As pressure mounts to get more deeply involved in Syria, few attempts have placed the chances for successful intervention within a comparative historical context, or have analyzed the opportunity costs of such interventions. Most Americans would probably be surprised, for instance, to learn that over the past two decades their country has, according to Paul Wolfowitz, fought “at least seven wars of Muslim liberation” (in Kuwait, Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). Unfortunately, such expenditures of blood and treasure have gained us precious little gratitude or appreciation.
According to a 2012 Pew Research Survey, on average 75-80 percent of the world's Muslim populations have an unfavorable attitude towards the United States. This might have something to do with the collateral damage resulting from these liberatory wars. According to Stephen Walt, U.S. military actions have killed, by a very conservative estimate, some 288,000 Muslims in the very places we have “liberated.” And the financial costs of such interventions have been nothing less than astronomical, and potentially catastrophic for the country. Brown University’s Costs of War project has estimated that American military expenditures on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will ultimately cost over $4 trillion dollars—fully one quarter of the entire U.S. national debt.
Moreover, from a long-term perspective it is difficult to see the benefits these interventions have brought. Since 2001, the United States has provided some $93 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. If these monies were intended to promote, at least to some small degree, values and concepts such as respect for human rights and civil liberties, then their expenditure might well go down as the most miserably failed lobbying effort in history. In May, the Afghan parliament debated measures to ban child marriages, forced marriages and marital rape for a full fifteen minutes before the initiative was scrapped. Meanwhile, after twelve years of war, 2,250 American lives lost, and $93 billion invested, we are beginning negotiations with the Taliban, who have just opened a political office in Qatar representing “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Another beneficiary of Western largess has been Egypt, which since the Camp David Accords has received by conservative estimates over $45 billion in U.S. military and civilian aid. A recent EU auditor’s report claimed that EU financial assistance to Egypt has “done little” to tackle corruption and the effort to improve human-rights abuses has been “largely unsuccessful.” Examples of such failures are not hard to find. According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, 80–85 percent of Egyptians believe that apostates and adulterers should be stoned to death, and 75 percent believe thieves should have their hands cut off. (Even in relatively liberal Jordan, a recent study found that one third of all teenagers believed that honor killings were appropriate for women and girls who bring “shame” on the family.) Just two years ago, now deposed president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs.” One can't help but think that the neocons must have been smoking something funny out of their shisha pipes when they argued that a region with such predominant attitudes about freedom of conscience and corporal and capital punishment just needed a military invasion for democracies to start bursting forth.
Moreover, when the media spotlight goes off, little notice is paid to how these efforts can backfire. In the 1990s, the United States helped infiltrate Iranian agents and Al Qaeda operatives into Bosnia. Yet by 2001, according to the late Richard Holbrooke, if it had not been for the peace agreement ending the war, the 9/11 attacks would have been planned “from Bosnia, not Afghanistan.” The extent to which these policies continue to haunt us is amply evident; in just the last couple of months, two Iranian “diplomats” were expelled from Bosnia for their suspicious dealings with a Wahhabi leader who advocates jihad against the West and the imposition of sharia in Bosnia, and one of the architects of the Pakistani nuclear program, Zahid Ali Akbar Khan, was arrested in Bosnia. What Akbar Khan was doing in the country remains unexplained. Western diplomats and security officials are also becoming increasingly alarmed at the dozens of Bosnian extremists joining the jihad in Syria.
Adding up the costs all of these foreign adventures, misadventures and tragedies inevitably leads one to wonder how these monies might have been better spent. For instance, for less than the $93 billion in reconstruction aid we have spent in Afghanistan, Congress could have fully funded the Veterans Administration’s ten-year, $65 billion construction plan, which is desperately needed given the fact that according to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, demand for VA services from returning Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans is at “unprecedented levels.” Or for $76 billion dollars ($17 billion less than what we have spent in Afghanistan), we could have repaired the 11 percent of U.S. bridges that a recent report by Transportation for America said were structurally deficient. Or perhaps the monies could have been devoted to improving educational opportunities for American children, especially in light of the recent study chaired by former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice and former New York City Public Schools chancellor Joel Klein on the manifold threats to U.S. national security the country’s challenged educational system has created. Or perhaps we could have just paid down the national debt, which Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cited as the greatest threat to U.S. national security.
As the Obama administration and the country debate the parameters for intervening in Syria, it is worth remembering that in the Balkans and in Iraq we have watched this movie before, and we almost certainly know how it ends. The Washington war lobby and the intervention industry set their sights on a small, dysfunctional, failed state wracked by long-term historical problems and internal ethnic and religious violence. The subsequent pattern and dynamic are repeatedly the same. In the foreign-policy salons of Washington and New York, international-affairs experts propose (between sips of cheap chardonnay) solutions to crises in countries they have never been to, inhabited by peoples they have never met, whose languages they don't understand and whose histories they don’t know. The demonization of the dictator begins, followed by the imposition of economic sanctions and arms embargoes.
When this isn’t enough, demands grow for more decisive action, such as arming the “good guys” and the establishment of no-fly zones and safe areas. Somewhere along the way a well-connected, media-savvy leader will be found and groomed to represent the good guys (It’s a safe bet that at this very moment someone in Washington is looking for the Syrian Ahmed Chalabi). Intelligence will then be cooked, and a frenzied media will demand even more decisive action, such as cruise-missile attacks and bombing campaigns; war-crimes indictments will have to be issued.
When even this doesn't work, the Washington war lobby will insist on an outright military invasion and ground campaign because by now credibility is at stake. Meanwhile, viable diplomatic alternatives and solutions will be dismissed. Finally, after tens of thousands are dead, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent and much of the country is destroyed, the Washington politicians, media hotshots, Hollywood celebrities and empathetic rock stars will lose interest in the country, just as surely as they lose interest in whatever nightclub or restaurant is in fashion for the season. Ultimately, the country left behind is in even worse shape than when we intervened.
This is a dynamic known for centuries. As the Quran (2:11–12) says, “When it is said to them ‘Do not make mischief in the land,’ they say ‘We are but peacemakers.’ Nay, of a surety they are the mischief makers, but they do not understand.” Or, as Tacitus described the Roman campaigns in Britain, “Brigands of the world, they create a desolation and call it peace.”
Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a political risk and strategic advisory firm specializing on southeastern Europe.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/svilen.milev. CC BY-SA 3.0.