It’s time to end US military engagements in the Middle East. Drones, special operations, CIA arms supplies, military advisers, aerial bombings — the whole nine yards. Over and done with. That might seem impossible in the face of ISIS, terrorism, Iranian ballistic missiles, and other US security interests, but a military withdrawal from the Middle East is by far the safest path for the United States and the region. That approach has instructive historical precedents.
America has been no different from other imperial powers in finding itself ensnared repeatedly in costly, bloody, and eventually futile overseas wars. From the Roman empire till today, the issue is not whether an imperial army can defeat a local one. It usually can, just as the United States did quickly in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The issue is whether it gains anything by doing so. Following such a “victory,” the imperial power faces unending heavy costs in terms of policing, political instability, guerilla war, and terrorist blowback.
Terrorism is a frequent consequence of imperial wars and imperial rule. Local populations are unable to defeat the imperial powers, so they impose high costs through terror instead. Consider the terrorism used by Jewish settlers against the British Empire and local Palestinians in their fight for Israel’s independence and territory; or Serbian terrorism deployed against the Hapsburg Empire; or Vietnamese terrorism used against the French and United States in Vietnam’s long war for independence; or American terrorism, for that matter, that independence fighters used against the British in America’s war of independence.
This is of course not to condone terrorism. Indeed, my point is to condemn imperial rule, and to argue for political solutions rather than imperial oppression, war, and the terror that comes in its wake. Imperial rulers, whether the British in pre-independence America; the Americans in Cuba and the Philippines after 1898; the French and Americans in Vietnam; and the United States in the Middle East in recent decades, foment violent reactions that destroy peace, prosperity, good governance, and hope. The real solutions to these conflicts lie in diplomacy and political justice, not in imperial rule, repression, and terror.
Let me get some verbiage out of the way. By “empire” I mean a state that uses force to impose the rulers of another country. Empires are most visible when they rule directly through conquest and annexation, such as in the US conquests of Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico at the end of the 19th century. Yet empires also rule indirectly, when they use force, covert or overt, to depose a government they deem hostile and replace it with a government of their design and that they intend to be under their control.
Indirect rule has been the more typical US approach, for example when America overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 in order to impose the autocratic Shah of Iran. Similarly, America toppled the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, in order to install regimes friendly to the United States Easier said than done. In all of these cases, the American imperial vision proved to be a fantasy, and the US-led violence came to naught in terms of US interests.
In fact, there are dozens of cases in which the CIA or American military has overthrown governments in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, with the aim of indirect rule. And there are also countless bloody cases, such as Syria and Yemen today, where the United States and local allies tried and failed to overthrow a government and instead fomented a prolonged war. Whether the overthrows have succeeded or failed, the long-term consequences have almost always been violence and instability.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the American empire is that it was a latecomer to imperial rule. While the European powers, especially Britain and France, were building their far-flung overseas empires in the 19th century, the United States was still engaged in its genocidal wars against Native Americans and its Civil War. America’s overseas empire building began almost like clockwork in the 1890s, once the United States finally stretched from coast to coast, thereby “closing the frontier” in North America. The next step for America was overseas empire.
As a latecomer empire, the United States repeatedly found itself taking up the imperial cloak from a former European imperial power. Thus, the United States grabbed Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines from Spain in 1898. It did so in the name of supporting local freedom fighters against the Spanish Empire, only to betray those freedom fighters immediately by installing US-backed regimes (in Cuba) or direct rule (in Puerto Rico and the Philippines).
From 1898 until the end of World War II, America had few prospects for expanding its imperial reach, since the British and French empires were still expanding. Their biggest expansion occurred after World War I, when Britain and France carved up the Arab lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Today’s Middle Eastern war zones, including Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, are the post-World War I creations of the British and French empires, designed originally not for local rule but for rule by the outside empires.
