Yes, call him dumb, naïve, amateurish, but not conniving or Kissengerian — as his realist critics, in fact, lamented. So the U.S. removed a monster who had killed a million. It stayed on at great cost. It took no oil. It took no territory. It ended up without even a base. After 9/11 it sought to remove a terrorist-subsidizing tyrant, end the no-fly zones, create something better, and spread constitutional governments in the wake. The Chinese, French, and Russians ended up profiting from U.S. blood and treasure.
Please, Spare Us Now “You Owe Us Help”
If Arab reformers ever wanted a shot at democracy, Iraq was still their golden opportunity. Instead, almost all damned the effort and caricatured Americans. I once in 2006 sat in a clinic in Tripoli listening to Arab intellectuals (or rather Gaddafi minders) explain to me the Jewish roots of the Iraqi war, and how Americans were siphoning oil off in the desert and flying it in tankers home. Finally, I could not even follow all the conspiracy theories concocted to explain how wicked the Maliki government was.
Please, spare us now “you owe us your help.” Al Jazeera one day magically can show videos of an IED tearing apart American soldiers, and the next day it is just a “media outlet” that gives Al Gore millions of its petrodollars for his access to cable TV. I’m sure it will advocate for Assad to go, for reformers to take his replace, and demonize the U.S. and “the Jews” all through the process.
We have been there, done that, and we have learned some great lessons about the 21st century, pre-modern Middle East, and any interventions into it: a) Arab reformers damn the U.S. for doing nothing, but they will damn it far more for doing something; b) interventionists believe that all success is their offspring, and failure is outsourced to someone else, usually the military or those who sent the military in; c) the Middle East lesson of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is that only a huge U.S. ground presence, in the fashion of postwar Italy, Germany, or Japan, coupled with abject defeat of the enemy, can lead to any chance of consensual government.
Without bloody fighting and without massive U.S. aid either the enemy wins and takes over, or what replaces the enemy reverts to the mindset of the enemy. We can stand-off bomb as we did in the Balkans to bring something better, but the Balkans are in Europe, and we still have troops in the Balkans, and lots of those who pushed Clinton into bombing later wanted him to stop when it seemed all we could do was hit embassies and rest homes rather than missile sites.
Does this mean that under no circumstances should we ever bomb Iran, or take out a mass murderer with WMD? Perhaps not. But it does suggest that after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, neither is the Middle East ready for U.S. invention nor is this generation of American elite leadership up for the task.
There is irony in seeing the opportunistic war critic Barack Obama out-drone Bush or be attacked on his Left by liberals, who rail at his callousness in not intervening in Syria. But there is not enough irony for schadenfreude — given that American soldiers might be sent into a theater by those who would support them only to the degree that they were deemed successful and blame their setbacks on everyone but themselves.
A nearly bankrupt and divided America after Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya is not up for Syria — and an Arab Spring that on its own chose Winter does not deserve any more American blood.
Sorry, that’s just the way it is.