As the Middle East has seemed to unravel in recent days, much of the blame-game debate has centered on whether President Obama could and should have stationed a residual force of U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011.
That’s an important question. But it’s part of a much bigger argument – one with daunting implications for Americans.
Throughout Obama’s first term, his advisers divided into two teams over how to combat Islamist terrorism: the Engagers, often backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Minimalists, backed by Vice President Joe Biden.
The Engagers won some early rounds, notably persuading Obama to invest heavily in helping Afghanistan develop and defend itself. But over time Obama sided with the Minimalists, and he shaped a second-term team that wouldn’t relitigate his decision.
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And no wonder: The Minimalists had a lot of common sense on their side.
The future is in East Asia, they said. In the coming decades, China is going to matter a lot; Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia hardly at all. It makes no sense for the United States to get bogged down in millennium-old feuds between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Even if we want to take sides or help Yemen, say, become a modern state, the argument continued, we don’t really know how. We’re no good at nation-building. Let them sort it out. To the extent that Islamist radicals might threaten the United States, we could counter them from a distance – with drone strikes and by “partnering” with locals who would do the fighting for us.
Sensible, and politically congenial, too. Voters were pleased to hear that the threat that had come to their attention so traumatically in 2001 was defused. All the better if the United States could stop sending soldiers and money to parts of the world that Americans didn’t much care about in the first place.
Obama shaped his policies accordingly, starting with a total withdrawal from Iraq. Some argue that he had no choice, because Iraq wouldn’t give legal immunity to U.S. soldiers. I think if Obama had really wanted an agreement, and been willing to offer more than a few thousand soldiers, he could have negotiated one. What no one disputes is that Obama was content with the zero option and sanguine about Iraq’s prospects even without a U.S. follow-on force.
Minimalism won again when Obama declined, after joining a bombing campaign to topple Libya’s dictator, to help the new government keep the peace. And again, when he rejected the advice of top aides to support the moderate rebels in Syria. And most recently, when he announced an identical policy for Afghanistan as for Iraq: all troops out within two years, except for a presence inside the U.S. Embassy.
I wish these policies had succeeded. Who wouldn’t prefer to spend money “nation-building at home,” as Obama promised, or helping to build a golden Pacific future?
Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become “the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,” as Obama’s U.N ambassador said.
Now Iraq is disintegrating. Of course, as many commentators write, Iraq’s politicians are to blame. But if the United States had maintained a presence, it might have steered Iraqi politics in a more constructive direction.
If Libya, Syria and Iraq were only human rights catastrophes – as each assuredly is – the Minimalists might hold firm. Terrible things happen in many places, they would say, and Americans can’t set them all right.
But the unraveling threatens the United States, too. A ruthless medieval dictatorship controlling territory from Syria into Iraq is luring and training Islamist extremists, including from America and Europe, who “could end up being a significant threat to our homeland,” Obama acknowledged last week. So he has had to turn back to Iraq, facing nothing but unpalatable options.
If Minimalism doesn’t work, what would? The answer will be different in each case. It won’t generally be to send in the Marines. It will, though, rest on lessons that the country learned, for a time, after 2001: Stateless, ungoverned territories can be dangerous to the United States. Ignoring dangers doesn’t make them go away. If we want countries to help us, including by combating terrorists, we have to help them, too, with training and aid that improves people’s lives.
It’s true that helping states build their capacity to govern is difficult and time-consuming and doesn’t always work. But over the years, the United States has helped more countries, and in more ways, than many Americans realize – including, with Obama’s commitment, Afghanistan. Engagement is hard, but over time it can succeed. Which is more than the other team can say.