“We’ve tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq. We’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya. And we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria.” These are the words of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who reflected on the decisions of western leaders who tried to plot the best course regarding hotspots in the Middle East.
These decisions to act or not to act have consequences. In the three cases noted above, the results have been “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” None of the choices have worked out.
Philip Bobbit wrote a Stratfor article called “Defining Policy Failure” in which the question was raised: “Would the United States and the world be better off today if the last three presidents had followed the dictates of realism? The answer is yes.”
Our intervention in Iraq and Libya came as a result of an optimistic belief that our actions could bring about positive change. That is the opposite of realism, which weighs costs and benefits and has low expectations for positive results based upon human nature.
The following three examples examine our interventions had we reacted realistically.
Iraq: Had the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003 and focused instead on destroying al Qaeda, “Thousands of soldiers and civilians would still be alive; Iran would have less influence; the Islamic State would not exist.” The invasion of Iraq actually did the dirty work for the Iranians. The U.S. got rid of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s major foe, shifting the regional balance of power and opening up Iranian ambitions to create an empire that stretched to the Mediterranean.
Libya: “Had President Barack Obama listened to the realists, the United States would not have joined the coalition that removed Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya, creating yet another failed state.” We would not be seeing the rise of both Al Qaeda and ISIS in Libya that we see today.
Ukraine: Had the U.S. not expanded NATO into Eastern Europe and encouraged Ukraine’s movement toward deeper relationships with the West, the Crimea would still be part of Ukraine and there would be no Eastern Ukraine controlled by rebels. We forced the hand of Putin and rattled the insecurities of Russia by encroaching on Russia’s buffer zone in its western “near abroad.”
Unfortunately, the policy of realism didn’t play a part in the decision-making in these countries and we don’t know what might have happened had we followed a more realistic approach. The results may have been worse.
Iraq: Had we left Saddam alone, he might have continued to build up his military and his resources and become an even greater threat to the entire region, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states with their vast oil resources. The nuclear agreement with Iran might not have taken place had we not invaded Iraq.
Libya: We don’t know if Gahdafi would have survived in a peaceful Libya or whether he might have been toppled after so many years in power. A decision to not get involved in the Libyan uprising might have created an even worse outcome.
Ukraine: Had we not intervened, we don’t know whether Putin would have tried to expand Russian influence into the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as he did in Eastern Ukraine. Perhaps, because we acted, these Baltic States are free today from Russian domination.
We didn’t act in Syria, where Obama followed a realistic approach, and the country is still a mess of factions fighting loyalist followers of al-Assad, ISIS and each other. Now the Russians are deeply involved, with Turks, Kurds and Iranians also entrenched in the fray. It’s difficult to imagine how it could have turned out any worse.
The problem we have, according to Bobbit, is that our goals are wrong. Foreign affairs is not like football or a game of chess. There are rarely clear winners or losers.
Instead, we make decisions to intervene or not to intervene and then try to face the fact that there are no easy simple and final solutions. There is just the next stage in an unending series of decisions. We’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.
That’s the way of nations. Our best path is to carefully weigh the costs and benefits rationally at the time and then live with the consequences.