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The neglected story of war

Obama lost Syria. Obama lost Crimea to Putin. Truman Lost China, Carter lost Iran. Every president since 1945 has setbacks for which they bear responsibility.  The President has the power to influence events. Policies are constructed around using the combined political, economic or military tools at the president’s power, or so we are told. So the president should be able to stop groups the U.S disagrees with from coming to power in foreign countrie.

The US is to be blunt, the dominant World Power. China has yet to fully exert itself militarily or politically on the global stage. Russia’s actions are limited to countries it is proximity to, and whom Putin supports. Russia’s anti-Americanism is not a unified alternative philosophy but an increasingly desperate effort of Putin to remain in control.  The U.S is not engaged in a life or death game of Chess, simply put there is no other power involved; rather there are local situations of varying complexity.

The media and politicians like to create narratives. These narratives miss the complex factors, which do not fit within these stories. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 is an example of this. Carter’s label as a weak president ignores the changing destabilised political situation in Tehran. The Hostage crises were itself a battle for legitimacy within a destabilised country, which had recently overthrown the vain, corrupt and vicious regime of the Shah. This nuance is lost, and instead there is the well-trodden narrative of a weak and vacillating Carter, the Obama of the 1970s, followed by the sure relief at the thought of a President Reagan, peace be upon him. In this parable we see the dangerous tropes that only the sufficient use of tough words, and the flexing of military force determine success and failure.

When we look at the Syrian Civil war we should release it is at heart a Syrian drama, one played out by various ethnic and political factions fighting for control in a country undergoing an excruciating collapse.  We can all agree that Assad is a murderous despot and that ISIS is a murderous threat, and that is about it.  One cannot safely remove one without the other, and then who would take power in such a vacuum?

To say Obama lost the Middle East to someone is itself a flawed argument, as know one state has control over the Middle East. What we are seeing in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is the inherent problems facing constructed states, and long running competitions between different groups.  This is not to excuse the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.  Yet these challenges are as much a cause of demographic changes and rivalries as the result of U.S. foreign policies. Simply bombing ISIS will not solve the ongoing crises of the Syrian Civil War. Remaining troops in Iraq is unlikely to have solved the economic crises of high food prices and youth unemployment, which fuelled anger against the regimes in the region.  

If the Obama administration did intervene in Syria in 2013, there is no certainty it would have prevented the rise of ISIS. Removing Bashir Al-Assad from power would not guarantee that a pro democratic faction would have gained power. The law of unintended consequences defines any discussion of hypotheticals. These unintended consequences are those which occur whenever you intervene in a conflict years in the making, from an outsider’s perspective.

This is not to say the U.S. should or should not get involved. What it does show is at a U.S.-centric perspective ignores local actors involved in these conflicts. When they are ignored disastrous decisions such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq become inevitable.  If the United States has the power to change the situation to his desired ends with the sufficient use of force, then why not ‘carpet bomb’ civilian populations? Off course if we wish to avoid another bloody repeat of Vietnam or Iraq, we should apply a bit more nuance and contextual awareness to our calls for action.

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