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Thursday, 28 August 2014 06:23

Everything Is Already Broken, So Let's Bomb Some More Stuff

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aaaBaghdadBombed(Photo: Msgt. James M. Bowman, USAF)The Middle East, as a region, went sideways quite a while back, probably about the time a bunch of European countries decided to draw borders in a manner they found to be personally amusing. But if there is a point that future historians might look at, when trying to see when any semblance of coherence was lost, August 26th of 2014, the day Egypt and the United Arab Emirates dropped a few bombs on Libya, might not be a bad candidate.

We have civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Lebanon having a wee bit of a problem with refugees. A simmering uprising in Bahrain. Continuing conflict in Yemen. And Israel continuing to do what Israel does so well. And, of course, those states that do seem to be pulling off relative stability are managing it without resorting to anything pesky like, say, democracy. And we're just fine with that, by the way. The soaring rhetoric that democracy in Iraq would spread throughout the region as a thousand flowers bloom is long gone. The promises of the Arab Spring are dead. Democracy, as it turns out, means that the people will elect governments who we don't like. Can't have that, can we?

It's all starting to resemble nothing so much as our policy during the Cold War, when the existential threat of Communism was so fundamentally terrifying that we would support any genocidal madman, so long as he was anti-communist, and would send the CIA in to "remove" those leaders who hinted at having anything approaching a pinkish hue. And so it is today: so long as a regime stands in opposition to the Islamist hordes, we're pretty much cool with them. Never mind that lumping ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas into one singular "Islamist horde" is basically moronic. That fact seems to have escaped us.

In fact, trying to reduce things into anything approaching the binary view that held during the Cold War is just about the worst possible way of looking at the situation. Alliances in the region are tangled to the point of being fractal. Take a look at this breakdown (admittedly a bit dated, since it fails to distinguish ISIS from the general Syrian opposition). This current mess is our creation, what with blundering into Iraq like a methed-out bull in a Faberge egg shop. Now here we are: trillions of dollars and millions of lives in sunk costs and the situation continues to slowly degenerate throughout the region.

So we've got to do something, yes? ISIS are officially very bad people. And they're our creation, so it's our responsibility. And Syria? Well we've got to do something there as well. Ditto Libya. Ditto Israel. No. Scratch that last one. Point is we made the mess, and now it's time to clean it up.

Well OK. How? Take another look at that chart linked up above. Look at all those tangled threads of alliances. (And note that one of the endpoints on a few of those threads is Russia, just to make things more interesting.) What thread do we intend to yank on? What thread do we cut? How do we apply our smash-things-with-a-stick diplomacy to this situation? Is there actually anything we can do that won't manage to make the situation worse?

But ISIS. They're bad. Really bad. They beheaded someone. An American someone, which is extra super bad. And they're committing genocide. They're also smart enough to hijack Twitter hashtags and get everyone all sorts of freaked out. We've got to Do Something!

And that's the problem. Doing something, or at least doing something effective, is not exactly a coherent or viable option. We can drop some bombs, send some "advisors," start to come to grips with the fact that we're going to have to give Assad a pass for doing mean things with chemical weapons. We can firmly ally ourselves with the non-democratic but anti-Islamist side. But we've lost control of the narrative. When Egypt and the UAE bombed Islamist militias in Libya, they did it over our objections. In Iraq, we're bombing our own weapons that have fallen into the hands of ISIS. Is that accomplishing much? Sort of, to the point where some are arguing that we need to expand the bombing campaign into Syria, which I'm sure will go very well indeed. Is it going to bring about a meaningful end to the conflict? Probably not.

Take one more look at that chart. Note how we are one endpoint in many. Barring setting off Iraq 3.0, our ability to meaningfully change the situation is limited because we have so very little influence over the other actors. We can pull on some of those threads, maybe lean on an ally or two, effect some mild humanitarian relief. That's about it. All the rhetoric in the world won't change the fact that our control of the situation is on the wane.

Given that, we might as well drop a few more bombs. That'll make us feel all better.