You have seen this movie before. Someone provokes the United States. The country retaliates, firing off missiles from a safe distance. The craters they leave are counted; the bodies blown up are not. The Pentagon has flexed its muscles. The president crows. Nothing changes.
Donald Trump indulged himself in this scenario last week, attacking Syria, as previously, for an alleged chemical weapons attack against civilians. It’s the same subject that vexed his predecessor, Barack Obama. You will see the movie again.
Chemical weapons are despicable. So are the other weapons of war. When you’ve used depleted uranium, though, as we did against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Agent Orange, as in Vietnam, you’ve lost the moral high ground to complain about how others kill. And then there’s how we ended the war against Japan in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The point is war itself.
What began as the Syrian civil war is now seven years old. At a rough estimate, half a million people have been killed in it among a population formerly estimated at 22 million. That is about the same ratio of deaths to population as occurred on all fronts in World War II.
Syria is now an international war zone with armies and proxies from a dozen different places fighting a series of discrete conflicts across ragged and shifting battlefronts. Syria’s strongman, Bashar al-Assad, is mopping up the remnants of his home-grown opponents. Iran, having pitched its tents in Iraq, is now planting them across northern Syria to link with its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, in a corridor of power from Tehran to the Mediterranean. That in turn is part of a larger power game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony, themselves backed respectively by the US and Russia. Russian bases are now the strongest single military element in Syria, while a feckless American contingent notionally fights the remnants of ISIS and trains those ever-popular freedom fighters — some reportedly former ISIS operatives — for some mythical mission. Meanwhile, the Turks and Kurds duke out the latest round of their 100-year -war, also in northern Syria. Looming above it all is the specter of a major war between Iran and Israel, already underway on Syrian soil.
Most of these combatants have an idea of what they’re fighting for. The US does not. It provoked the Syrian civil war in the first place, directly by calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011 and indirectly by destabilizing the entire Middle East through its pre- and post-9/11 interventions in the region, most specifically its destruction of Iraq. Syria does not exist as a state. Nor does Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, all on the receiving end of American invasion or intervention over the past 40 years. Somewhere in this tableau of suffering and carnage was, once upon a time, a tale of horrendously misconceived imperial aims and interests. Whatever the point might once have been, however, the net effect of American intentions has been that of a giant wrecking ball, destroying whatever it touches.
Even President Donald Trump was able to get the point — sort of. When Barack Obama contemplated bombing Syria over chemical weapons use in 2013, Trump ridiculed the idea of an American interest in the country. He campaigned for president on the basis of a general pullback from the Middle East, Israel excepted. Only a couple of weeks ago, he suddenly announced an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Syria, only to be pulled back by his Pentagon handler, Jim Mattis. You wonder, speculatively, whether the chemical attack that reengaged him wasn’t, as some have suggested, a false-flag operation. Reading a prepared statement, Trump declared that America’s national interest now involved the elimination of chemical weapons, in Syria and everywhere else. That clearly implied the removal of Assad, in Trump’s description the “monster” and “animal” who had again ordered their use. Back to square one. As in 2011, Bashar al-Assad had to go.
Assad isn’t going anywhere, of course, at least for the present. Russia, whose vassal he is, is the dominant presence in Syria, as it aims to be in the Middle East as a whole. This isn’t a new ambition. Russia played the “great game,” the great-power rivalry for control of Central Asia, long before Americans could find the region on a map. It also paid the price: an ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan was critical in bringing down the Soviet Union, and costing Russia its own Central Asian republics. At that point, Russian influence in the Muslim world was near zero. Its recovery under Vladimir Putin, abetted by the catastrophes of American policy, has been one of the major political developments of the century.
Geography alone dictates Russia’s interest in Central Asia and the Middle East, which it borders across a long southern frontier. The American interest, Cold War politics aside, was far simpler: oil. But America is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and its futile, unending wars in the region have produced no result except failed states, refugee floods, and jihadist terrorism. In his dim, jingoistic way, Trump perceived the bankruptcy of American policy, bankruptcies being one of his few areas of expertise. He won’t get to follow his America First instincts in this part of the world, though, our penchant for military quagmires now being part of the national DNA. Blunder followed by tragedy, tragedy followed by blunder, will go on. Failing empires generally go this route.
As we have noted, the issue of the moment in the Middle East is the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional supremacy, a conflict with deep sectarian roots. The Russians, having reaped the strategic reward of our destruction of Iraq, have made Iran the stalking-horse of their interests. At the same time, they have cultivated the Turks, and, in the power vacuum that is northern Syria, they will draw the Kurds to them as the power to which they must appeal. Israel, too, will increasingly depend on Russian influence to curb Iran, whose presence in Syria it perceives as an existential threat. The Saudis, meanwhile, will continue to use us for their own purposes, as they have successfully done for some time. What interests of our own we are intelligibly pursuing are far more difficult to discern.
America needs a general reconsideration of its role in the world, including its planetary responsibility as the largest contributor to climate change and global inequality. That isn’t going to happen on Donald Trump’s watch, which, day by day, undermines such standing as we still have.
Until we have a responsible government, the best advice we can follow is the old Hippocratic oath physicians swear to: Do no harm — or, at any rate, no further harm. That would mean getting out of the numerous wars we’re currently fighting, and standing down from our posture in the Saudi-Iranian conflict. The kind of disengagement that would be really salutary, both for us and the Middle East, is probably unattainable at the moment. But we can stop being a cat’s-paw for the Saudis, stop pretending that we can do anything in Afghanistan and Iraq but add to the miseries we’ve created, and clear militarily out of Syria. This isn’t isolationism, but prudent retrenchment.
As for the Russians, if they want to break their teeth on the Middle East as they did thirty years ago in Afghanistan, let them be our guests. There are certain parameters we need to draw; we need, for example, to keep a degree of leverage with Turkey, and our security commitment to Israel is a moral as well as a strategic one. For the time being, though, less of us will be more.