01/17/2014 01:27 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

You Can't Wage War on Turbulence


Ever since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah earlier this month, critics of President Obama's foreign policy have tried to blame this new upsurge of extremist violence on his policies in the region. According to detractors like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), if only the president had left troops in Iraq this might never have happened. And if the administration had intervened in Syria early on in that conflict, the current turbulence in the region would not be occurring. Assad would be gone and groups like ISIS would not have been able to gain strength in Syria and Iraq. Stability would reign.

The logical corollary of the arguments that McCain, Graham and others have been making is that the absence of U.S. military action in the Middle East and Persian Gulf means that the United States has somehow abandoned the region. Only arms, air strikes, and boots on the ground seem to count in the skewed calculus of these hawks, who are itching to reassert U.S. military power in the region.

The president's critics have not learned the lessons of recent history. In Iraq, despite deploying over 150,000 troops and spending over a trillion dollars -- three trillion if long-term costs are included -- the United States was unable to implant a friendly democratic government. All that decade-long outpouring of blood and treasure was able to accomplish was to pave the path to power for the authoritarian Shiite regime of Nuri al-Maliki. It was Maliki's decision to break up a Sunni protest encampment in Fallujah that sparked the most recent round of violence there, and it is his ongoing policy of repression against the Sunni citizens of Iraq that has helped create a climate in which violent extremist groups like ISIS can thrive.

The current crisis in Iraq calls for a political solution, not a military one. As Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai point out in a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the greatest threats to Iraq do not stem from the activities of ISIS, but are instead "self-inflicted wounds caused by its political leaders." They further note that most analyses of the problem "grossly understate the role that state actors and the Iraqi security forces have played in bringing Iraq back to the edge of a major civil conflict." The Obama administration is sending arms to Iraq, but unless the Maliki government changes course and ends its anti-Sunni policies those arms will do more harm than good. As journalist Stephanie Gaskell has noted in a piece on Defense One, the best hope for peace in Iraq may be the defeat of Maliki in Iraq's April 30th elections.

Syria is an even harder case than Iraq, but here too it is not clear that pouring in arms or launching air strikes would have improved the situation. Even in what some observers view as one of the more successful examples of U.S. arms transfers -- the CIA's assistance to mujahedeen forces that ousted Soviet troops from Afghanistan -- the longer-term consequences outweighed any short-term gains. Many of the weapons that were funneled through Pakistan to Afghanistan in the 1980s ended up in the hands of anti-U.S. extremists, fueling terrorism and strengthening Al Qaeda in the process.

Given the fractured nature of the Syrian opposition, a large influx of arms akin to what happened in Afghanistan could easily have been diverted to U.S. adversaries, planting the seeds of future terrorist violence. As difficult as it may be, diplomacy is still the only viable way to end the killing in Syria.

The underlying challenge facing the Obama administration is what Gordon Adams of the Stimson Center has described as a "re-balancing" of global power. The United States can no longer call the shots on issues of international security, if it ever could. To be effective, U.S. policy must be conducted in concert with allies and international institutions, as in the six power talks with Iran on its nuclear program and the agreement by Syria to get rid of its stocks of chemical weapons. In the understandable outpouring of concern over violence and instability in the region, the Obama administration has not received sufficient credit for showing military restraint while opening the way to concrete diplomatic achievements.

There is plenty to criticize in the administration's overall policy towards the Middle East, from being too accommodating to the current regime in Egypt to pouring arms into Saudi Arabia without adequate consideration of where those weapons might end up being used. But one thing President Obama and his team deserve credit for is their willingness to resist the knee-jerk equation of military force and military presence with political influence. We can't wage war on turbulence, as the president's critics seem to be suggesting; trying to do so would only make matters worse.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.