When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 25 years ago, the world was so much simpler. A “bad guy” openly sent tanks across the border of his little neighbor, granting the United Nations Security Council authority to sanction military action to enforce collective security for the first time since the Korean War. The Cold War — and the Soviet Union — was coming to an end, leaving the United States as the world’s only superpower. George H.W. Bush organized a broad coalition of states that included Syria and Egypt to ensure the soft power of legitimacy, while the hard power of the US military defeated Saddam’s forces in a matter of days with minimal American casualties. Bush famously resisted the temptation to march on Baghdad, preserving a balance of power between Iraq and Iran in the Persian Gulf.
Only a decade later, that picture had dramatically changed. Al Qaeda, a nonstate actor, attacked the world's only superpower, and Bush's son invaded Iraq (which had little to do with 9/11), destroying the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, unleashing sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shia, fragmenting the Iraqi state, and providing a focal point for jihadi terrorists. The United States fell into Osama Bin Laden's trap, and though Bin Laden is now dead, the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant has picked up the mantle of Al Qaeda and now controls Eastern Syria and Western Iraq.
Once again, America finds itself embroiled in a debate over whether to intervene in a Middle East conflict. The outstanding question is: How should the United States become involved in the internal affairs of other countries? If there is a clear lesson from the two Gulf wars, it's that we should stay out of the business of invasion and occupation.
President Obama has said that America should use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when its security or that of its allies is threatened. Without a direct threat, but when conscience urges the country to act, such as a dictator killing a large number of his citizens, the president argues the United States should not act alone and only use force if there is a good prospect of success. These are reasonable principles, but what if a civil war like Syria's allows a terrorist group to establish a safe haven? The United States, of course, must try to influence outcomes by hard and soft power means — but from afar.
In an age of nationalism and socially mobilized populations, foreign occupation is bound to breed resentment. Military force will remain an important component of American power, but it is a blunt instrument. Those who note the role that a US presence played in the economic and political success of South Korea forget that our troops were welcome because of a clear and present external threat, and even then it took more than three decades for democracy to emerge. Consciously or not, the first Bush administration chose the right path when it decided against moving farther into Iraq. It remains a lesson to remember today: Trying to occupy and control the internal politics of nationalistic populations in the Middle East revolutions is a recipe for failure.
The current turmoil throughout the region could last for decades. It stems from the artificial post-colonial boundaries, sectarian strife, and a loss of hope by the delayed modernization described in the UN's Arab Human Development Report. None will be easy to solve, especially by outsiders. It took 25 years after the French Revolution for the return of stability in Europe, and interventions by foreign powers like Austria and Prussia made things worse rather than better.
Even with reduced energy imports, however, the United States cannot turn its back on the Middle East. Our security interests in Israel, nonproliferation, and human rights are just some of the reasons the stakes are too high. But our policy should be one of containment, nudging and influencing from the sidelines rather than trying to assert a control that would not only be costly, but also counterproductive.
In other words, we will have to be smarter in our interventions both in the Middle East and around the globe. We passed that test in the first Gulf War; we failed in the second.
Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School and author most recently of "Is the American Century Over?"