Well, you know, maybe that requires understanding the Middle East a little first. But even a little understanding seems like too much to ask from our elected representatives.
Investigative reporter Jeff Stein has been going around the nation’s capital for the last few months quizzing our politicians on Middle East Basics 101. And guess what, they’re failing miserably. Incoming Intelligence Chairman Reyes didn’t even know that Al Qaeda is a predominantly Sunni group, not predominantly Shiite (and remember the odds were 50-50 he’d guess right.)
This should give all of us pause, but especially those neocons who advocate overthrowing regimes throughout the Middle East by force. It is not only crazy to entrust these people with such radical missions, it is also immoral.
Reasonable people can disagree on the original rationale for the Iraq War (although I don’t think there can be reasonable disagreement that it has turned out to be a failure), but I think everyone can agree that a prerequisite for a policy as radical as preventive war is at least understanding the people you’re warring with. It’s not too much to ask our leaders that if they want to invade a country and initiate a radical transformation of the Middle East that they have a solid understanding of the history, culture, and politics of the region.
I fear that instead America’s worst instincts have been at work. After 9/11 we needed to lash out at an enemy and we believed that somehow a massive show of force in Iraq would initiate a new Middle Eastern reality. It turns out that this thinking was grounded more in our delusions than in solid analysis. We continue to use broad brush strokes to categorize people who are divided along many religious, cultural, ethnic, and political lines. We have further united our enemies against us and divided our allies. We have disempowered the Baathists and empowered Iran. In short, we have set in motion forces that were in some sense predictable if they had been grounded in an understanding of who we were dealing with—but they weren’t.
Hopefully, this should serve as a serious warning to all of those interested in an aggressive foreign policy. Just as classic liberal economists showed us why in many instances government intervention to solve domestic problems may do more harm than good, the same applies for foreign policy. I am not advocating isolationism, only stating what should now be obvious: our leaders should focus on protecting America and weakening its enemies, not on grand utopian visions of radical transformation brought about by military force.
P.S. Coincidentally, this Sunday's NYT has a short "refresher course" on Middle Eastern basics that is worth reading.