Scorecard on US Interventionism

Since 9/11, the United States has flailed away and attacked or invaded at least seven Muslim countries. (I say "at least" because, in contravention of the U.S. Constitution, American presidents now run secret overseas conflicts, including the latest drone wars, without public knowledge or the consent of their representatives in Congress.) Since U.S. (non-Muslim) military presence or intervention in Muslim countries was the original motivator for the 9/11 attacks, doubling down on a failed policy seemed a poor bet among many expert analysts, even during the period of hysteria after the attacks on the Pentagon and twin towers. Of course, the U.S. government has never wanted to focus public attention on its own irresponsible conduct before 9/11, so politicians and government bureaucrats have always told the public that the terrorists attack us because of our "freedom" or because they are poor and jobless – neither of which stands up to objective analysis. Yet the American public, content to only cursorily examine the problem, is content to see it as an "us" versus "them" or "good" versus "bad" phenomenon, never wanting to believe that their government had been part of the original problem. In a democracy, that would then implicate public negligence in correcting the root of the disease: allowing the American governmental elite to conduct profligate and unneeded U.S. meddling into the affairs of Islamic countries.

So because we can’t tread on this sensitive ground, how about just looking at the counterproductive results since 9/11 of escalated U.S. interventionism – more of the same that motivated the anti-U.S. Islamist terrorist attacks in the first place. The obvious place to start is Afghanistan. Instead of just blasting the central al Qaeda group, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, in Afghanistan and Pakistan and calling it a day, the United States decided it was going to pacify (and democratize) Afghanistan with a nation-building occupation. Never mind that the British failed to do this three times and the Soviets once very recently and that the last successful occupation of untamed and xenophobic Afghanistan was accomplished centuries before Christ by Cyrus the Great of Persia. But somehow, American politicians thought, the U.S. experience would be different. Not really.

Most of U.S. troops have now been withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban have just conducted multiple attacks on the capital of Kabul and have made inroads in the north – not a traditional Taliban area of strength. After more than a decade of fighting – costing more than 2,300 American lives, many more Afghan lives, and at least hundreds of billions of dollars – the United States lost the war and Afghanistan’s future still looks bleak. The U.S. war in Afghanistan also destabilized the neighboring nuclear-armed state of Pakistan – perhaps the most dangerous country in the world – leading to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and that group’s attacking U.S. targets, including an attempted bombing of Times Square in New York.

Completely overreacting to 9/11-doing exactly what Osama bin Laden and terrorists historically have wanted – George W. Bush, employing the classic Washington trick of taking advantage of a crisis to promote an unrelated policy agenda, needlessly invaded yet another Muslim country. As a response to the foreign invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq, more brutal than central al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was created. Al Qaeda in Iraq then morphed into the Islamic State or ISIS – even more heinous than both the predecessor groups. ISIS has now taken over large parts of Iraq and Syria. When natural borders of culture, language, and ethnicity or tribe don’t match actual borders, then instability, chaos, and civil war may result if the dictator holding the artificial country together is deposed. Most experts on Iraq knew deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq would be a folly, but Bush did it anyway – killing about 4,500 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and wasting trillions of dollars, only to bring chaos to Iraq and increase terrorism worldwide. Even if the United States could have left a small number of troops in Iraq, the ethno-centric centrifugal forces pulling the country apart still would have likely done so.

Learning nothing from Bush’s meddling in Iraq, Barack Obama decided to commit the same idiocy in Libya. Implying the false claim that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was massacring civilians, Obama, pressured by the French, overthrew Gaddafi using a bombing campaign. Like Iraq, Libya is an artificial country. Over the centuries, the eastern half has oriented more to Egypt and the western part to Tunisia. Predictably, after Gaddafi was overthrown, the country is experiencing a civil war between two rival governments made up of tribal coalitions – one in the east and one in the west. Even worse, jihadists, using weapons from Gaddafi’s vast stockpiles and training received at terrorist bases in Libya, have attacked neighboring Tunisia and Mali. In Tunisia, worsening terrorist attacks by ISIS- and al Qaeda-related groups against tourists have led to a state of emergency being declared in the only country with any hope of a democratic outcome from the Arab Spring movement. In Mali, French forces had to invade the country to beat back the Islamist militants, but recently the Islamists have advanced their attacks into central Mali from their normal area of operation in northern Mali.

In Yemen, another artificial country in civil war where natural borders don’t match actual borders, empirical research has shown an increase in numbers of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in the wake of U.S. air attacks on that country. When your group or country is attacked and civilians are killed (even if accidentally), a rally-around-the-flag effect usually occurs.

In Somalia, George W. Bush, encouraged and aided Ethiopia, perceived as a Christian country by the Somalis, in its invasion of the country. As a result, the al Shabaab Islamist group was formed, which took over most of the country. The United States then encouraged Kenya and the African Union to beat back al Shabaab. Al Shabaab has been weakened, but these insurgencies are rarely over. Besides, Somalis from Minnesota that have gone to fight for al Shabaab in Somalia could come back to the United States and attack targets here.

As in the U.S. government’s original inadvertent creation of central al Qaeda by its aiding of the Islamist Mujahideen guerrillas against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the subsequent U.S. record of meddling in Muslim countries has had a load of horrible unintended consequences. Yet after media images of the few Americans beheaded by ISIS, Obama took the bait and went back into Iraq and attacked Syria. And the Republicans have egged him on by saying he was a wimp for doing too little or waiting too long to meddle in Syria.

Yet the sickness of militarism and interventionism lies not with the politicians, but with the American people. In a democracy, the people can eventually stop stupid and counterproductive wars, as they did in Vietnam, but they first need to admit that their government is doing exactly what the Islamist terrorists want in its too public and excessively profligate military overreaction to terrorist provocation. Occasionally, a military response may be needed to terrorism, but it should be quick, surgical, and done in the shadows, so as not to be a recruiting poster for jihadists. However, the United States shouldn’t be needlessly making more enemies by doing useless meddling in the political systems of Islamic countries.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.