The project of Western foreign policy of the last few years has been devoted to overcoming the legacy of post-9/11 interventions. In the US, Barack Obama sought a break with George W. Bush’s ostensibly impetuous activism abroad. In similar vein, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron lacked Tony Blair’s or Michael Gove’s penchant for pan-Atlanticist moral crusades. “We will serve neither our own, nor America’s interests”, he said in 2006, “if we are seen as America’s unconditional associate in every endeavor”.
In the end, Obama and Cameron failed to live up to the hype. They pushed for the invasion of Libya. Both leaders also sought greater involvement in Syria, protecting the local opposition from Bashar al-Assad. Responsibilities of the global power superseded the more isolationist, politically sound instincts.
Most recently, in President Donald Trump pundits found a definite executioner of the US-led global order. America, he argued, must stop “racing to topple foreign regimes”. Trump’s other initiative involved taking oil from Iraq as thanks for Washington’s services. Finally, the tycoon distanced himself from traditional American allies like Saudi Arabia, which, in his words, “kills women and… gays” and (the horror, the horror) “gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation”.
Forward eight months and here we are. Trump opened the anti-terrorist center in Riyadh. James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, is preparing to send more troops to Afghanistan. American presence in Iraq will continue. Whatever “America First” meant, it was not outright isolationism. Rather, it sybmolised the rejection of multilateralism in favour of the US taking unilateral decisions, or cutting bilateral deals.
The US is not yet ready to retreat from its global role. Policymakers in Washington are wary of creating power vacuums. The Middle East lacks a stable regional security architecture. Situation in Afghanistan is too precarious for the US to withdraw. Meanwhile, habits and capabilities of the emerging international players, most notably Russia and China, are hard to discern.
But just for how much longer can the status-quo be preserved? Costs of maintaining Western troops in far out regions are substantial. Domestic support for American continuing global role is waning. Al-Qaeda and ISIS - hitherto cited as main sources of danger to the free world - are in retreat. Isn’t it the time, one could ask, to pull up the drawbridge on foreign activism? And hasn’t the last 16 years demonstrated that Western interventions aren’t going anywhere?
To appreciate the resilience of post-9/11 policies requires us to look more deeply into their origins. For some, all interventions were flawed from the beginning; foreign policy extravaganzas, peddled by corrupt bureaucrats at the whim of their capricious, insipient political masters. Closer analysis reveals a far more nuanced picture, however. Even in hindsight, Western foreign policy moves seem less nonchalant and more unavoidable than most critics allow for.
Take Iraq. When deciding to intervene, the US paid heed to what happened during the invasion of Kuwait. In 1991 George HW Bush, his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Defence Secretary Dick Cheney decided against toppling Saddam Hussein. Having failed to remove the Baathist regime, its growing belligerence came back to haunt future US administrations. Thus, already in 1998 Bill Clinton signed Iraq Liberation Act, making the regime change in Iraq an official US policy. Bush 43 merely implemented it.
The US and the UK helped prevent the nightmarish scenario of Saddam acquiring WMD. As the CIA post-invasion report concluded, this might have easily happened at some point, given the UN docility. Baathist cut deals with both French and Russians in contravention with the UN sanctions; it played cat-and-mouse with the weapons inspectors. Failure to act swiftly would further indulge Saddam in his impunity. Were it not for Bush and Tony Blair, there is at least a chance we would now be facing an Arabic edition of Kim Jong Un on steroids.
Operation in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda got an approval from the UN. Even Russia gave its acquiescence to the invasion. It too was afraid of Taliban at the time. Above all Russia feared the distabilising impact it could have on its Muslim regions like Chechnya.
Nor was Libya an easy issue. The lessons of Rwanda and Kosovo loomed large for Obama. Inaction on the part of the international community led to genocide in the African country, leaving up to a million people dead. In Kosovo, the West managed to prevent a large-scale massacre, but only just. Indeed, it was Samantha Powell –a former US envoy in the UN and author of “A Problem from Hell”, a book on genocide - who helped persuade the President to take an active approach. Again, the Libyan invasion was mandated by the UN.
