the Bush Administration always knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction nor ties to Al Qaeda, the most logical answer (if not very logical)—and the one the Bush II Administration finally settled on years later—was that the Iraq war was an exercise in nation-building in a country dominated by an intolerable tyrant. Here the circle closes upon itself as we are left asking what’s the difference between Saddam and Assad?

Of course, there are some compelling cynical answers to the question why we are going after ISIS when we held back from bombing Assad’s military positions, including:

  • Russia, Saudi Arabia and/or Iran don’t want (or until recently didn’t want) Assad taken down, whereas virtually every country dislikes ISIS.
  • We can’t get the approval of our allies to go after the Syrian regime, but they’re happy to go after the beheaders.
  • We can’t afford another big war.
  • The ISIS threat is of a perfect size to test some new weaponry and guarantee steady work for military contractors, whereas a war against Syria could quickly deteriorate into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Another reason pundits give for going after ISIS is because it has also grabbed land in Iraq and we have a responsibility to assure a stable government in Iraq. The odds that ISIS could have swept into Iraqi territory without there first being 10 years of war are minimal. In a sense we created ISIS, so shouldn’t we be responsible for eradicating it?

That rationale unfortunately assumes that the United States could fix the problem at this point, but can we? We poured trillions of dollars (and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, plus about five thousand of our own soldiers) into toppling Saddam Hussein, waging a civil war and installing an ostensibly democratic government, which soon descended into suppression and cronyism. Do we propose to spend that money again and hope that next time a unified representational government takes hold? Or do we just incise and drain the ISIS abscess and assume that once the beheaders are gone, the Iraqi political situation will suddenly calm down? Fat chance! It’s more likely that another group will arise that will either take territory or commit frequent terrorist acts.

If the United States really wants Iraq to return to stability, it will have to pull completely out and stay out, and then stand on the sidelines and watch a period of often violent jockeying by the various political factions. This transitional period could last months or years and could result in the formation of a stable if fragile democracy, the establishment of a Saddam-like dictatorship or a splintering of the country into three parts (reflecting the ethnic and city-state organization of the territory from ancient times).

If we really want to help the Iraqi and the Syrian people, we will make it as hard as possible for these various factions to procure weaponry. Of course, disarming the various factions in just about any country in conflict might prove counterproductive to what I believe is a central tenet of American foreign policy: to make the world safe for American arms manufacturers.

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