From the Publisher: Changes Around the World

Arnold G. York

Once again, I was up on the treadmill at the Malibu Health Gym, watching the dog and pony show being put on by former Senator and now Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General, Martin Dempsey — both good and experienced men — doing their bit before a Senate Committee. I couldn’t help but feel I had seen this all before — in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan — and we all know how those turned out. So why were we, once again, considering going in to a foreign country in a limited, strategic, focused, non-expansive, careful way, that no one seemed able to explain clearly, to accomplish a limited objective (which is kind of amorphous) while avoiding mission creep, expanding goals, uncertain aggregation and many dead Americans?

Lest I be overly influenced by any one point of view, I kept bouncing back between MSNBC, FOX and, finally, CNN … but it didn’t seem to matter much. It still looked like all roads were leading to disaster. No one could quite explain how this would end, other than some generalized goal to destroy ISIS. All seemed to agree that ISIS was terrible — after all, they cut off people’s heads on television — and, as I understood it, we were going to go in, with advisors and possibly with some ground troops later, if necessary, to stabilize the situation. ISIS apparently is now the number one enemy of stability in the region, by virtue of a couple of media-savvy decapitations. The problem is so immediate and so bad we might even be considering teaming up with the government of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who we’ve been trying to overthrow for months, or perhaps even an Al Qaeda branch, upset with ISIS grabbing the spotlight from them.

I’m beginning to believe that part of our problem is we seem to be hung up on the concept of the nation-state. The U.S., England and France are all nation-states. We expect Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the rest of the Middle East to be nation-states, but, actually, they are not. They are areas of land someone — usually a Western colonial power — drew a line around on a map, a century or so ago. As long as there is an accepted ruler in charge, like a king, a Saddam Hussein, a Bashar al-Assad or a Hosni Mubarak, they acted and functioned like states. But once that supreme leader lost his mojo or was deposed or killed, it all fell apart into anarchy. Rival militias, rival tribes, rival ethnic groups and rival religions are all vying for power and a piece of the spoils. 

In my mind, our stepping into the middle of that and trying to direct a sensible outcome is insane. You simply can’t handicap a free-for-all. From our purely selfish American point of view, are we better off if Assad stays or gets deposed? Are we better off if ISIS continues on or not? Perhaps ISIS as a common enemy may be enough to scare some other Middle Eastern powers to get together on some issues.

Right now, the world is in transition like it hasn’t been in decades. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and possibly Iran are all under pressures tearing them apart. It’s not just the Middle East. The Kurds want out of Iraq and Turkey and want their own country. Scotland wants out of the UK. Barcelona and its environs want to quit Spain. Texas practically wants out of the U.S., California wants to split into six states and it’s only a matter of time before Brooklyn (newly declared hip and cool) decides it no longer wants to be part of New York City. We forget Brooklyn — now 3-million-plus strong — only became part of New York around 1900. Van Nuys and Venice were once separate cities that were consolidated into LA. Maybe there are times in history when things consolidate, and then there are times when political entities break apart to reform later.

I believe that our government is playing an old song. Maybe the best course of action for the U.S. is to stand back and then do business with whoever comes out on top. It’s not going to be easy. There are always enormous pressures to get into the fray, but we should be very hesitant to re-enter, unless it’s very clear that America’s essential interests are at stake and, so far, it doesn’t seem that way to me.