The View From Olympus: Global Warming

The world is heating up, and I am not referring to the atmosphere. Crises are proliferating and intensifying. Five are now on the front burner: Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ebola. Three are direct results of past U.S. policy failures. Current American policy is not what the highest conservative political principle, prudence, would recommend in any of them.

Iraq is President George W. Bush’s gift that keeps on giving. We are once again engaged in war in Iraq, this time against ISIS. ISIS exists only because the U.S. invasion destroyed the state of Iraq. If ISIS has not formally thanked the neo-cons for its existence, it should.

The air strikes ordered by President Obama may work tactically. The terrain is open, major weapons systems can be found and identified from the air, and, most important, air power has an effective ground force to support in the Kurdish Pesh Merga. So long as the aim is limited to preventing further advances by ISIS into Kurdistan, we may not get in over our heads.

However, our limited means do not accord with what President Obama has adopted as his strategic objective. In an interview on August 8 with Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, published in the August 9 New York Times, the President said

We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL. We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that “we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”

So are we or are we not committed to blocking ISIS from creating a caliphate? Outside Kurdistan, we have no effective partner on the ground in Iraq. The Iraqi armed forces have proven themselves worthless. In Syria we do have a potential partner capable of filling the void on the ground, the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. But, in yet another policy failure, we have ruled that out. Yet the president’s statement, “we’re not going to let them create some caliphate,” would seem to commit us to defeating ISIS. It all adds up to a strategic muddle, which is where American policy on Iraq has been ever since we decided to overthrow Saddam, peace be upon his beloved memory.

In Afghanistan, the inevitable is happening. As foreign forces withdraw, the Afghans go back to fighting each other. That’s Afghanistan, as it has been, is, and always will be. Every American soldier or Marine killed, every dollar spent on our Afghan War since we failed at Tora Bora has been wasted. In the end, they will have gained us nothing. This was all entirely predictable, because it is what happens to every foreigner who invades Afghanistan. The policy failure is astounding. And we still have to evacuate our remaining forces from Afghanistan safely, which may not prove easy.

As the Afghan folly fades, the West’s new folly, that in Ukraine, grows. Backed by Washington and the E.U., the Kiev government is pursuing maximalist objectives, including complete defeat of the Russian separatists followed by widespread punishment of Russian-background citizens of Ukraine. Little Ukraine is spitting in the bear’s face and daring it to take a swipe back. In the previously cited interview with President Obama, Thomas Friedman wrote,

Obama made clear that he is only going to involve America more deeply in places like Syria and Iraq to the extent that the communities there agree to an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished.

Why is Obama not applying the same logic to Ukraine? If Washington told Kiev to accept a cease-fire and negotiations to guarantee the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, that would happen. Instead, we are involving ourselves more deeply, through increased economic sanctions on Russia, while allowing Kiev to do as it likes. Once again, the neon sign that reads “Policy Failure” is flashing.

Gaza and Ebola are not the results of American policy failures, but our current policies are not prudent in either crisis. Ebola demands a rigid and complete quarantine, now. The price of a policy failure could be millions of dead Americans. In Gaza, 1.5 million Gazans cannot be left under permanent siege, with no means to import, export, or travel. It is appropriate to require a takeover in Gaza by the new joint PLO-Hamas government as a price for ending the siege, but Washington must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to bring Israel to terms, including cutting off aid. In the end, Tel Aviv cannot afford to alienate its only remaining ally, especially after its massive bombing of Gaza alienated public opinion everywhere except in America.

Does the fact that all these crises are coming at once tell us something? It does not tell us that the trend will continue. Only two of the five crises, Ukraine and Ebola, could pose any threat to the United States (Russia is still a nuclear power, which those who seek to humiliate her seem to forget). But the pace of crisis development does carry a danger. Policy is, in the end, made by humans. The more messes humans have to deal with simultaneously, the more they feel harried, exhausted, and stressed, the worse the decisions they are likely to make. We are already paying the price for past policy failures. In all five cases, we are seeing yet more failure of policy, more strategic confusion, more folly, more hubris. At some point, one player or another may make one really, really bad decision, like, say, shooting an Austrian archduke (which was not an act of a lone madman but an operation planned and carried out by Serbian military intelligence). As high as the price has been for American policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, that price can still go far higher in other places. Saddam, after all, did not have weapons of mass destruction.