America has been no different from other imperial powers in finding itself ensnared repeatedly in costly, bloody, and eventually futile overseas wars. From the Roman empire till today, the issue is not whether an imperial army can defeat a local one. It usually can, just as the United States did quickly in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The issue is whether it gains anything by doing so. Following such a “victory,” the imperial power faces unending heavy costs in terms of policing, political instability, guerilla war, and terrorist blowback.
Terrorism is a frequent consequence of imperial wars and imperial rule. Local populations are unable to defeat the imperial powers, so they impose high costs through terror instead. Consider the terrorism used by Jewish settlers against the British Empire and local Palestinians in their fight for Israel’s independence and territory; or Serbian terrorism deployed against the Hapsburg Empire; or Vietnamese terrorism used against the French and United States in Vietnam’s long war for independence; or American terrorism, for that matter, that independence fighters used against the British in America’s war of independence.
This is of course not to condone terrorism. Indeed, my point is to condemn imperial rule, and to argue for political solutions rather than imperial oppression, war, and the terror that comes in its wake. Imperial rulers, whether the British in pre-independence America; the Americans in Cuba and the Philippines after 1898; the French and Americans in Vietnam; and the United States in the Middle East in recent decades, foment violent reactions that destroy peace, prosperity, good governance, and hope.
The real solutions to these conflicts lie in diplomacy and political justice, not in imperial rule, repression, and terror.
Indirect rule has been the more typical US approach, for example when America overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 in order to impose the autocratic Shah of Iran. Similarly, America toppled the Taliban-led government of Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, in order to install regimes friendly to the United States Easier said than done. In all of these cases, the American imperial vision proved to be a fantasy, and the US-led violence came to naught in terms of US interests.
The United States is trapped in the Middle East by its own pseudo-intellectual constructions. During the Vietnam War, the “domino theory” claimed that if America withdrew from Vietnam, communism would sweep Asia. The new domino theory is that if the United States stops were to stop fighting ISIS, Islamic terrorists would soon be at our doorstep.
The truth is almost the opposite. ISIS is a ragtag army of perhaps 30,000 troops in a region in which the large nations — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey — have standing armies that are vastly larger and better equipped. These regional powers could easily drive ISIS out of existence if they chose to do so. The US military presence is actually ISIS’s main recruiting tool. Young people stream into Syria and Iraq to fight the imperial enemy.
Empires trapped in regional wars can choose to fight on or more wisely to acknowledge that the imperial adventure is both futile and self-destructive. King George III was wise to give up in 1781; fighting the Americans wasn’t worth the effort, even if it was possible militarily. The United States was wise to give up the war in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in 1975. America’s decision to cut its losses saved not only Southeast Asia but the United States, as well.
The United States was similarly wise to curtail its CIA-led coups throughout Latin America, as a prelude to peace in the region.
The United States should immediately end its fighting in the Middle East and turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It’s time to let the locals sort out their problems, supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Just recently, the Arabs once again wisely and rightly reiterated their support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel withdraws from the conquered territories. This gives added reason to back diplomacy, not war.
We are at the 100th anniversary of British and French imperial rule in the Mideast. The United States has unwisely prolonged the misery and blunders. One hundred years is enough.
Read more: Jeffrey D. Sachs: US military should get out of the Middle East - The Boston Globe