Richard Haass issues a very tired warning:
The consequences of a lasting American retreat from the world would be dire. The Middle East is arguably the most salient example of what happens when the U.S. pulls back [bold mine-DL]. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has mostly stayed out of Syria, failed to follow up on its intervention in Libya, largely left Iraq and committed to leave Afghanistan. We have since returned to Iraq, and our withdrawal from Afghanistan was never complete, but the substance and signal of a diminished U.S. role have contributed greatly to instability in the region. Not acting can be every bit as consequential as acting [bold mine-DL].
Haass’ argument isn’t the least bit persuasive, but it is useful in displaying the shoddy assumptions so many advocates of activist U.S. foreign policy embrace. He points to the Middle East as possibly the “most salient example of what happens when the U.S. pulls back,” yet this is the region of the world where the U.S. has been incessantly interfering more often and more violently than in any other region for the last fifteen years. One can argue about the extent of U.S. responsibility for disorder and upheaval in each case, but the U.S. has been intervening in these countries in one form or another for a quarter-century. It is absolutely the last region one would choose to illustrate what happens when the U.S. “pulls back” because the U.S. has been doing just the opposite there for a generation.
It is only by misleading the audience into thinking that a reduction in the U.S. military presence from its extremely intrusive and abnormally high level in the 2000s represents “retreat” that Haass’ argument has any chance of making any sense at all. The extent of U.S. meddling there may ebb and flow from year to year, but it is undeniably much greater now than it was fifteen years ago, and it was much greater then than it was fifteen years before that. The U.S. has either been maintaining or steadily increasing its extensive involvement in the region. The idea that the U.S. has “pulled back” from a place that it has been constantly trying to “shape” through direct and indirect military means for twenty-five years is risible, and yet it is widely accepted and recycled as a piece of conventional wisdom that foreign policy establishment leaders recite without thinking.
The last line about consequences is another common assertion that doesn’t hold up very well. For one, a state bears more responsibility for its own actions and their consequences than it ever does for the actions of others that it “fails” to “stop.” Our government can’t be expected to answer for the actions of other states and groups that it isn’t supporting, but it should be held accountable for what it does or helps others to do. When the U.S. directly and deliberately inflicts harm on other countries, or helps its clients to do the same, it owns the consequences of those actions in a way that it simply cannot own the consequences of “failing” to prevent the acts of others.
One might also ask: consequential for whom? The invasion and occupation of Iraq had far greater, more enduring costs for the U.S. and its allies and for the people of Iraq than any other policy decision in the region since then, and both Iraq and Syria are living with the aftershocks of that horrible decision. There is simply no comparison between the enormous damage done by “acting” in 2003 and the years that followed and any subsequent decision not to “act” (i.e., inflict more death and destruction on other countries). Even if the costs were remotely comparable, the responsibility that our government bears would be much greater for the former than the latter.
There is also the problem that the U.S. has not been “inactive” in any of the region’s conflicts, but only less-active-than-warmongers-would-like. The U.S. has not been inactive in Syria, but has opted to help stoke a civil war in collusion with its despicable regional clients. The fact that it has done so haphazardly and less enthusiastically than many Syria hawks want is beside the point–it is another form of destructive “action” that has had deleterious consequences for people in Syria and the surrounding region. We don’t hear much about the negative consequences of that policy, but we hear all the time that the U.S. is somehow to blame for what the Syrian government and its allies are doing because the U.S. doesn’t start a war against them.
Anyone tempted to claim that the U.S. has “pulled back” from the region also has to account for the U.S. role in the appalling war on Yemen. If the U.S. really were withdrawing and writing the region off, it would not be aiding the Saudis and their allies in pummeling and starving Yemen, and it would not be going out of its way to help them cover up the crimes they have committed there with our help. An America that was truly withdrawing from this part of the world would have nothing to do with backing a coalition of despotic regimes as they create near-famine conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries, but of course the U.S. has been fully backing the Saudi-led coalition from day one in an effort to “reassure” the Saudis and others of Washington’s commitment to them.
This is one of the most abhorrent U.S. policies in the region, and one of the worst things the U.S. has helped other governments do in my lifetime, and it is happening precisely because the U.S. isn’t “pulling back” and has no intention of doing so. The question I would ask Haass is this: how does it serve any American interest to enable the Saudis’ atrocities against their neighbors, and how can that possibly be better than a policy of noninterference and non-intervention? I suspect he doesn’t have a good answer, especially when he can’t even be bothered to acknowledge the war on Yemen or the U.S. role in it.