Barack Obama, the first president who seemed to have learned the historical lessons of the Middle East, is finding that there is a corollary to George Santayana’s famous adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Remembering the awful lessons, the president now knows, will not save you from repeating them.
Last week, the president ordered bombing raids on Sunni insurgents who had captured large swaths of northern Iraq from the Shiite government that we had installed 12 years ago, and over the weekend he ordered surveillance flights over the insurgents’ bases across the border in Syria, where the United States and its allies have for three years given moral, financial and some armed assistance to rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
Soon the bombing in Syria will inevitably begin, but the target will not be the one that American hawks like John McCain once wanted, Assad, but the most potent of the rebel groups that we have been fortifying, the jihadists known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Thus, again, do we face the intolerable dilemma of which of two groups, both with scruples and objectives that we abhor, to help, either by our actions or inaction. Again, the president will open the door to war on some scale in another Islamic country but, unlike all his predecessors dating back more than half a century, Obama knows that any victories should not be celebrated like George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, because we will soon enough reap the terrible consequences.
There is a circularity to the West’s history in the world of Islam, which is riven by religious, ethnic and tribal grievances that are as fresh as they were in the seventh century. The friends you aid today you will be bombing tomorrow, or vice versa.
There is a mess over there, from Tunisia to the Black Sea, but in Washington it’s all about blame. Sen. McCain said there was more turmoil than he had seen in his lifetime and he blamed all on Obama’s lack of leadership. To see the folly of the remark, you need take only one year of McCain’s life, 1973, when he was freed from a Vietnam prison near the end of a war that cost more than a million casualties, 210,000 of them American.
As McCain came home, the United States resupplied Israel in the Yom Kippur War, in which Arab states tried to recapture Israeli-occupied Arab territories. The Arabs retaliated with an oil embargo against the U.S. and some of its allies, the shock that has reverberated in the U.S. economy and its politics for 40 years. The little war nearly led to a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which armed the Arabs.
But memories should go back further, to 1953 when the British persuaded President Eisenhower to have the CIA overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh, the first elected prime minister of Iran, who had nationalized the oil industry and was about to nationalize British banks, and install Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Through years of the shah’s brutal police state, Iranians never forgot. When he was chased from the country in 1979 and the United States took him in, Iranians paid us back by holding 52 Americans at the U.S. embassy hostage for 444 days and ending the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
When the Sunni dictator in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, decided to take advantage of Iran’s turmoil by invading the Shiite republic, President Reagan subtly helped the Iraqi dictator in the eight-year war with financial and military aid, including chemical weapons, which contributed to some 200,000 Iranian casualties. The Iranians seem not to have forgotten.
When the crazy Saddam, thinking he still enjoyed the tacit blessing of his American friends Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and needing cash to repay $80 billion in U.S. loans, invaded oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, President George H.W. Bush rallied allies and chased him out of the little country and over the next eight years we made him destroy all his chemical and nerve weapons. Still not content, Bush II invaded Iraq in 2002, captured Saddam, let him be hung, and installed a Shiite government, to the glee of Iran for a change. Now we are insisting that the Shiite Iraqi rulers quit tormenting Sunnis and let them share freedom’s fruits, as a way of stalling the Sunni civil war that is scorching Iraq and Syria, both run by Shiite regimes.
Talk about circularity. When the Russians moved into Afghanistan to prop up the puppet Marxist government, President Reagan initiated Operation Cyclone, a CIA program to arm and finance the Mujahideen, the Sunni fighters who eventually drove the Russians out and toppled the communists. In the struggle among the Mujahideen and tribal factions that followed, the extremist Taliban emerged as the rulers. They governed efficiently, if ruthlessly, and President Bush rewarded them in 2001 with a grant for shutting down the opium trade, shortly before invading and overthrowing them for refusing to capture and surrender Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda operatives who were hiding on the western border. That war, which we are supposed to exit for good in December, has cost us 2,300 dead, 20,000 wounded and, eventually some $6 trillion, counting the medical care of the physically and mentally wounded.
With the best of intentions, America encouraged the Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian governments from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf, but we have reaped the whirlwind. We were critical to the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and were repaid with the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi by revolutionaries. Now the country plunges into chaos with an end that no one can imagine.
In Iraq and elsewhere, we now know that our engagement was folly, but does our investment give us moral ownership and an obligation to try to fix things even if we now know we can’t? Santayana didn’t have an answer.