Let me state this at the outset: foreign policy is hard.
It is particularly hard for libertarians and non-interventionists when global conflagrations are on the rise, as they are today. So I don’t pretend to have the answers. Better to profess ignorance than to claim to have all the knowledge. Someone once called that wisdom.
When an awful atrocity like the beheading of an American journalist occurs and is broadcast proudly, tauntingly to the world by the barbarians who comprise the Islamic State, it is tempting to cast the the absurdly complicated conflicts of the Middle East in black and white, good vs. evil lines. No doubt, ISIS is evil. Basic human decency and threads of common morality running through disparate cultures are in accord with the need to confront this type of evil directly. In times like these, emotion almost always prevails over sobriety, and here the appropriate emotional response is likely the visceral one.
And I am not even going to say that sobriety should necessarily prevail here. My instincts upon hearing of the beheading of James Foley were to unleash holy hell on militant jihadists the world over and to rigorously condemn the global obsession with “multiculturalism,” the phenomenon which undoubtedly provided the space for such an absurd circumstance as a British citizen’s decapitating an American civilian on YouTube to materialize. By encouraging large quantities of Muslim immigration and requiring little to no assimilation in host countries, the EU and UK have created pockets of Muslim populations in Europe who do not see themselves as European or Western, and are quick to revive tendencies such as anti-semitism. The predictable results of un-assimilated populations experiencing poverty from their preferred atomization from western society is what we’re seeing today: thousands of European and British citizens flocking to Syria and Iraq to join the cause. This is maddening, and makes one want to do something about it. And yet, once the emotional rage subsides, as it inevitably does, it behooves us to consider the broader implications of whatever retaliatory measures we select.
It is beyond ridiculous that the great existential threat to human decency of three years ago – Bashar Assad – is now poised to be our great ally in the existential fight against ISIS. Likewise with Iran, who will undoubtedly launch a pseudo invasion of Iraq if ISIS manage to conquer Baghdad. Your average western citizen could be forgiven for suffering from a major case of logic whiplash: recent history has preached the necessity of confronting the evil of Iranian hegemony and the specific threat to global freedom that would entail should they acquire nuclear weapons capability. Even more recently we have been told that Assad “needs to go” because he was a vicious and evil dictator prone to the comprehensive abuse, torture and murder of his own people. And before we found out about the immediate threat to our way of life posed by ISIS, we endured the spectacle of Russians on the march.
The same voices that wished us to intervene on behalf of “the rebels” to counter Assad’s vicious brutality in Syria are now admitting that we in fact require the Assad regime’s assistance in confronting ISIS. What I take from this is that it’s best to not rush to judgment about who the good and bad guys are in a cauldron as unpredictable and volatile as the Middle East. The more difficult takeaway is the one nobody likes to verbalize, yet everyone is beginning to understand to be the hard truth: that as long as the Middle East is engulfed in a vicious Sunni-Shia civil war (going on 1300 years now) and religious doctrine that (for whichever of the numerous reasons) breeds only contempt for western values and economic prosperity, the only bulwark against chaos and anarchy is despotism.
It feels vulgar to even express this sentiment, but the Middle East was simply less volatile and less of a threat to the West (and really, even to its own people) when it was largely governed by despots and tyrants. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar Assad and Moammar Qaddafi were/are terrible human beings who abused their own subjects, but they were also effective corks on their respective nations’ bubbling discontents. Remove the corks, as the United States did in Iraq and Libya and the Arab Spring served to do in Egypt, and the resulting vacuum is filled not by democratic pluralists but by fundamentalist Islamists. I think we have enough evidence now to conclude this to be more than a trend. It is an inescapable reality.
I think the only thing that can heal the Middle East in the long run is the injection of some Deng Xiaoping style market reforms, so that those subjected to such violence and suffering can instead have a little wealth and prosperity. But until the Middle Eastern Milton Friedman emerges, the only way to stop the madness over there, unfortunately, is to bring back the despots. I wish it were not so, but it is. In the meantime, I think the responsible non-interventionist position is to continually highlight the perils of even trying to figure out which rebels are “good” or “moderate” and to discourage emotional reactions that lead to irrational commitments to nation building or other general efforts at imposing order on a permanently disorderly part of the world.
Ultimately, when it comes to the Middle East our position should heed the wisdom of Socrates and admit the truth: “we know nothing.”