The Obama administration is considering working with the Iranian government to deal with the full-blown horrors currently plaguing Iraq. As a non-interventionist, I’m committed to opposing such an approach. If I were a pragmatic realist or a utilitarian I’d be tempted to agree that such an alliance would be the lesser of evils, although as clear as that might seem today, I’d still have my reservations.
The terror in Iraq itself could be partly traced to a number of interventions where the U.S. government sought to ally with the lesser evil. The al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists got a boost as America intervened on their side in Libya and, less conspicuously, in Syria. The instability in Iraq generally was a totally predictable consequence of the U.S. ousting Saddam Hussein.
While ousting Saddam stood as the central goal in America’s most horrifically cataclysmic foreign policy endeavor since Vietnam, he was of course every bit as brutal as the neocons claimed. Indeed, for many years the U.S. favored his rule for the precise reason that he was a brutal secular strongman who effectively suppressed Islamist factions (and before that because he was seen as a Cold War ally against radically leftist forces).
Saddam’s most notorious acts of inhumanity took place in the 1980s, during his war with Iran. In that conflict, the United States intelligence community furnished Saddam with military intelligence, despite knowing about his penchant for using chemical weapons since 1983. The Reagan administration worked to defend Saddam against international criticism (even as the administration secretly and in direct defiance of Congress furnished weapons to Saddam’s mortal enemies in Tehran).
Thus did the United States back the Iraqi regime during its worst atrocities. In particular, Saddam’s use of poison gas became a major talking point in the run up to war with Iraq in 2003. That war’s early consequences included the empowering of Iranian-allied Shi-ites as well as al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda, as most everyone knows, has its roots, along with the Taliban, in the insurgent fighters the United States began supporting in 1979 to provoke an invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and help lead to its overstretch and demise.
So it goes with U.S. foreign policy. To defeat the fascists, ally with communists. To defeat the communists, ally with Islamists. To stop the Islamists, back the worst of secular dictators. To rein them in, throw support back to the fundamentalist radicals. When they begin to conquer the nation the U.S. promised to liberate, it’s time to consider support from an authoritarian regime the U.S. has been constantly demonizing for many years.
Ideologues on both sides of the foreign policy debate have a tendency to downplay the evils of foreign regimes, or some cases to exaggerate them, based on whom the U.S. government is backing. In this way, a brutal dictator opposed to the United States can sometimes find support among the less thoughtful antiwar agitators while American hawks do all to demonize the same tyrant they themselves whitewashed back when he was a U.S. ally. But in truth, sometimes the U.S. sides with the slightly less evil side; sometimes it sides with the worse side. Sometimes it sides with both, perversely enough, or sides with one in one theater of war and the other in another context. Often the U.S. shifts its support over a matter of years or even months.
The most important point, however, is that when the U.S. offers support on any side, it does so at a great moral price, sacrificing core principles of right and wrong for the expediency of political calculation writ large. Thousands die, supposedly to save tens of thousands, but rarely does to calculus add up nearly the way it’s advertised, and even when it does interventions plant the seeds for greater disasters around the corner. Just as often, it is impossible to figure out which side is less bad, or the very act of intervening on behalf of one faction can make it worse simply by removing its underdog status and giving it more power in the region.
Those who are running over Iraq are almost surely worse than the people running Iran. But to stop them, the U.S. would likely have to enlist the help of other militants as well, and who knows what that will lead to.
What Bush did in 2003 will continue to reverberate and have horrific consequences in the region, maybe for decades. It was potentially the worst American foreign policy decision since World War I in terms of the long-term consequences. Tragically, that is no reason for the United States to try to fix the problem, because it probably can’t do so, at least not without setting in motion something even worse in the future.
If the United States ever does break its cycle of foreign violence, the short term consequences might not satisfy anyone. Terrorism might continue for decades, given the resentment built up. Regimes will become replaced with worse ones. These horrors might multiply and unfold for half a century. But the United States still needs to break the cycle, and the sooner the better, because the only alternative is to keep bombing, intervening, killing, and befriending brutal enemies of enemies, and for the last century all that has produced is more of the same.