According to David Remnick, Fareed Zakaria is a writer whom President Obama “reads and consults.” He is also a writer that I read and respect—but do not always agree with. His latest column, is a case in point. It argues for a more hands-off American attitude to the Middle East in line with the president’s policies.
Zakaria argues that the current mess in the Middle East—with active wars going on in Iraq and Syria, terrorism worsening in Lebanon, a new military regime in Egypt, Iran in possession of 19,000 centrifuges, etc.—is not America’s making. He blames instead the machinations of European powers who empowered minorities like the Syrian Alawites, “the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism,” and “the invasion of Iraq.”
Of the first two factors, there is not much debate—but it seems a bit of a stretch to ascribe events going on as far afield as Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran to the ripple effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is, in fact, as much of a stretch as the mirror-image argument made by Bush partisans who claim, with equally scant evidence, that the invasion catalyzed the Arab Spring a decade later.
There is little doubt that the early years of the Iraq War created a disaster in Iraq—but the success of the 2007-2008 surge bought Iraq another opportunity to develop peacefully. The fact that this opportunity has been lost is, in no small part, due to America’s lack of follow-up. In particular, President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and his rubber-stamping of Nouri al-Maliki’s election to a second term after a hung election in 2010. At least that’s my analysis.
Zakaria will have none of it. He writes of this argument: “Not only does this perspective misunderstand the very deep nature of the conflict in the Middle East but it also fails to see that Washington choosing one side over another made matters substantially worse.”
But the fact that the Middle East has deep problems doesn’t mean that the U.S. and other outside powers can’t help to ameliorate them. (Isn’t this what Secretary of State John Kerry and others argue when they press for more American involvement in the “peace process”?) And in fact it is American non-involvement in Iraq that is empowering Maliki and his sectarian tendencies. When the U.S. was more actively involved in 2007-2009, we served as a bridge between Shiite sectarians in Baghdad and Sunni sheikhs in Anbar. Now that bridge is gone, and open warfare has erupted between the two camps. Lacking much influence, Obama has been reduced to fulfilling Maliki’s arms orders, which in fact does fuel the conflict.
None of this is to deny the very real costs of the Iraq War. But it is to point out that non-interventionism comes with a heavy price too, and that price is now being paid in blood in Iraq, Syria, and beyond.