Forgive me. I agree with Donald Trump.
Last Sunday, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked the blowhard businessman and presidential candidate if he thinks the Middle East would be better today if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi were still around and Assad were stronger. Trump’s answer: “It’s not even a contest.” Fellow GOP candidates pounced. Marco Rubio said Trump “doesn’t understand the reality.” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called him “painfully nave.” But Trump is right.
Let’s start with Saddam. Yes, he was a monster. According to the United Nations, he oversaw “pervasive repression and widespread terror.” He used “rape as a political tool.” He killed thousands of Kurds with poison gas in 1988. During the uprising that followed the Gulf War, his troops slaughtered as many as 100,000 of Iraq’s own Shia citizens.
Many people, myself included, didn’t think that what followed Saddam could possibly be worse. We were wrong. According to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University, Simon Fraser University and Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, America’s invasion, and the turmoil that has followed, have claimed the lives of half a million Iraqis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost two million Iraqis were displaced from their homes in 2014. In the 11 years following America’s invasion, Iraq’s Christian population declined by two-thirds.
All this was before the rise of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, an organization that would likely not exist had America not collapsed the Iraqi state. Today, that genocidal group controls roughly one-third of Iraq.
To be fair, Iraq’s Kurds are better off now. They’re certainly far better off than they were in the late 1980s, when Saddam was attacking them with chemical weapons. But after the Gulf War, the Kurds gained de facto autonomy under an American-led no-fly zone. So if the point of comparison is Iraq in 2003—as opposed to Iraq in 1988—Trump’s argument probably still holds.
Libya’s Gadhafi was repressive too. He had his opponents arrested, tortured, even mutilated. But as in Iraq, what has come since has been even worse.
In early 2011, civil war broke out in Libya. By spring, NATO was bombing. By October, Gadhafi was dead. But in the three and half years since the civil war began, according to the Danish Institute against Torture, one out of every five Libyan families has seen a family member disappear. By this spring, according to Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center, 400,000 Libyans were displaced (in a country of six million). According to the World Bank, real GDP dropped by 13 percent in 2013 and 24 percent in 2014. This summer, UN Special Envoy Bernardino Leon warned that Libya was “on the verge of economic and financial collapse.”
Syria is worst of all. In 2010, Human Rights Watch called Syrian President Bashar Assad’s human rights record “bleak.” The press was censored; due process was nonexistent; Syria’s Kurdish minority suffered severe discrimination.
But what has followed has been beyond belief. The civil war that broke out in 2011 has claimed more than 200,000 lives. A staggering 50 percent of Syria’s people have been forced from their homes. ISIS controls as much as half the country’s territory.
So, yes, “it’s not even a contest.” The people of Iraq, Syria and Libya were safer when nasty dictators ruled their countries than they are now that their countries have collapsed. The United States was safer too, since neither Assad, Gaddafi nor Saddam (Bush administration spin notwithstanding) were plotting or inspiring terrorist attacks against the US in their final years in office. ISIS is.
To be sure, Trump’s comments have little practical application. Just because the Middle East was better off when Saddam ruled Iraq, Gaddafi ruled Libya and Assad controlled all of Syria doesn’t mean the United States could have made it so. The civil wars in Libya and Syria began as popular uprisings. Even with American help, it’s not clear Gaddafi and Assad could have crushed them. (Especially since key countries in the region wanted each man gone). It was, of course, within America’s power to not invade Iraq. But it’s possible that, there too, the Arab Spring would have sparked rebellion, and perhaps state collapse.
So Trump’s comments don’t offer a strategy, either for what the US should have done when the uprisings in Syria and Libya began in 2011, or for what the US should do now that Syria, Libya and Iraq have fractured. (It makes little sense to expect such things from a man who doesn’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas).
What Trump’s comments do offer is a disposition toward restraint, one richly warranted by the events of the last decade and a half. In the late twentieth century, the United States was largely an “off-shore” power in the Middle East and South Asia. America stationed few troops there. It mostly exerted its power indirectly: by supporting regimes that sold cheap oil and kept America’s rivals at bay.
Then, after 9/11, the US became an on-shore power. George W. Bush invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama has withdrawn most of America’s ground troops from those countries, but through the drone war, the Libya bombing, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and now the war against ISIS, he has continued—and even escalated--attacks from the air. Most of Trump’s GOP opponents think Obama should bomb more, and perhaps send some ground troops back in too.
Trump’s core point is that after fifteen years of this staggering display of American violence—justified in the name of fighting terrorism, preventing nuclear proliferation and spreading human rights—the Middle East is worse off. It is more inhumane and contains more terrorists.
Obviously, correlation is not causation. American intervention has not caused all, or even most, of the region’s problems. But after the experiences of the last decade and a half, presidential candidates should be keenly aware of war’s unintended consequences. They should remember that America usually lacks the power and wisdom to topple governments and build better ones in tribal societies with little experience of democratic government. They should understand that although American “leadership” sounds good, it is often a euphemism for dropping bombs that incinerate people whose faces we never see and whose names we never know. And that in so doing, America makes already traumatized societies even more desperate and even more hateful.
But the leading Republican candidates for president don’t understand this. They believe that when the United States government imposes its will domestically, it generally makes things worse. Yet when it comes to foreign policy, they lose all appreciation for government restraint.
Trump is different. In his comments last Sunday about America’s role in the Middle East, he offered a perspective his main competitors almost never provide: humility. And when your party is relying on Donald Trump for humility, you know something is very, very wrong.
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