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Michael Meeropol: A Dissent From The Rush (Back) Into War

On September 10, I watched President Obama justify sending the US air force (and Special Operations “trainers”) back into combat in Iraq and in the near future into Syria as well.  According to recent polls, over 70% of those asked favored air strikes in Iraq against ISIL – the so-called “Islamic State.”   This is not surprising, given the revulsion that many Americans feel towards that group.  As the President rightly pointed out, ISIL has engaged in massacres, ethnic cleansing, brutal public executions and more significantly, offers the people under its control nothing positive for their futures.  Nevertheless,  even though ISIL is a group of vicious murderers that does not in and of itself justify military intervention.

Remember the response to 9-11?   We invaded Afghanistan, deposed the Taliban and missed Osama bin Laden.  Afghanistan is probably worse off now than it was before we invaded.  (And, surprise, surprise, the Taliban is back threatening to take Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages again.)   There is an old saying that the definition of insanity is repeatedly pursuing the same incorrect strategy and expecting a different result.   Having failed miserably to create a vibrant open democratic society in Iraq despite investing thousands of lives and billions of dollars, President Obama, who became President because he had strenuously opposed the 2003 Iraq War is about to repeat the Bush Administration’s disastrous mistake – despite his strong but unconvincing efforts to promise that this time it will be different.

Consider some other examples where the military option was clearly a mistake.   Saddam Hussein was a vile dictator visiting all sorts of atrocities on Kurds and Shia within the borders of Iraq, but the Bush Administration’s decision to invade in 2003 was a disaster of major proportions – not just for the US but for the people of Iraq.   Second, Muammar Gadaffy was a brutal dictator in Lybia.  Now that he’s gone the Lybian people are in worse shape with a completely lawless country being fought over by many independent militias.  Finally, in an example where intervention was not attempted we have the case of Bashar al-Assad, the current President of Syria.  True, he is engaging in murderous behavior in an attempt to crush the opposition – yet President Obama rightly resisted calls to intervene against him in the Syrian Civil War.   (Those who proclaim that he should have intervened in Syria have to ask themselves how ANY President could have survived doing that in the face of strong public and Congressional opposition.  Remember, these are the same “critics” who routinely accuse President Obama of abusing is power --- and here they loudly condemn him for --- you guessed it – NOT abusing his power.)

What is my overall point?   Military intervention by the US government into the internal affairs of foreign countries is unlikely to produce the positive results that most of us would want to see to justify the loss of life.   

Thus, the best response to horrible events in the rest of the world is to be very careful.  So-called experts, politicians and pundits have all mocked President Obama for arguing that the first rule of our foreign policy must be “don’t do stupid stuff.”  Yet in fact had that policy been followed, the US would never have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Some listeners may know that the first line of the Hippocratic Oath – the guide for all physicians – is “First, do no harm.”   Our interventions, going all the way back to the 1953 ouster of the democratically elected Mosaddeq government in Iran have been doing harm for decades.

(If anyone is interested, the GUARDIAN [19 Aug 2013] just published a story based on recently declassified CIA documents  --- see “CIA Admits Role in 1953 Iranian Coup,”   http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/19/cia-admits-role-1953-iranian-coup)

True, everyone brings up the failure of the US and Europeans to intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994 – and perhaps that is an exception to the rule I am attempted to articulate.   Nevertheless, I hope that the American people’s inclination to oppose a long run intervention back into Iraq will not be engulfed by the short-run enthusiasm for a “painless” intervention via air power.  

I hope everyone who listened to President Obama will realize that there was not one ounce of evidence presented that even the victory of ISIL in Iraq and Syria (a result that the Iranians, for example, would never permit) would not threaten the security and long run health of the United States one bit.   (Recall the arguments from the 1960s that the defeat of South Vietnam by the communist insurgents would seriously damage US national security.)   Then there is the argument that the Americans who join ISIL in Syrian and Iraq will return  home to commit acts of terrorism here.  IF that is what we are worried about, then NOT intervening and therefore NOT killing ISIL fighters would be the way to avoid giving these Americans reasons for exacting revenge once they return home.

Now it is true that there is a great unease both in the US and elsewhere in the world that we “have to do something” about ISIL because they are threatening the beginning of a long civil war among Shia and Sunni Muslims which might in the end pit Iran against Saudi Arabia and its allies (they are actually now fighting a proxy war in both Syria and Iraq).  Christian and other religious minorities are threatened and Israel may end up being drawn in as well.  The problem appears to be that the “what” and “we” always end up “doing” is some form of overt or covert military activity.  When people demand a diplomatic alternative – such as the US, the European Union and Russia bringing Iran, the Syrian government AND the Saudis, Jordanians, Iraqis and opposition groups in both Iraq and Syria to the conference table demanding that they work it out or get no aid from anyone those people are dismissed as “pie in the sky” dreamers.  After the craziness with which Bush Administration people sold the Iraq War to the American people, such dismissal by the very people who promised Iraq would be a cakewalk and the new society would emerge fully formed almost immediately should at least be treated with a grain of salt if not completely disregarded.

Forgetting macro diplomacy how about a micro policy?  How about instead of spending a penny bombing Iraq and Syria and arming people whose weapons will almost certainly find their way into the hands of the enemies we instead commit to the policy that ended up in the end bringing down the Berlin Wall in 1989 – a policy of open borders in Europe and the US (we could also encourage similar welcomes from Canada and Latin America).    And in order to facilitate this, we promise to organize rescues (with military support if need be) of ANY Iraqi or Syrian who wishes to “desert” from ISIL controlled territory or get out of the battlefields where they are currently trapped.   We could spend the billions we plan on spending fighting another war instead setting up safe havens for those who want to get away from the war zones.   In the end, this will bleed ISIL of all the people they are counting on for support – and at the same time it will show the world that we know how to heal as well as kill.

Stupidly idealistic and unrealistic?  So is invading Iraq and third time and hoping for a different result.

The US had no business intervening in Iraq in 2003 and has no business going back there now.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author (with Howard Sherman) of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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