Last week, Rand Paul blamed the foreign policy hawks in his own party for the rise of the Middle-East JV team, ISIS. His argument is that if the US had not invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein would still be in charge to make sure that no ISIS-type group emerged. His critics contend that ISIS was formed only after President Obama unilaterally withdrew American forces from Iraq, thus allowing Iraq to drift into chaos. I think both answers are partially true, but, more significantly, partially false.
Let me first saw where I am coming from in all of this. As a Canadian of Eastern European extraction, I thank God that America exists. I think America is the greatest force of good in the world today, and if America weren’t the world’s police force, the world would be immeasurably less free and more chaotic and violent. For this reason, I am not predisposed to isolationists like Paul. Having said that, I also think, because the US is such an overpowering force in the world, there is a tendency to think – especially by Americans but also by everybody else as well – that the US is more influential than it actually is.
Take ISIS. ISIS came together - as an actual army, controlling actual territory - in the Syrian Civil War as one of the groups battling the brutal Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. In turn, this civil war came into being as part of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was inspired by a Tunisian merchant, who lit himself on fire in protest of the heavy-handed Tunisian police. The disturbances in Tunisia quickly spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen. One of the places conspicuously absent from the original Arab Spring festivities was Iraq, no doubt because everybody there was exhausted from war. Violence spread only to Iraq after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria, after metastasizing there in that conflict. Whatever else can be said about the Syrian Civil War, it was not caused by the Iraq War. Syria was at peace right through the Iraq War. The US also had nothing to do with the Arab Spring, being first surprised by it, and then perplexed by what it all meant. In other words, the US did not participate in any of the events that created ISIS. In this sense Rand Paul is completely wrong.
His critics also have a point in that if Obama had left US forces behind, he would have had more leverage with Iraq’s dreadful Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose anti-Sunni policies drove Iraqi Sunni’s into ISIS’s arms. The Obama Administration, like the Bush administration before it, constantly hectored al-Maliki about being more welcoming to the Sunnis. Without a military presence in Iraq, Maliki could more easily ignore President Obama than President Bush.
On the other hand, Paul is probably correct to say that if Saddam Hussein had been in charge he would have been in a much better position to crush ISIS. I say probably, because the Assad family had a similar reputation for strong, iron-fisted rule, but look at them now. Assad appears to be on the way out after years of bloody war.
The fact is (one that I never tire in repeating) dictatorships are always weaker than they appear while democracies are always more resilient. Dictatorships are inherently brittle because they lack internal feedback mechanisms like elections, free-markets and a functioning court system. They also systematically hide their dirty laundry. As a result, they appear from without like they are made from granite, at least until the moment they crumble into dust. Look at how fast the Soviet Union fell. For an even better example, look at how quickly Nicolae Ceausescu departed the scene in Romania, after ruling unchallenged for decades. For this reason, the future of dictatorships is hard to predict.
Taking a longer view, what is happening today in the Middle East is that the brittle dictatorships that arose after the French and British colonial masters departed the area are beginning to crumble. In many ways, today’s Middle East struggles are more determined by the borders drawn by the French and the British after World War I than anything the US has done in recently.
Taking an even longer view, what is happening today is that the Middle East is going through a painful transition process from feudalism to the modern world. Much of the rest of the world has gone through a similar process in the past two centuries. First France with Robespierre and Bonaparte, then Russia with the Bolsheviks, and Germany with National Socialism, and Italy with Fascism, and Japan with its militarism, and China with Maoism, many modern nations seems to require a violent transition period when it temporarily adopts some insane, apocalyptic ruling philosophy. Prior to the revolution, it is feudal. After the psychos and tyrants are hanged, it is a modern state. Only the Anglo-Saxon nations seem to be inoculated from this disease.
I think this is what is happening in the Middle East today. The Muslim world is in transition. Until recently, the role of Islam’s military dictatorships has been to retard this process, to hold back the floodgates of modernity. This has created mounting frustration, which is now being expressed in the form of Islamic Millennialism. The Islamic World will join the modern world once this is found wanting and rejected – but not before.
P.S. I believe a version of this phenomenon is also what is playing out in Africa today.