4 lies about America's perpetual wars

Enough is enough

A soldier.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Aerial3/iStock, REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

American policy in the Greater Middle East is a wasteful and pointless mess that's depleting American resources, endangering American lives, and making a mockery of American ideals.

If you doubt it, just open your eyes to the evidence. Go ahead and peruse the Afghanistan Papers, The Washington Post's exhaustive reporting on the lies that three administrations have told the American people about the prospects for success in what is now easily the nation's longest war. Or read coverage of the chaos in Libya nine years after we intervened to topple its government. Or inform yourself about the crimes committed by Saudi Arabia, with our backing and support, in Yemen. Or follow the news of how our efforts to thwart Iran's ambitions in Iraq have inadvertently sparked a spasm of anti-American outrage that led our heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad to be overrun by protesters.

How long will our country expend its blood and treasure attempting to impose its will on this part of the world? The answer should be that we'll stay not one day longer than it takes to extract our forces from the region. America is long overdue to come home from its three-decade-long Mideast misadventure.

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This isn't a call for the "isolationism" that all-purpose interventionists are always warning against. It's a call for sobriety and clear-sighted honesty about America's vital interests and a tough-minded evaluation of whether our actions from North Africa to South Asia in the 30 years since the first Gulf War have furthered those interests.

Those who favor keeping or expanding our presence in the region make a series of assertions, every one of which collapses on closer inspection.

1. "We need the oil." This may have been a compelling argument when we first inserted large numbers of American forces into the region to defend Saudi oil fields from Saddam Hussein's army in the wake of the Iraqi dictator's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But things have changed dramatically over the past three decades. Over the past 10 years, U.S. oil imports from OPEC have plunged by about 75 percent, down to just 1.5 million barrels a day in March 2019, a 30-year low. The change is driven by multiple factors, including a surge in U.S. oil production. But whatever the cause, it severely undermines the most ruthlessly "realist" case for continuing to meddle in the Middle East.

2. "American forces are needed to impose stability/counter Iranian aggression in the region." Since 2001, the U.S. has been playing a game of Whack-a-Mole with the Taliban in Afghanistan. We've overthrown the government of Iraq, empowering Iran by eliminating its strongest regional rival and sparking an insurgency and civil war that gave birth to the Islamic State. We've encouraged the so-called "Arab Spring," which ultimately precipitated the Syrian Civil War, over half a million deaths, and a refugee crisis that has helped fuel a surge of right-wing populism across Europe. We've toppled the government of Libya, which spread chaos and provoked another refugee crisis across North Africa. We've intervened in Yemen, producing a humanitarian crisis and immense human suffering. And we first struck and then deliberately scuttled a nuclear deal with Iran.

The indisputable fact is that the United States has been the primary source of regional instability in the Greater Middle East for nearly two decades now. As for Iran, it's hard to see how a country 6,000 miles from the U.S. homeland with an economy a tiny fraction of ours should be viewed as a serious threat to our vital interests. Israel faces a very different situation, but it is heavily armed and receives a large sum of American aid every year. It is quite capable of defending itself.

3. "Our military presence in the region is necessary to defend democracy." The problem with this rationale is that our definition of democracy is hopelessly contradictory. We usually intend it to mean "help the locals adopt American-style political and economic reforms and join the liberal international order." But of course democracy also means national self-determination, as our own Declaration of Independence makes clear. But what if the people in a given country choose something other than the American-endorsed path? Or what if they're too divided to make any clear choice at all? And what about if our very presence in the region, intervening militarily wherever and whenever we wish, skews the domestic conversation about which path to take, inflaming national pride, making it harder for liberal reformers to gain popular support and empowering anti-liberal zealots who are able to rally opposition under the banner of anti-Americanism?

That's exactly what's been happening in the region over and over again for the past two decades. And it's not at all difficult to understand why. All we need to do is make a minimal effort to imagine ourselves in the place of those living in the Middle East. How would Americans respond if an outside power of enormous strength reserved the right to launch missile attacks on American citizens on American soil whenever they wished? Would we respond with passivity and expressions of gratitude toward our overseers? Of course we wouldn't. We'd become angry and resentful, especially when the air strikes, however well-intentioned, accidentally killed innocent bystanders. We'd feel humiliated, outraged at being put in a position of such profound subservience, and tempted to follow local leaders who promised to rid us of our overlords.

4. "Withdrawal will make us look weak." Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy thinking in the nation's capital has degraded. Often it deploys childishly simple dichotomies, like the Manichean alternatives of "strength" and "weakness": Either we stay in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen indefinitely, or we will look weak, which would be catastrophic because all our opponents understand is strength.

Tell it to Ronald Reagan, who governed at a time when politicians and policymakers were still capable of thinking strategically, beyond one-dimensional displays of brute force and in light of the country's vital interests. That's why the Reagan administration responded to the terrorist bombing that killed 241 soldiers and civilians at a U.S. marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 by withdrawing American forces. At the time, the only group of commentators who objected to the move, claiming it would be interpreted as a highly dangerous sign of weakness by America's adversaries, were neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz, who favored a foreign policy of reflexive bellicosity.

Today, such knee-jerk hawkishness is the default position of leading members of the foreign policy establishment from both parties. But that doesn't mean it makes any more sense now than it did in the early 1980s. Reagan and his advisors concluded that maintaining troops in Lebanon wasn't worth the cost or the risk, so the administration pulled them out. They were right to do so.

Our rivals and adversaries in the world will say anything they want about anything we do. The trick is to formulate policies that make sense for the United States, with sense defined in terms of the country's vital interests. And in 2020, it's abundantly clear that it's no longer in our interests to keep attempting to micromanage the Greater Middle East.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.