The “Barack Obama/John McCain Brigade” strikes again—horribly.  The U.S. federal government has sown creative destruction in the Middle East, and the world is reaping the whirlwind.  When will the madness end?  When profit is removed from war and lust for power is drained from the human heart.  In the meantime, Americans could learn from Andrew Bacevich, Daniel Larison, and Joel Veldkamp.  Whether evil or stupid, the neocons offer neither safety nor wisdom.  Yes, of course, condemn ISIS, but also condemn the root cause: those who have unleashed ISIS in the service of Washington Rules.


Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. American perspectives on the Middle East suffer from two forms of American-centric, narcissistic thinking. One is the view promoted by the neo-cons, that America is the region’s policeman. The other is its converse, that American interventionism is the root cause of the region’s problems. Both are wrong. Both are narcissistic. This article falls into the second category. This way of thinking is common to the American left, and common amongst Catholic thinkers who otherwise uphold Catholic social thought.

    What’s missing is a Third Way, which strives to put aside narcissism and embrace the global community, seeking international solutions (including military solutions where necessary) under international leadership. The US should not lead the international community in putting boots on the ground in Syria to defeat ISIL, but France and the UK can and should do so. The debate must not be about American leadership, it must be about international leadership of an anti-ISIL coalition, of which the US would be a welcome member, but not its leader. This approach will assist both the neo-cons and the Catholic anti neo-cons to moderate their instinctive positions in favour of something more modestly appropriate to a former Empire now in decline and searching for its new place in the world.

  2. Vern, Thank you for your comment. I partly agree with what you say. You’re right that U.S. interventionism is not the sole cause of the problems of the Middle East. Life is more complex than that. There are foundational factors like Islamic theology, ethnic rivalry, and state rivalry also involved. These would contribute to violence with or without U.S. involvement. But U.S. intervention exacerbates the problems; it does not alleviate them.

    For Americans, the debate must partly be about American leadership because our government’s wrong-headed and destructive policies in the Middle East, for generations, have been pivotal to the problems that have culminated in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and their side effects. The “international leadership” of which you speak does not exist. It’s just an abstraction. Some specific government is going to lead, or perhaps a handful of governments. The U.S. government operating under the cloak of the United Nations or NATO is no improvement over “unilateral” action–it’s just more dishonest.

    I disagree that an anti-ISIS coalition led by the former empires of the UK and France is any improvement over a coalition led by the declining American Empire. The West needs to butt out of the Middle East. The people of the region need to solve their own problems. Those with power and influence who live there are not children. They do not need the “Great White Fathers” of European-rooted imperialism to tell them what to do or try to bomb them into submission. That’s narcissism. Such endeavors may use the language of moral idealism, but there is plenty of self-interest involved for the elites who call the shots.

    Pouring more gasoline on the fire–be it unilateral or multilateral–is not the answer. There may not be a good solution to the deeper problems, but imperial demands by foreigners that Assad must go, like previous demands about Saddam and Khadafy, will not help. They have created the vacuum being filled by ISIS and the attendant refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq. It’s been a disaster and U.S. neoconservatives/imperialists of both parties are primarily to blame. Glib phrases like “military solutions” and “boots on the ground” are euphemisms for killing people and blowing things up. Foreign bullets and missiles will not improve the lives of average people in the Middle East. As Bacevich says, governments which claim to speak in our name ought to follow the Hippocratic maxim: “Do no [further] harm.”

    • Thanks Jeff. I agree that more intellectual honesty is needed in this discussion, on all sides. If anyone is against any military intervention in Syria or Libya or anywhere else, on the grounds that it kills people, then they should say directly that they are pacifists. Usually, however, this doesn’t happen, and they proceed to argue about the effectiveness or otherwise of particular interventions like that in Iraq in 2003 or that in 1992 (or the non-intervention in 2003 when the Iraqi people spontaneously rose up in revolt against Saddam and called for Western military support and found it wasn’t forthcoming).

      I am not a pacifist and I support military intervention to defeat murderous regimes. The issue is how this is conceived, led and executed, including the framework in which post-regime civil society is to be cultivated and protected. I am not concerned about the legality of such interventions, because legality is currently determined or otherwise simply by whether five powers including two authoritarian regimes vote to make it legal or illegal, and that is too flimsly a basis for legality to be taken seriously.

