After many decades in the covert-action business, Americans have come to learn what “blowback” means. Often our foreign interventions produce quick victory. Then things go bad. Short-term success dissolves into long-term failure. Many of our interventions have not only thrown target countries into violent upheaval, but weakened our own security.
The recent explosion of militant power in Iraq is a new example of how serious this blowback can be. Our invasion in 2003 seemed to end reasonably well. There were few casualties. The dictator who defied us was deposed. Our leaders congratulated themselves for a “mission accomplished.”
That triumphalism quickly faded as Iraq fell into horrific sectarian strife. Now the blowback has risen to another level. Violent fundamentalists have surged to power in a large swath of Iraq. In barely a decade, our intervention has achieved precisely the opposite of the intended result. We wanted to prevent Iraq from becoming a base for terrorists. Now it is one.
Having sown this whirlwind, the United States now faces a challenge to which there are no good answers. Americans are hardly in a mood to send ground troops back to Iraq. Air strikes might be effective in turning back the militant advance, but that would be at best a temporary victory. Insurgent groups would reconstitute themselves and attack again. How many waves of airstrikes, over how many years, are we willing to launch to save a government in Baghdad that has lost the confidence of its own people?
The military situation in Iraq is serious, but that is only the country’s most immediate problem. More profound is the political crisis beneath it. The electoral system we imposed after our invasion 11 years ago has failed to tame or reconcile the country. In our narcissistic campaign to remake the world in our own image, we foolishly imagined that political rules that barely work in the United States would produce a placid Iraq.
Today, we should do what we should have done before invading: Leave Iraq’s problems to its own people and those nearby. If Iraqis want to save their country, they can. If they can recruit Kurdish allies, win support from Turkey, and draw on Shiite military power in neighboring Iran and beyond, their position is strong — though this conflict will not soon fade away.
The United States should resist being drawn in. Any commitment for sustained engagement will repeat past errors. The idea that US military power can positively shape the Middle East is a delusion we should have abandoned long ago.
The great danger of this crisis for Americans lies beyond Iraq. It lies in the power of momentary crises to distract us from the larger question of what causes violent explosions in the world.
In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on Boko Haram, the terror gang holding more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. No one seems able to rescue these girls, but could we have prevented the rise of Boko Haram? According to news reports, its heavy weapons came from arsenals in Libya after a US-led coalition deposed Moammar Khadafy three years ago.
Weapons from those arsenals were used by militants who seized a Texas-sized chunk of Mali in 2012. Now they are in the hands of fundamentalist kidnappers in Nigeria. Bombing Khadafy out of power may have briefly felt good, but it has thrown Libya into chaos and strengthened some of North Africa’s most brutal terrorist armies.
This weekend marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most ill-conceived of all American interventions. At the end of June 1954, the CIA deposed the elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. “Operation Success,” as the Guatemala project was brightly code-named, did seem successful at the time. We deposed a leader we didn’t like and replaced him with one who would do our bidding. Yet within a few years, tensions set off by this intervention cast Guatemala into civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Mayan peasants, died violently over the next 30 years. Today Guatemala is poor and backward, a weak state penetrated by drug gangs and plagued by unremitting violence.
Last year was the 60th anniversary of an equally disastrous intervention, the one that brought down Iran’s last democratic government in 1953. The CIA code-named it “Operation Ajax,” supposedly after the household cleanser. Its premise was that if we could return the shah to his Peacock Throne, he would wipe away Iranian nationalism and Iran would become pro-American forever. The opposite happened.
American interventions — from Cuba and Nicaragua to Vietnam, the Congo and Afghanistan — have been a major part of modern world history. Many have provoked violent backlash that has palpably weakened the United States. Despite these painful experiences, though, some in Washington continue to insist that we must continue crashing into foreign countries to “bring freedom” or “fight terrorism.” Their aggressiveness ultimately provokes responses like this month’s militant surge in Iraq.
The blowback from our long-ago interventions has long been evident. Now we can add Iraq to the list of countries where we mistakenly thought we could impose our will by force. Another foreign adventure has come back to haunt us.
“What’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, especially military action,” President Obama said Thursday. He did not use the word “blowback,” but that is what he was talking about.
Americans have an instinct to act. We don’t like to understand things; we like to do things. Often we lash out in the world without considering what the long-term results might be. Now we have a chance to make the same mistake again.
The alternative would be to recognize that the militant advance in Iraq does not threaten our vital interests, and then defer to countries in the region rather than telling them what to do. That would be a welcome departure from our normal approach to the world.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.