When you consider that we almost learned the wrong lesson from our failure in World War I (our "war to end all wars") to transform Europe into a peaceful region, I fear we will learn the wrong lessons from today.
Lessons from our recent interventions in the Middle East are difficult to unravel:
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s conflict with transnational Islamic extremism soon produced new, preliminary lessons. One was that destroying autocratic regimes in the Islamic world—the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya—without building stable and functioning states afterward may be worse than tolerating them, since it gives extremists operating space. A result of this has been the Obama administration’s hesitance to push out Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
We have a problem just setting up the problem.
The Taliban government gave al Qaeda operating space to conduct the 9/11 attacks.
Saddam Hussein supported and hosted terrorists.
Khadaffi was a state sponsor of terrorism.
And Syria supported terrorism in Lebanon and in Iraq after we destroyed the Saddam regime.
These governments just made deals to make themselves immune to those terrorists. For a while.
Which describes much of Western Europe for that matter, until perhaps the terrorism of the last year or so in France and Belgium may have shown the folly of hoping it is better to cut deals with terrorists.
So operating space for terrorists does not rely on ungoverned territory.
And we actually have a breadth of experiments in dealing with terror-sponsoring states.
We sent in the tanks and infantry to Iraq for the long haul in 2003, where we destroyed the Saddam regime and fought a long campaign to defeat the insurgents and terrorists there, before pulling out all but a diplomatic presence.
Until the jihadis regrouped, exploited our absence, and prompted us to re-engage in Iraq War 2.0 to defend the gains of the original war.
We sent in the bombers and small numbers of troops to Afghanistan to support local actors to destroy the regime and dig out al Qaeda; and kept a small force to support the new government and keep al Qaeda down, eventually escalating to near-Iraq levels of forces, and then drew down to small levels again. And this was the "real" and "good" war, recall.
We sent in the bombers in Libya to destroy the regime and just stayed out hoping non-military means could stabilize the country without our "provocative" presence that just angers jihadis.
We sent in the bombers (well, drone bombers) to support the Pakistani government's campaign against jihadis on the Pakistan side of the Afghan-Pakistan border (even as that government denied we were there with their permission to avoid angering jihadis), but found our ally was less than enthusiastic about crushing jihadis since some were clients of the Pakistani government.
We sent in the drones to Yemen to support our side in the civil war and to combat jihadis.
We sent in the drones, missiles, and special forces to Somalia to fight jihadis in the midst of a failed state, hoping others could build a stable state.
We supported a peaceful revolt against the government of Egypt, found we had supported rabid and not tame Islamists, then accepted the restoration of the original regime without the original autocrat, and watched jihadis rise up in Sinai where they have even posed a threat to our peacekeepers watching the Israel-Egypt border.
We stiff-armed peaceful revolution supporters in Iran and got a strengthened jihadi state that accelerated support for terrorism around the region.
We sent in the bombers and some special forces to Syria to sort of side with the Assad government by going after jihadis who are also our enemy while supporting other rebels who fight the government. And the Syrian rebels we support sometimes fight each other depending on whether our CIA or Defense Department provide the support.
You did not read that wrong.
And in other places we support governments in fighting jihadis below the threshold of warfare in the intelligence and law enforcement realm. And in economic and governance development areas, too. This is also part of the conflict spectrum in the Long War.
Shoot, in a non-war move, we have supported the supposedly "tame" Islamist Erdogan as he has undermined secular Turkey's rule of law. Islamists are rising in Turkey, but I don't know how tame they are. Jihadis to follow, no doubt.
I suppose I could go back to Algeria in the 1990s where we stayed out completely yet saw jihadis rise up to wage a brutal and bloody long civil war against the government before the jihadis were beaten down. For a while, anyway.
And if you want to go into the 1990s, you can look at our 1991 war to eject Saddam from Kuwait because nobody else could do it and our subsequent long containment of the Saddam regime that just left us with a hostile regime that supported terrorism.
Hey, but we'll always have Tunisia that seems to be unfolding reasonably okay these days.
So is the lesson that the Middle East is a mess and we should just stay out? We should just support whatever autocratic regime that promises to control jihadis?
But that didn't prevent the rise of jihadis prior to 9/11 when we did exactly that, which just drove people unhappy with corrupt autocratic regimes to the arms of the Islamists who promised honest, God-based governance.
So we are to go back to that model? Really? Our lesson is to be just stay out because it is a mess?
