In this cycle of debates surrounding foreign policy, one constant that has been present in all points raised by the anti-interventionist wing of advocates is the ironic, unaware racism that underpins their views. Since the end of the Cold War, intervention has coalesced primarily in Muslim majority areas, namely Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria (to varying degrees ranging from drone strikes to outright regime change). No doubt the absence of a fully democratic, plural society immediately after years, sometimes decades, of bitter fighting has immensely disappointed many observers of these events. Not unlike children, these interventionists demanded immediate relief and reward for their actions. Doves typically cite this as evidence of the failure of neoconservative intervention, arguing that democracy is a Western export to cultures and societies fundamentally unfamiliar to and, more importantly, incompatible with basic tenets of democracy, autonomy, and human rights. It is all the more disappointing that this view has become the dominant view of the contemporary Republican Party, especially under the Trump administration, despite some decisive action taken during his tenure.
The absurdity of these views is not always self-evident, usually obfuscated by the exponential rise of terror attacks since the new millennium. From ISIS to the PMUs and the innumerable terror attacks that almost every majority-Muslim country has suffered, liberal-minded commentators have ultimately concluded that the blame for this lies squarely at America’s proverbial feet. After all, had Saddam not been deposed, and the Taliban been allowed to retain their dominance, and had the US simply not been in the Middle-East to begin with, surely we would be living in an at least less chaotic and violent world. The fact that the demand for the U.S to leave the region, including from the bases of allies in Saudi-Arabia and Israel, coincide with those of Osama bin-Laden’s, is seen merely as a coincidence.
That these views eschew all nuance is ancillary to the main point of this article; this position affords to the West all the privileges and misfortunes of agency and autonomy, without extending said agency to the affected parties. It presumes that the events since the Cold War were reliant entirely on the actions of the West, particularly the USA, rather than those people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Coming from the two major U.S political parties who have spent the better part of three decades vehemently attacking racism, this is an ironic engagement in implicit racis. Ultimately, nations are made up of people, and people have some degree of control over their own actions.
The fact that the Shia community in Iraq engaged in a campaign of retaliatory abuse on the Sunnis that radicalised them to form Daesh is lost on these Doves. So, too, is the engagement of the Palestinians in historic anti-Semitism and intransigence that proliferated their own misery with the Israelis, the generational tension and inter-community contempt within Syria that escalated into the civil war, and the innumerable atrocities by the Taliban and Afghani tribes. As James Baldwin artfully declared, “One of things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars.” This is the fundamental truth that is lost on the contemporary school of isolationism. It omits the possibility that, without the US intervention, the Taliban would have continued unabetted their medieval policy and massacres of the Ahmadiyya minority and Saddam would have continued with his Kurdish genocide. This was witnessed in this decade during the Yazidi genocide by Daesh, again by a disgruntled and radicalised Sunni community.
I do not discard the role of the Europeans themselves in contributing to this chaos. It goes without saying that more religiously pluralistic nations would have been significantly less amicable to contemporary conflicts. However, religious communities coexisting has been the norm in the Middle East for most of its history, under the Ottomans, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. Thus, we cannot dispense with the possibility that this level of sectarian tension is unprecedented in Islam’s history. So, too, the fact that the US has been perhaps the only actor to attempt to obviate the problems started by the Europeans, including by us in the UK. And by all means, let us freely and rightly criticise the failure of US exit strategy in Iraq, or the absence of any plan for nation-building for the governments in Baghdad and Tripoli, but it is perfectly idle to attack it without constructively learning from it so as to ensure future intervention is more auspicious.
But perhaps the most egregious display of hubris by the isolationists is the conflation of the Middle Eastern people with their respective regimes, even in the face of the most unprecedented wave of democratisation in MENA history. This is derived from this unconscionable view of the “Middle Eastern propensity towards tyranny”; that Arabs, Kurds, Sunni, Shia are all somehow fundamentally incapable of self-governance. This is in spite of the successful democratisation of Tunisia and Lebanon, of the gradual weathering away of regimes in Morocco, Algeria and Libya, and of the terrible price that protestors were willing to pay for even the possibility of a democratic society in Syria and Iraq. This view is tragically held by even senior members of the Conservative Party such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who stipulated that “the consequences of the efforts to undermine Assad have been the rise of terrorism and the mass movement of people”, blatantly ignoring the role of the Assad regime in both producing terror groups and outright massacring its own citizens. This lugubrious medley of legitimising Middle Eastern regimes as representative of any sect of local society, and not just a clientelist state to preserve the interest of an entrenched class of corrupt families, does a gross injustice to the tenacity, sincerity and eagerness of Middle Eastern peoples and their unending fight for free and just governments.
We are all conscious of the impulsive, even violent, condemnation of the US’ elimination of Qasem Soleimani or of Iranian targets in the Levant. The ubiquity of the Middle East, and the tragedy associated with it, has no doubt led to a weariness of the region, and a reticence to ever act. It has reached the point that when the US assassinates a butcher such as Soleimani, or proxies sent to uphold an illegitimate and brutal regime, that it is ultimately the US that faces the brunt of the condemnation. However, if the champions of social justice are at all sincere in their views, then perhaps they would take in stride adjusting their attitude to the people of the Middle East.
The various ethnic and religious groups are all guilty to varying extents of their own decline and vulnerability. But, above any failure, they are also the ones responsible for their own emancipation since the Arab Spring. With the Hirak, the Sudanese, and Tunisian Revolutions, it becomes abundantly clear that it is not optimism that drives the hawkish belief in spreading democracy, but a real, demonstrable fact that there is an appetite for democracy even among people for whom democracy is unprecedented and unfamiliar. It is a universal desire for freedom, and it is the moral responsibility of the West to aid and uplift this cause whenever possible, while taking into consideration and learning from our previous mistakes.