Muammar Gaddafi was stopped from unleashing brutal retaliation against the rebels. And while it is true that decision for taking action owed mostly to humanitarian motives, it is unlikely that Gaddafi’s enduing rule would have benefitted the Western interests. Migration flows to Europe could be even higher today were the dictator allowed to proceeded with his rampage.
The policy of non-intervention cannot be a panacea. War-ravaged Syria is a case in point. It is possible that the country will end up in no better, or perhaps even worse, shape than Libya and Iraq. Walking away from conflicts is not a cost-free option either. Obama’s administration withdrawal of troops from Iraq – with Daesh filling the resulting vacuum of power – serves as a reminder: aborting missions risk making already troubled regions even less stable.
It makes sense to question whether involvement abroad really warranted the blood and treasure lost by the US and her allies. Having said that, however, it would arguably be wrong to suggest that wherever the West intervened, the only thing it brought with it was mayhem. In fact, it has prevented the worst. The pertinent query is: Can it do better?
The answer depends on two things.
First, just for how long can the US sustain its support for unstable countries? Inescapable consequence of intervening in the third world states is that by toppling a dictator, you are bound to throw the baby with the bathwater – dismantling not only a political regime, but also the executive apparatus and its functions. In Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, the West had to cultivate statehood from a ground zero.
Stabilising political landscape will hence take a long time. In the Middle East, defeat of ‘Islamic State’ is only the start. ISIS retreat may not be final. Another problem concerns the anti-Daesh coalition. There is a risk of it being overtaken with sectarian tensions. As Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, pointed out, the size of military blueprint is not everything. The region needs humanitarian assistance to assist people in their return to normal lives. Only this can ensure that the tide of violence is finally receding for good.
Afghanistan too remains a dilemma. Obama’s strategy, which involved decreasing the role of US to rely instead more on local military, has proved wanting. The Afghan forces is inadequate to sustain security within the country. Taliban continues its advance. Trump and NATO allies understand that. Kabul needs extremal help to secure order and buy more time to improve its governance.
“Afghanistan has been at war since 1979”, a NATO senior officer told me. “I came there when the mission only began and I can say that we’ve made progress. Abandoning Kabul now would be a total betrayal”. Yet for how many more presidential tenures can the lifeline to Afghanistan be sustained is unclear.
In Libya, the efforts on behalf of the EU – most notably, Italy and France – to bring the country’s warring factions together have paved the way for a tentative agreement on ceasefire. But this is only the end of the beginning of the Libyan saga. Government in Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, remains weak.
Secondly, a lot depends on how other players will behave in international arena. As regards the Middle East, the balance of power between navel-gazing Arab states and Iran is precarious. Many in Washington are alarmed over the Tehran’s growing role. This opens the door for other players like Russia to gain a larger foothold in the region. Hence the need to find an understanding with Moscow on Iran and prevent the Syrian state from a complete breakdown.
In South Asia, the US has once again tried to engage with regional players - India and Pakistan. Whether it will yield results on Afghanistan is unclear, though. Americans consider imposing greater pressure on Islamabad to fight Taliban. But here is the rub: Trump’s simultaneous plea for India to do more in Afghanistan is likely to stoke suspicions in Islamabad. Where Delhi could do more is in diplomatic sphere. In particular, it could help bring to the table actors like Russia and Iran, who are lukewarm towards dealing with the US, but whose cooperation would help achieve lasting peace in the region.
As Robert Gates, former US Defence Secretary, kept reminding the critics of the US wars, “We are where we are”. Miring themselves in counterinsurgency operations, America and NATO certainly took big risks. Yet it was also a responsible, albeit a demanding, thing to do. Next few years will show if there can still be a light in the end of the tunnel.