BERLIN — American Foreign Policy magazine's home page is a little bit like a quotation board for security policy strategies. Here you see not only how various players evaluate the world's conflicts but also how much support there is for their point of view, because the number of times the article has been shared on social networks is posted along with its title and author.
And in recent weeks hardly anything has surpassed Stephen Walt's article "Do No (More) Harm," which argues that every time the United States intervenes in the Middle East, everything just gets worse. It's time to go, without looking back, Walt writes.
Not wanting to know what's going on in the world is a bizarre strategic approach. That Walt's piece resonated so widely is understandable in view of the crises in Gaza, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Kurdistan. Everywhere we see weakened governments, little-known ethnic groups and militias that keep changing their names, all fighting each other. These microcosms seem far too complicated for the involvement of outsiders.
But the macrocosm of the Muslim world comes across as immeasurably more complex to the extent that just our presence would upset the balance. We make conclusions based on specific situations and apply them globally, then flee with relief into our fantasies of powerlessness. As it happens, this way out is as amoral as it is unrealistic.
If you look at the connections between the crises, it becomes clear that not only should the West not walk away — we can’t. That's because of our economic links to the Muslim world, but also because of a pattern of conflict of which we are unavoidably a part. What's happening right now in Iraq is driven by central mechanisms the core of which are also playing out in North Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
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A U.S. soldier and an Iraqi resident of Baghdad, in Iraq, in July 2007 — Photo: The U.S. Army
Conflicts we don't understand
On the one hand, part of the pattern is the local issues that make the conflicts so confusing for the Western news consumer. In Afghanistan, the Taliban claim to represent the interests of the Pashtun majority. In Pakistan's tribal region, northern Waziristan, the army is trying to drive out what remains of al-Qaeda and Islamic groups that have found refuge among semi-autonomous tribes.
In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is fighting to establish a caliphate. And finally, Libya is sliding into the chaos that broke out among tribal groups and has spread to Islamic forces not wanting to relinquish any of the power they won after the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime. Taken by themselves, these animosities are unique. But in form and magnitude they also go beyond the local, and the West plays a role in them — voluntarily or not.
Western countries have at some time or other intervened either militarily or politically in all of these conflicts. But even when the West doesn't actively intervene, it is still involved on at least two levels. The first is the economic and strategic interests that bind the industrial countries to these areas — the oil in Iraq, Libya, Nigeria; Afghanistan’s central location; the risks Pakistan's nuclear weapons pose. The importance of these regions to the world economy gives local players higher leverage.
Second, there is the political psychology of the conflicts. In all of them, Islamist groups play a main role. Their goals may be local, but they're only as strong as they are because they manage to leverage money, weapons and fighters from abroad. International sponsors are usually powerful individuals and private foundations in the Gulf States, or military regimes such as those in Syria and Iran.
They don't support these players because the local issues are somehow dear to them. Rather their support boils down to supporting a global war against the West on many fronts. Think global, act local. The newest and best example of the terrorist version of that principle is the group formerly known as ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State (IS).
Broadening into Syria from Iraq, this terrorist group has in recent years attracted fighters from all continents, as evidenced by the suspected British IS jihadist who killed American journalist James Foley. The militia is attractive locally because it can cooperate successfully with Sunni tribes. Meanwhile, its laws, symbols and gruesome punishment rituals constitute a kind of model caliphate that they broadcast across the globe via the Internet.
The real terror regime is simultaneously a permanent ad campaign for a global public. The video of Foley's decapitation is just its latest grisly high point.
The West is no longer an imaginary participant in the new terror war. Many of the recruits are Muslims or converts who have grown up in Europe and the United States. They risk their lives for a narrative in which the Muslims avenge mankind against the West's plutocratic world system whose supposed liberalness is in fact spiritual slavery.
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A coalition force member in Afghanistan, in March 2013 — Photo: DVIDSHUB.
Fighting that fight is something that the recruits would ideally want to do in enemy heartland, which is to say their Western home countries. Anything else would contradict the psychology and logic of their biographies. Here too, we can't just walk away. For quite a while now, the war has been taking place on our own soil.
We have potential allies in this war, countless people in these far-off areas. If the terror militias are currently so successful, it's not because they have relevant answers to the real problems of locals but because their growing international connectedness has made them considerably less dependent on the approval of those around them.
Insofar as public opinion in the various crises areas can be polled — in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example — acceptance for the militants is on the wane. In Libya, the most recent Islamist offensive was manifestly linked to the dramatic defeat the Islamists suffered during the May elections. To stoke chaos in the country and intimidate its citizens, militias don't need votes. But that doesn't mean people have to let them walk away with political victories.
The breakdown of statehood in the "Arab Spring countries," the Hindu Kush and Africa has played a considerable role in the spread and interconnectedness of these new international terrorists. If they can be stopped and the situation turned around, then the counter-narrative of the militant Islamists will lose its validity — not only in those areas but worldwide.
The West can help with this politically and militarily. But if it is under the illusion that it can detach itself from these problems, then it is helping eternalize the chaos in the Middle East and North Africa, and it will never be able to escape the consequences.