World War II bled Europe dry. Though Britain was a victor of the war, and France was liberated, neither country had the economic, financial, military, or political wherewithal to hold on to their overseas empires, especially since freedom movements in their colonies were engaged in terrorism and guerilla warfare to gain their independence. Britain and France peacefully granted independence to some of their colonies but in other cases fought bloody wars against the independence movements (as the French did in Algeria and Vietnam), almost always losing in the end.
After World War II, the United States asserted global leadership, including through indirect rule. The United States had lent, rather than given, Britain the armaments to fight Hitler. As a result, Britain was in debt to the United States and the United States was well positioned to replace Britain as the dominant world power.
America’s postwar empire building coincided with the Cold War. More often than not, America justified its overseas wars and CIA-led coups as necessary to defend itself and its allies against the Soviet Union. American leaders shunned the language of empire and direct rule. Yet the simple fact is that the United States very often had its own narrow interests at heart: oil wealth in the Middle East; valuable farmlands and industry in Latin America; and US military bases across the world.
The United States often found itself fighting a continuation of earlier imperial wars. Vietnam is a clear case in point. Following World War II, Vietnamese freedom fighters under Ho Chi Minh battled French imperial rule to establish an independent Vietnam. When the Vietnamese defeated the French in a key battle in 1954, and France decided to withdraw, the United States stepped in the fight against the Vietnamese independence fighters, a costly and bloody war that lasted until the US withdrawal in 1975. By that point, more than one million Vietnamese had died at US hands and more than 50,000 American soldiers had lost their lives for no reason. The US war-making also spread disastrously to neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
In the Middle East, the United States also took up the preceding wars of imperial Britain and France. America’s motives were essentially the same: to secure Mideast oil and to project military power in Western Asia, Eastern Mediterranean, and Indian Ocean. In 1953, the CIA teamed up with Britain’s MI6 to overthrow the elected government of Iran in order to secure Iran’s oil for the UK and United States. Yet this was Britain’s last imperial hurrah in the region, since the United States took the lead from that point onward.
To examine the political histories of Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Israel-Palestine after 1950, is to observe the United States engaged in the intrigues, wars, CIA-led coups, and military overthrows that had been the handiwork of Britain and France during earlier decades. The CIA toppled governments in the Middle East on countless occasions. Media pundits tended to overlook the US role in this instability.
The United States is now ensnared in a perpetual, indeed expanding Middle East war, with drones and air strikes increasingly replacing ground troops. In the past, US ground troops committed atrocities, such as My Lai in Vietnam, that were seared into the national conscience. Now we have drone strikes, killing hundreds of civilians, that barely register in the news. The atrocities continue, but the reaction to them has been automated with the efficiency of the information age.
The United States is trapped in the Middle East by its own pseudo-intellectual constructions. During the Vietnam War, the “domino theory” claimed that if America withdrew from Vietnam, communism would sweep Asia. The new domino theory is that if the United States stops were to stop fighting ISIS, Islamic terrorists would soon be at our doorstep.
The truth is almost the opposite. ISIS is a ragtag army of perhaps 30,000 troops in a region in which the large nations — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey — have standing armies that are vastly larger and better equipped. These regional powers could easily drive ISIS out of existence if they chose to do so. The US military presence is actually ISIS’s main recruiting tool. Young people stream into Syria and Iraq to fight the imperial enemy.
Empires trapped in regional wars can choose to fight on or more wisely to acknowledge that the imperial adventure is both futile and self-destructive. King George III was wise to give up in 1781; fighting the Americans wasn’t worth the effort, even if it was possible militarily. The United States was wise to give up the war in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in 1975. America’s decision to cut its losses saved not only Southeast Asia but the United States, as well. The United States was similarly wise to curtail its CIA-led coups throughout Latin America, as a prelude to peace in the region.
The United States should immediately end its fighting in the Middle East and turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It’s time to let the locals sort out their problems, supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Just recently, the Arabs once again wisely and rightly reiterated their support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel withdraws from the conquered territories. This gives added reason to back diplomacy, not war.
We are at the 100th anniversary of British and French imperial rule in the Mideast. The United States has unwisely prolonged the misery and blunders. One hundred years is enough.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”