THE BLOG
07/15/2016 03:20 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2017

A Semi-Permanent State Of Quasi-War?

Many Americans, and surely many people around the world, will be shocked to learn about the kinds of foreign policy "architecture" the President plans to leave for his successor. The main elements of this architecture, which the president outlined for The Washington Post, are the following: (a) The US will be in a quasi-state of war "for years to come". (b) The quasi-war will be carried out in scores of countries. The President did not identify them, but these involve the growing number of nations in which ISIS, its affiliates or similar groups, are rising. (c) The main tools of this continued warfare will include a mixture of drones, Special Forces, and CIA operations--and building up of local forces ("capacity building" in the Pentagon's lingo). (d) The goal of these operations is mitigating "low grade" threats by terror groups and "repairing fractured societies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan."

None of this makes any sense to a sociologist like myself. How will drones strikes, Special Forces, and CIA operations repair societies? Let's assume that they will prevent ISIS from continuing to hold any territory in Iraq and Syria, thus dashing its claim that it is building a caliphate. Still, as is widely acknowledged, ISIS is an idea that cannot be squashed by use of military force. It and other such groups will continue to fester in places as far apart as Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Libya. Moreover, the old states--whose boundaries and compositions were set by colonial powers, are no longer viable. Hence Sunni and Shi'a, and Kurds and Turks, and Pashtun and Hazara, will continue to battle each other--even if all the ISIS fighters retire. The US has no choice but to let the people of the region work out their differences in their own way, which often does not entail "repairing" the existing structures but forming new borders and different regimes.

Last but not least, the notion that the US can engage in capacity building in scores of countries, by sending small numbers of military advisers, drawing on small budgets, is a sociological illusion. The US sunk half a trillion dollars into nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq over 15 years. In Afghanistan it "succeeded" in transforming it from one of the most corrupt nations in the world to the most corrupt. It has become the leading producer of opiates, which are flooding Europe. And it has a regime that cannot protect itself or pay for itself. In Iraq, since it was liberated by the US, at least 300,000 civilians were killed, many more maimed, and still more have been forced out of their home. The military and the police trained and advised by the US over 15 years are often used by the Shi'a government to kill and harass Sunnis. Why would anyone hold that a much smaller US force, with a much smaller budget, could achieve what the US could not when the numbers were twenty times higher?

The fact is that despite all the anti-American rhetoric, the main focus of ISIS and its affiliates is not the US, but the local regimes and other groups in the respective countries in which the fighting takes place. The often repeated line, that the US needs to fight them there so we will not have to fight them here, simply does not apply. On the contrary, if the US would stop trying--vainly--to "repair" these societies and butt out, it would be less of a target. Moreover, as we have seen, our domestic defenses have kept American casualties at home at a very low level, much below what we suffer when we try to repair the Middle East.

Finally, ISIS is self-curing. While the Sunnis first tried to cooperate with ISIS in Iraq (because they viewed ISIS as a source of protection from the violent Shi'a) they soon found out that they didn't wish to live under the kind of regime that ISIS fosters. Many in Afghanistan first welcomed the Taliban, when they took over the regime in 1996, because they ended the total anarchy that preceded them. However, many Afghans soon discovered that they would rather fight the Taliban than live under its government. Sadly, we must let those who support ISIS and its ilk to find the errors of their ways on their own.

In short, the US has shown that its long and costly--in both blood and treasure--interventions in the Middle East cause little than more misery. The last thing the next President needs is an "architecture" that will perpetuate this policy and extend it to scores of other countries. Instead, the US should (a) work with other countries to offer peacekeeping forces--once the vying groups have settled their differences, and help them enforce whatever settlements they reach. (b) Use the funds now committed to warfare in the region to increase humanitarian aid to the millions of refugees in the region. (c) Enhance domestic security to protect against those lone wolfs and foreign terrorists who will continue to try to inflict on us what the President called 'low grade' harm. (d) Focus on nation building and peace building at home, recognizing that many more Americans are lost each year to gang warfare in our streets and clashes between the police and minorities--than to terrorism.

Amitai Etzioni's newest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking outside the Box, was recently published by Routledge for Chatham House's series "Insights". He is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. To subscribe to his newsletter, send an e-mail with the subject line "Subscribe" to: icps@gwu.edu. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.