National Security & Defense

The Middle East: Where American Political Idealism Goes to Die

President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson at Mar-a-Lago, April 7, 2017. (Reuters photo: Carlos Barria)
There are good reasons why American presidents of both parties keep getting sucked into military conflicts in the region.

We’re less than 100 days into the Trump presidency, and already a streak has been maintained: After last night’s airstrike in Syria, each of the last seven American presidents has launched his own entirely new military operation against jihadists or hostile Muslim governments. Yet it’s safe to say that each of them entered office either hoping to avoid new conflicts or believing that they would decisively turn the page and transition to a better, more peaceful Middle East.

Jimmy Carter responded to the Iran hostage crisis with a failed military operation against Tehran. Ronald Reagan bombed Libya and intervened in Lebanon. George H. W. Bush responded to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with the overwhelming force of Desert Storm and launched a humanitarian operation in Somalia that ultimately led to the battle of Mogadishu. Bill Clinton periodically attacked Hussein’s Iraq and lobbed cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan. George W. Bush responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan in 2001, and he deposed Hussein in 2003. Barack Obama launched entirely new operations in Libya and Syria while managing the existing Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

By now, Donald Trump has escalated ongoing military operations in Yemen, Syria, and Iran, as well as initiating the aforementioned airstrike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

We Americans desperately wish to disengage and move on. Yet like Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, the terrorists and strongmen keep getting in our faces and declaring that they won’t be ignored. So we’re once again faced with nothing but terrible choices, and the path to peace is as unclear as ever.

EDITORIAL: Syria: After the Airstrikes

There are those who blame persistent American military involvement in foreign conflicts as a product of globalism, neoconservatism, neoliberalism, colonialism, pure greed, or some combination thereof. While there’s no doubt that ideology always plays a role in foreign policy, none of these ideological bogeymen can sufficiently explain why different presidents with different world views tend to find themselves in the same place: forced to launch strikes on the hot sands of the Middle East.

Recent presidential efforts at peace have failed in unique and terrible ways. Bill Clinton tried as hard as he could to broker an Israeli/Palestinian peace settlement; it ended with the bombs and bullets of the Second Intifada. George W. Bush entered office dismissive of “nation-building,” shifted gears after 9/11, and tried to remake the Middle East by building a free and democratic Iraq; instead, we earned a shaky military victory after five years of grinding, bloody counterinsurgency. Obama’s history is equally well-known. He won a Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of his campaign promises, tried to achieve peace in part by tossing away victory in Iraq, watched genocide unfold in Syria, and left office with American troops fighting in more nations than when he took office.

Ultimately, reality transcends ideology, constrains the presidents’ choices, and forces them into the same unpleasant, bloody decisions: There is no getting around the fact that persistent Middle Eastern conflict directly threatens American lives and vital American strategic interests. Presidents with differing ideas and ideologies confront the same intelligence reports and terrorist attacks that make plain our enemy’s capabilities and intentions, and when the immediate choice is between defending America and idealistically disengaging, the former typically prevails.

Even when national security isn’t immediately at risk — as was the case with Assad’s brutal sarin-gas attack on his own people — the combination of justifiable moral outrage and second-order effects such as a vast refugee crisis increases the costs of inaction and pulls America ever closer to the fray.

American politicians and the American people are burdened with a complex set of contradictory desires and goals. We want to defend the nation against terrorists, and we want to stop genocide, especially when it’s achieved through the use of WMDs. At the same time, we don’t want to nation-build, we don’t like civilian casualties, and we don’t like endless or inconclusive wars. We want what we can’t have and politicians want our votes, so they promise what they can’t deliver and the wars grind on.

Donald Trump is learning the same lessons that each of his six predecessors learned. America’s Middle Eastern enemies are evil, and they are hell-bent on killing us, destroying our allies, and, often, committing murder on a genocidal scale. While any given military strike is of course debatable — I think there were better and wiser options than last night’s cruise-missile strike — as a general matter American military involvement in the Middle East is unavoidable.

As I’ve written before, it’s time for Americans to stop thinking about the military “endgame” and forthrightly declare a commitment to the prudent prosecution of ongoing, messy military conflicts. So long as our enemy exists — so long as jihadist ideology, sectarian violence, and Middle Eastern strongmen persist — we must sustain a will to fight.

Welcome to the place where idealism goes to die, Mr. President. Here’s hoping it’s kinder to you than it was to your predecessors.

— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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