Dear World beyond Our Borders,
These are your choices:
- A world where the United States government and its military, supplied by corporations you find distasteful, responds to aggression and provocations through shows of force and military interventions. These interventions — sometimes on a large scale and sometimes on a small scale — inflict regrettable but inevitable collateral damage on civilians. These actions are ones that in the past you have labeled “imperialist” and “aggressive” and that prompt you to lament that the world is being run by “cowboys” and — the post-millennial all-purpose pejorative label — “neocons.”
- A world where the United States government and its military do not respond this way, and disputes about territory, ideology, and power beyond our borders are hashed out by the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Pakistanis, the Saudis, various jihadist factions (including those so violent and bloodthirsty that not even al-Qaeda wants to be associated with them), terror-for-hire groups like the Haqqani network, and anyone else who wants in on the brawl.
In other words, this shock and awe:
Or this one:
Pick one. There is no “Option C” where the United Nations suddenly becomes an effective, respected peacekeeping force. There is no “Option D” where the world’s strong men and brutes are talked into taking up yoga and become calm, mellow guys, eager to hug it out.
The death toll is much, much higher under option B. But that’s your call. Maybe you’re okay with that.
The Guinness Book of World Records contends that the largest anti-war protest in the history of the world was a protest against the Iraq War. Millions are not flooding the streets of Rome, London, Barcelona, and Sydney to protest the Russian aggression in Ukraine, nor its prequel four years ago in Georgia. They’re not protesting Assad’s actions in Syria, nor North Korea’s increasingly regular firing of advanced missiles. They yawn as China runs military exercises that look suspiciously like a training run to seize the disputed Senkaku islands from Japan. No, American military action is deemed uniquely bad and worthy of protest.
This obsessive focus on the U.S. military would make sense if our country somehow had a monopoly on war and bloodshed. But if the years since the U.S. invasion of Iraq have taught us anything, it is that the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East, generates appalling brutality, nightmarish humanitarian crises, and a rapidly spinning odometer of violent death, with or without us.
There is a wide range of Iraq War death-toll estimates: The Associated Press put it at just above 110,000; the Iraq Body Count project put the death toll at 174,000 deaths including civilians and combatants. We know 4,486 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2012.
But the killing did not stop after the Americans left. The death toll from factions fighting in Iraq since the last U.S. combat troop left in December 2011 is 16,161, according to the Iraq Body Count project, and the toll has increased dramatically since the summer of 2013.
The death toll of Syria’s civil war is estimated to have passed 140,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — so it’s now in the middle of the range of the Iraq death toll, and of course there is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict.
The living in Syria — and increasingly in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, as refugees and factional violence bleed across the borders — are in awful conditions as well. Here is the line for food supplies in Damascus at the end of January:
The foreign disdain for American military action is echoed at home. “We don’t want to be the world’s policeman!” is a common cry within the United States. And as we’re demonstrating, we don’t have to be. But the result is not that other nice countries will step in and act as the policemen. Usually the alternative is no policeman.
No police means no consequences. Somebody used sarin gas in Damascus last summer. The evidence largely, although not entirely, pointed to the regime sitting on stockpiles of chemical weapons. Everyone around the globe lamented how awful it was to see men, women, and children choking to death from poison gas, but nobody was all that eager to do much about it. Half a year later, we see the consequence on Bashar Assad: almost nothing. The destruction of the acknowledged chemical weapons moves at a glacial pace, with the Syrians repeatedly seeking extensions of the deadlines and claiming their convoys have been attacked by rebels.
Foreign capitals may suspect the post–Iraq War United States has become functionally isolationist, extremely resistant to investing more blood and treasure anywhere else in the world for somebody else’s cause or freedom. Their suspicions are true. We’ve become that for many reasons, from the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, to frustration with the chaotic, factional societies developing in post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan to the Great Recession to the fact that too many small towns have hosted too many funerals for too many brave young men and women.
We want the world to solve its own problems for a while. The problem is that all this — invasions, wholesale slaughter, ethnic cleansing, missile tests, naval provocations, and raw brutality — is how the world beyond our borders solves its own problems.
— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.