Americans — left, right, Democrats, and Republicans — are all sick of thankless nation-building in the Middle East. Yet democratization was not our first choice, but rather a last resort after other methods failed.
The United States long ago supplied Afghan insurgents, who expelled the Soviets after a decade of fighting. Then we left. The country descended into even worse medievalism under the Taliban. So after removing the Taliban, who had hosted the perpetrators of 9/11, we promised in 2001 to stay on.
We won the first Gulf War in 1991. Then most of our forces left the region. The result was the mass murder of the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, twelve years of no-fly zones, and a failed oil-for-food embargo of Saddam’s Iraq. So after removing Saddam in 2003, we tried to leave behind something better.
In the last ten years, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion, and thousands of American lives have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both places seem far better off than they were before American intervention — at least for a while longer.
Yet the Iraqis now bear Americans little good will. They seem friendlier to Iran and Syria than to their liberators. In Afghanistan, riots continue over the mistaken burning of some defaced Korans, despite serial American apologies.
How about the option of bombing the bad guys and then just staying clear? We just did that to the terrorist-friendly Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya. But now that Gaddafi is gone, there is chaos. Islamic gangs torture and execute black Africans who supported the deposed regime, according to press reports. British World War II cemeteries that were honored during 70 years of Libyan kings and dictators could not survive six months of a “free” Libya. In Benghazi, gangs just ransacked and defaced the monuments of the British war dead.
Not having boots on the ground may ensure that endless chaos will consume the hope of a calm post-Gaddafi Libya. That was also true of Somalia and Lebanon after American troops were attacked and abruptly left.
How about another option: aid and words of encouragement only? We have urged Egyptian reform, under both George W. Bush and now Barack Obama. When protesters forced the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak, the United States approved. It even appears likely that we will keep sending Egypt annual subsidies of more than $1.5 billion — as we have for more than 30 years. Yet anti-American Islamists are now the dominant force in Egyptian politics. American aid workers were recently arrested and threatened with trial by new Egyptian reformers.