“…the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there—not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia—is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the United States remembers them.”
~A former US diplomat
The quote is from an article that appeared in The Nation earlier this month. The title encapsulates the author’s argument: “Washington to Whomever: Please Fight the Islamic States for Us.” The point of the piece is that President Obama is dreaming if he thinks that any of our supposed allies in the Middle East want what we want. The former diplomat who wrote it is right, but being right is a good way to lose your job in Washington.
Most people have never heard of Peter Van Buren. Back in the spring of 2012, Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the US Foreign Service, was stripped of his clearances and banned from the State Department headquarters after he published a damning book based on his personal experiences working with a post-invasion reconstruction team in Iraq. In due course, he received a termination notice.
Never mind the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression: it doesn’t apply to our diplomats, all of whom have security clearances. And it doesn’t matter that Van Buren was not accused of revealing state secrets in the book or that “we meant well” (the book’s title). What matters is that he embarrassed the White House (Barack Obama) and the State Department (Hillary Clinton) by detailing how we lost “the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraq” (the book’s subtitle).
What Van Buren writes about the Shia, Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, among others, is true. Measured by our aims, interests, and values, they’re bad actors.* But the reverse is also true. It’s not as though they suddenly discovered they don’t like us. They view the West in general and the U.S. in particular with a deep and abiding distrust, a sentiment most Americans can’t begin to understand.
How many Americans know a single Muslim? Many of us have strong opinions about Arabs (“terrorists” “camel jockeys” “rag heads”) despite never having traveled or lived in the Middle East or studied the history, languages, and culture of that region? How many of us understand the tenets of Islam or why it matters whether a Muslim is Shia or Sunni?
The fact that we have interests in the region doesn’t make us unique, give us a right to overthrow governments we don’t like, or guarantee outcomes we desire. Every country has interests it can’t defend by force. We’re no different, but we don’t know it. Any influential insider who gets it, doesn’t dare say so.
We can’t get past the idea that we’re exceptional. We are, of course, but so is every country and, in any case, it’s not necessarily a good thing. We think we’re morally and militarily exceptional, we pretend we don’t have homegrown terrorists despite all the massacres. Meanwhile, gun control is blasphemy equal to Bible burning. Or re-instituting the draft.
On the one hand we have popular and bipartisan resistance to universal military conscription. On the other, we have the Big Stick Fallacy, the one that says we can win any war, any place, any time if only we have the will. Exceptional = invincible. Just don’t send any trust fund kids to war. Even if an all-volunteer army can be justified on purely military grounds in the digital/drone age, it’s not justifiable on social/ethical grounds, especially not in a country that prides itself on its pristine commitment to democratic norms and that habitually uses military force as a primary instrument of foreign policy.
Van Buren did something no US diplomat is allowed to do. He told the truth and told it to the wrong people – us. Our government is not in the habit of telling us – the governed – what it’s up to. It can’t, don’t you see? To do so would be to jeopardize national security.
Transparency is fine. In theory. But anybody who thinks honesty is the best policy in a dangerous world with terrorists trying to kill us is a bleeding heart who hates capitalism and doesn’t understand reality.
It has nothing to do with protecting Big Brother from The People or from The Truth – namely that the Iraq War was a debacle from start to (un)finish, that what we were told was all a pack of lies, that thousands of lives were sacrificed in vain(again), that they squandered our tax dollars and engaged in a systematic cover up.
It’s only to keep us safe. Get it?
*Like all generalizations, this one doesn’t apply to all Shia, Sunnis, Turks, or Kurds. By the same token, not all Arabs, Turks, or Kurds are anti-Western. But there’s no reason to think there’s an untapped reservoir of good will on either side of this great divide.