That is the lesson we learned about the violence-prone Europe after we discovered that our participation in the "war to end all wars" showed how futile it was to try to rescue mostly autocratic Europeans, as this article about American strategy reminds us:
There was a general sense in the United States after World War I that American intervention did nothing to solve the European problem, and that being drawn into another protracted and brutal European war did not serve the American interest. It was assumed that the European balance of power would block Germany and, in the event of war, lead to a repeat of the First World War and Germany’s defeat. Had France not collapsed in six weeks, but rather fought as it had in World War I, the American strategy would have been prudent. France's collapse created an outcome no one was prepared for. It also changed the strategic equation, and ultimately it changed American strategy.
It took a bigger dose of American power to defeat the bigger threat of Nazi Germany and then a longer does of American power to cement the peace while standing against an even bigger threat of Soviet Russia.
And still we find that post-Soviet Russia pines for the glory days of scaring Europeans.
Think of that century-long timeline when you wonder whether we've won or lost Iraq.
The idea that we cannot run all the world through the mass application of American military power on a large scale is obviously true, despite the apparent fear that this is the preferred option of many of us who are conservative interventionists.
And it is just as obviously true that we have not tried to do that in the Middle East. Iraq is really the exception to the rule of not sending in large numbers of troops based on the above list.
We sent in the large numbers of troops in 2003 because we decided that in light of the reach that terrorists demonstrated on 9/11 with box cutters, we could not risk Saddam Hussein getting nuclear weapons (and rebuilding chemical weapons stocks) married to his wealth, support for terrorism, and conventional military potential built up in the 1980s during the war with Iran but largely wrecked in 1991.
I know a lot of people on the Left said in 2003 that Iraq was just the first stop on the United States Army's Middle East tour that would roll through Damascus and then Tehran, but that fantasy never took place. Iraq was a one-off.
Heck, if Saddam had remained contained after the 1991 war, maybe that would have been the war to end all Iraq wars. Our experience with large-scale direct combat in the Middle East might have been limited to that short, victorious war.
But like World War I did not end the German threat, the Persian Gulf War did not end the Saddam/Iraq threat.
And just as World War II ended the German threat but did not prevent the Soviet threat from arising, the 2003 Iraq War ended the Saddam/Iraq threat without preventing the re-rise of jihadi threats in the region.
Ah, but what about Afghanistan, you say? We sent 100,000 troops there, too. Two big wars make a pattern!
I don't think so. One, Afghanistan isn't really part of the Middle East proper. It is a non-Arab backwater of Islam, for one thing.
And that Taliban government did host those who attacked us on 9/11, refusing to turn al Qaeda over to us. What American president wouldn't have smashed that regime?
For another, we never sent a whole lot of troops to Afghanistan until President Obama was president. This was a decision based not so much on national strategy, I believe, but on showing a contrast between fighting the "good war" in Afghanistan without being "distracted" by the "war of choice" in Iraq that shouldn't have been fought in his view. See? I'm not just disposed to retreating. I just want to fight the right war. This war became a continuation of the election campaign by other means.
So the president escalated in Afghanistan. But he cut short the phased campaign plan our military had written for the troops allowed, and then pulled out the vast majority of the American troops without beating down the jihadis to anywhere near the same degree we had done in Iraq by 2009.
Clearly, our experience in the Middle East has not been to first think of massive applications of American military power no matter what critics of American involvement in the Middle East think. We have tried to stay out or use varying levels of military power (and non-military power) that we thought sufficient to address the problem.
And whether or not we develop some overriding theory of how we should approach either the world or the Middle East for the post post-Cold War era, we will continue to use our military power in the degree we think it is necessary, with the allies we can gather, in support or opposition to governments or non-state groups in the Middle East to keep a lid on that region that seems to breed protracted and brutal war where intervention, it is popularly viewed, does not serve the American interest.
We need to contain the violence of the Middle East to keep us from suffering collateral damage in what is essentially a Moslem civil war to define whether Islam is a brutal religion of conquest that dreams of the 7th century or a moderate religion that can coexist with a 21st century world.
Which is why I think the Arab Spring is not a lost cause. It failed in the short run, but in the long run the Arab Moslem world needs an alternative to autocrats who inspire jihadis and jihadi regimes that promise to cure the problems of autocratic regimes. If not democracy (and rule of law, the necessary but too often neglected complement to voting), what?
This will remain a Long War regardless of how we fight particular campaigns.
All we can do is work the problem and accept that success is just the ticket to facing the next problem (to paraphrase Kissinger, I believe).