      I supported military intervention in 1993 in Iraq when the Iraqis called for it, and it didn’t happen. I supported military intervention in 2003 to topple the Saddam regime as a belated response to the 1993 appeal. The tragedy for Iraq, however, is that the US leadership of the exercise in 2003 and thereafter was monumentally incompetent. Not a thought was given to how Iraqi civil society was to be cultivated and protected after decades of suppression.

      The double tragedy for Syria in 2009/10 was that the US was so spooked by its incompetent intervention in Iraq in 2003, that it didn’t intervene to support the Syrian peaceful uprising against Assad (a second spontaneous uprising that appealed to Western support without success). The UK and France wanted to intervene then: Cameron went to Parliament for approval and was defeated, while the French deferred to the US decision. The Syrian people have paid a catastrophic human cost for these decisions. The ‘harm’ done by non-intervention has been massive. The French decision not to intervene in Syria in 2009/10 is clearly one that the French authorities now regret.

      I do not share the view that intervention by western powers is ‘imperial’ and ‘racist’. That is an emotive characterisation designed to bolster a case which rests, I think, on a residual pacifism. In the case of both the UK and France, the willingness to intervene on the part of significant sections of these societies derives more from a desire to acknowledge responsibility for past imperial pretensions in the region, and an acceptance of responsibility for its unresolved legacy, than from any ongoing yearning for empire.

  3. Vern, On a more positive note, I am impressed by your Civil Society Movement. Following your name’s link, I was especially drawn to what you’ve written on your “About” and “Charter” pages. They resonate with me because of your emphasis on human scale and wide dispersal of power. Historic lack of civil society in the Middle East is another regional problem that contributes to violence. When I say the West should butt out of the Middle East, I mean western governments and corporations. If groups such as your own are invited to partner with grassroots people in these countries, that’s different. It looks like your model assumes independence from governments and corporations, thereby undercutting the traditional power and profit motives of western imperialists when they meddle in foreign countries. This is a constructive partial solution to the current chaos in the Middle East. And it’s nonviolent. It builds up rather than destroys. That’s a far better idea than perpetual “pitiless war.”

    • Thanks Jeff. Agreed, in the Middle East and at home, we need to curtail the power of states and markets, and increase the power of civil society. Western interventions in the region have often backfired because once the state is toppled, there is a vacuum, and civil society is not sufficiently developed to occupy the vacant space. That said, it is not an either-or. I think we have an obligation to contribute to removing murderous regimes, and supporting civil society to grow in their place.

  4. We’re involved. We have to stay involved.

    There is both a long term and a sort term problem. The long term problem is that there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims. This is not the Sunni / Shite split — although that is a part of it. It is also the split between Westernized Sunni Muslims and Sunni Wahabbism, of which ISIS is the most virulent embodiment. The U.S., with its close connections to Saudi Arabia, is uniquely positioned to influence events. The Saudi government itself straddles this second split — oriented toward the West — but placating conservative Wahabbist clerics domestically.

    The short term problem is what to do about ISIS. We cannot ally with Russia in support of the Syrian government without breaking ties with Saudi Arabia — which we will never do. And we cannot defeat ISIS without a local, non-Wahabbist partner on the ground — and no such partner other than the Syrian government exists. Perhaps a deal with Russia to remove Assad, but to leave the Shite oriented government in place. But maybe that deal can’t be cut.

    The only thing certain is that the time when the U.S. should have avoided involvement was during the Bush presidency. To paraphrase Colin Powell, the place is now broken and we have bought it.

  5. Yes, we’re involved. No, we don’t have to stay involved. When you make a mistake, you compound the problem by continuing to make the same mistake. That’s folly. See David Stockman: . The Middle East is not a store and nations are not objects to be purchased. That’s the imperial mindset that’s been going for decades–the one that’s gotten us into this mess.

    • The striking thing about these perspectives is that they are not about what is good or bad for Syria and Syrian civil society. They are all about US interests and US arguments. That is common to both the neo-cons and their isolationist critics. As against both, the proper starting point for the discussion is consideration of what the peaceful, moderate Syrians have called for in the way of international community support.

  6. Bottom line: I’m not sanguine about the beneficial effects of bullets and bombs. This is true in regard to Syrians, Iraqis, Americans, and everyone else. More violence is rarely a good solution to the problem of violence. Common sense and empirical data argue against national commonweal coming from imperial military intervention:
    (But Doyle’s conclusion re: Syria 2015 is questionable; as I’ve written earlier, When you make a mistake, you compound the problem by continuing to make the same mistake.)

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