Liberalism is not pacifism. Liberal values must be brought to bear on international affairs, and liberals should support the use of diplomacy and, when necessary, military force, to facilitate the spread of liberalism and democracy; and to defend it when threatened. In 230+ years of American history, many commodities, modalities and technologies have had their time of economic and-or military importance: ships, railroads, whale oil, cotton, petroleum, rocketry, enriched uranium, etc. But the proliferation of liberalism and democracy worldwide has been, and shall always be, of enduring importance to US economic and security interests – and to that of all liberal democracies. Oil may or may not be critical to US interests in 20, 50 or 150 years. But liberalism and democracy at home and abroad surely will be.
Events ongoing in the region where once existed the countries of Iraq and Syria are today reshaping Middle Eastern geopolitics. The cause of liberalism is not indifferent as to what the outcomes will be – the US must intelligently assert itself to see that liberal and democratic values are given the best opportunity to flourish. In this series of posts, the Liberal Field Guide will try to elaborate a coherent US policy toward that end.
Syria and Iraq are gone, and five unstable proto-countries now occupy their place on the map. (1) The Islamic State (IS, also ISIS, ISIL) has cut the two former countries in half, severing (2) the “Iraqi Government,” based in Baghdad, which maintains tenuous control over the southwestern Shia quarter of the former Iraq; from (3) Iraqi Kurdistan, which is now effectively an independent country in the mountainous northeast along the Turkish and Iranian border. IS has also severed the nominal (4) “Syrian Government,” based in Damascus, which controls the southwestern third of what used to be Syria; from (5) Syrian Kurdistan, which is now independent of the Damascus regime, in the mountains bordering Turkey. IS continues to grow at the expense of the other four entities, attempting to push north into the two Kurdistans, while having more success in its attempt to encircle Baghdad. IS has merged central Iraq and northeastern Syria into a single Sunnistan.
The US is faced with the choice of helping to prop up one or both of the Iraqi regimes (one in Baghdad and one in Iraqi Kurdistan) that it’s spent the past decade helping to fashion and form; or abandoning them to fight for their survival without US aid, as the two Syrian regimes (in Damascus and Syrian Kurdistan) have been left to fight for theirs.
For its extraordinary cost, the Vietnam War has proved to be invaluably instructive for US foreign policy. Perhaps the greatest lesson is the folly of intervening in a civil war for a party that’s not interested in fighting for its own cause. This lesson applies to the Baghdad regime, which has been as inept politically as its military has been useless in the field. This lesson does not however apply to Iraqi Kurdistan, a liberal democracy under siege by IS, and well worth defending.
During its short existence, IS has proved to be exceptionally awful, with reports documenting its systematic practice of rape, torture, mass execution, ethnic cleansing, and violation of every human right you can name. IS has buried people alive, crucified others, and collected young women and girls to be sold into slavery. They are so extreme that they’ve been unable to work cooperatively with many other Sunni-oriented organizations, including, remarkably, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
The worst case scenario in the former Iraq is the same as the worst-case in the former Syria: the establishment of a radical Sunni Islamist regime. In light of IS’s quick rise to power, the US must rise beyond archaic antagonisms rooted in the Cold War and US-Israeli relations, and reevaluate the Assad regime in Damascus; as it must also consider the case of Syrian Kurdistan. No matter how bad you think Assad may be, his regime is several upgrades over IS.
The Field Guide will refine these broad strokes this week, as our analysis continues.