From Syria to China, U.S. Leaders Don't Know What America is For

Every president’s primary imperative is protecting America and its citizens, not humanity, from outside threats.

The United States suffers from a severe case of strategic confusion, manifest in the country seeing enemies where none exist and showing an inability to concentrate action where they do exist. Given the immensity of American power relative to the rest of the world, this malady has a tendency to wreak havoc and generate tension in areas of American involvement. And the confusion seems so thoroughly embedded in the country’s collective psyche that prospects for any reversal remain dim. That bodes ill for America and for the world.

Consider our actions, and their consequences, of the last fifteen years. Following the seminal events of September 11, 2001, when the country was attacked by that tightly wound Islamist knot of anti-Western fervor known as Al Qaeda, the United States toppled the Afghan regime that had succored Al Qaeda and dislodged the Islamist force from the habitat from which it sought to menace the West. This was necessary and entirely appropriate.

But then we invaded Iraq, ruled by a secular tyrant who had nothing to do with the kind of Islamist radicalism that was the true enemy. This generated multiple consequences of immense difficulty. It unleashed sectarian fears and passions in the country that for years destroyed prospects for stability—and led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 Americans and an estimated 174,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians. It enflamed the region in ways that spawned a new Al Qaeda force in Iraq where previously none had existed, or could exist. It upended a centuries-long balance of power between Sunni-dominated Iraq and Shiite Iran, thus creating new challenges of stability and new difficulties in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Perhaps worst of all, the Iraq invasion and its chaotic aftermath have sapped America’s appetite for confronting the true enemy in the Middle East.

The true enemy is Islamist fundamentalism, just as it was when President George W. Bush took America on the Iraq detour. The Al Qaeda aim then was to draw America into a desert quagmire and diminish its confidence, unity and strength. It couldn’t succeed in doing that without American strategic confusion.

What the U.S. invasion didn’t do was turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern model of democratic practice, as many invasion advocates, in their confusion, had predicted. Some people thought the so-called Arab Spring, a wave of seemingly pro-democracy protests across the Middle East beginning in December 2010, would usher in such a new era. President Obama promptly expressed support for the protesters, including some motivated more by Islamist fundamentalism than by true democratic impulses. He undermined the standing of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally for decades, and assisted the emergence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (which ruled the country for a time before the old military oligarchy regained governmental dominance).

This represented strategic confusion of a very high order. It had been Islamist fundamentalism that had attacked America on 9/11, that had attacked Britain and Spain in succeeding months, that had vowed a relentless terrorist campaign against the West. Mubarak was opposed to all that; the Muslim Brotherhood had flirted with that kind of radicalism for decades. Why would an American president undermine a foreign leader who was a steadfast U.S. ally and an opponent of the Islamist fundamentalism that represented one of America’s most menacing enemies? There’s only one answer: strategic confusion.

Then, when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi found himself beleaguered by internal protests, Obama turned on Qaddafi, who had promised to end anti-Western terrorist activities and abandon efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction. In exchange, he was to be left alone. But Obama reneged, leading a bombing campaign against Qaddafi, who represented no threat to America whatsoever. The president cited “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings” and said that if America had stayed out of the fray it would have been “a betrayal of who we are.”

We know the result: a Libyan civil war producing utter chaos in the country, masses of Qaddafi’s weapons making their way into the hands of the rabidly radical Islamic State, the killing of a U.S. ambassador and other American officials. All in the name of “our responsibility to our fellow human beings.” That phrase in itself represents a highly distilled form of strategic confusion. Where does this responsibility lead us? How many bombing campaigns and wars would have to be waged if the protection and happiness of our fellow human beings, all around the world, were to be our global remit? What does this have to do with every president’s primary imperative of protecting America and its citizens, not humanity, from outside threats?

Then there’s Syria. When its brutal president, Bashar al-Assad, found himself beset by internal dissention, the U.S. government promptly adopted a position that he had to go. Then came the emergence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), potent enough to capture territory in Iraq and Syria and use that territory as spawning ground for further regional expansion and growing global menace. Its aim was to topple Assad and dominate, in the name of a restored caliphate, the lands that have been Syria since the end of World War I. Our aim was to thwart the further territorial gains of ISIS and destroy its ability to project terrorist activity into the West. Assad’s aim was to defend his country from the growing ISIS threat (along with other forces bent on destroying his regime). Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Kurds of Syria and Iraq all wanted to defeat ISIS.