“Let’s recap the state of America’s commitments in the Middle East,” suggests Ross Douthat in his Saturday column at The New York Times:
Our military is fighting in a tacit alliance with Iranian proxies in Iraq, even as it assists in a campaign against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. We are formally committed to regime change in Syria, but we’re intervening against the regime’s Islamist enemies. Our strongest allies, officially, are still Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we’re busy alienating them by pushing for détente with Iran. And please don’t mention Libya or Al Qaeda — you’ll confuse everyone even more.
Douthat’s summary encapsulates the unstable and self-defeating mess that today passes for American foreign policy, a probably inevitable result of more than a decade of misguided interventionism.
To be sure, as Douthat argues, American meddling in the Middle East could be significantly more extensive, and the region’s panoply of brutal insurgent forces and often equally brutal governments could be engaged in conflict on a larger scale.
But to note that it could be worse is not exactly comforting. Particularly striking is the fact that, in backing Iranian-supported forces in Iraq while opposing them in Yemen, America “has finally figured out how to fight a proxy war against ourselves,” as Jon Stewart put it last week in a segment aptly titled, “Wait, whose side are we on again?”
Meanwhile, though our news networks practically wallow in the horrific murders, beatings, and other atrocities committed by ISIS, much less is said about the unsavory activities of America’s allies (or, at least, the enemies of our enemies).
For instance, a UN study found that the Iran-associated militias which join the U.S. in opposing ISIS have left their own trail of indiscriminate death and destruction as they move across Iraq. Likewise, Human Rights Watch has discovered these anti-ISIS fighters have “liberated” some Iraqi villages from ISIS only to ransack the towns themselves, looting already-terrorized citizens’ personal property and blowing up their homes and businesses.
In at least one case, a village called Amerli, this so-called liberation occurred with American air support. Refugees and Kurdish fighters who witnessed the destruction said it was “methodical and driven by revenge and intended to alter the demographic composition” of the area—in other words, it was ethnic cleansing done by U.S. allies.
Then there’s Saudi Arabia, a longtime American “battle buddy,” to borrow Stewart’s phrase. The Saudi regime has been a notorious abuser of individual rights for years, placing at the absolute bottom of international watchdog Freedom House’s annual rankings on civil liberties and political rights, a spot shared by the likes of North Korea.
The Saudi government enforces harsh punishments for very minor offenses, like whipping a woman for sending a text message about the “wrong” kind of mosque service. Saudi Arabia even frequently conducts public beheadings of criminals guilty of acts including political dissidence, a trademark move of—you guessed it—ISIS.
Needless to say, these aren’t the greatest partners to have if promoting human rights (and not being total hypocrites) in the Middle East is part of American strategy—and whether an overall strategy exists at all is, at this point, far from clear.
What is clear is that our hodgepodge of entanglements in the Middle East makes less sense than ever and still isn’t bringing peace to the region.
As I’ve written before, I don’t know how to “fix” the Iraq (and Yemen, and Syria, and…well, this column has a word limit so I’ll stop there). But I do know that what we’re doing—what we’ve been doing for more than decade now—isn’t working. And rather than standing as a beacon of hope and liberty for the world, American foreign policy has become a convoluted, counterproductive mishmash of wars with no evident end or purpose in site.
When you’ve stuck your nose into so many nations’ business that you’re fighting yourself, it’s time to just come home.