Growing up as an Iranian – American, I would sometimes hear a peculiar version of history from other Iranian immigrants. Middle Easterners are a notoriously conspiratorial bunch, and Iranians are no exception. To many, nothing that has happened in that part of the world has happened without the direct manipulation of Western powers, especially the United States. For example, many Iranians believe that the 1979 Islamic Revolution was all America’s doing. Not as an unintended consequence of America’s close ties with the Shah, but rather a direct decision by Washington to replace a monarchy with a theocracy, probably because of oil.
I find myself thinking about those theories as I observe our continued entanglement in that part of the world, often with no apparent master plan. From North Africa to Pakistan, its hard to find a country where the US has not tried to impose change with financial aid, air strikes or troops on the ground. It feels increasingly like we are involved just for the sake of involvement.
Egypt is a good example. After decades of supporting Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power, we joined the calls for his ouster, then blessed the predictable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood was overthrown by a military coup led by Mubarak’s generals, we swung back to supporting the dictatorship. It’s unclear what we accomplished along the way, other than angering virtually all Egyptians, since no matter what side they were on, at some point America backed the other.
In Syria, after coming close to launching air strikes against the Assad regime after its apparent use of chemical weapons, we decided to bomb one of its primary foes in ISIS instead, all the while providing money and weapons to a third party in that bloody civil war. Presently, in Iraq and Yemen, we are both supporting and attacking the military campaigns of different Iranian proxies in the form of Shiite militia. Which side the US is backing in the region’s escalating sectarian war seems to change by the day.
Ironically all of this has happened while our historical reason for involvement in that part of the world – oil – has waned. Thanks to the shale boom back home the International Energy Agency estimates that the US will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer within a decade and eventually become a net exporter. The recent collapse in oil prices is a testament to that boom. So why are we becoming more entangled just as we become less dependent economically?
The short answer to that question is security, but even on that front we don’t seem to be succeeding. Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have left two fragile countries that are arguably more unstable and liable to ferment groups like ISIS. The countries where we’ve kept our attack limited to air-strikes are no better, as both Libya and Yemen descend into anarchy and religious violence.
With every passing boondoggle, our credibility suffers as well. Our attempts to spread democracy in the region now look absurd given our support for various strongmen that have made a mockery of the democratic process in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Syria chemical attacks continue, despite our celebration of how Assad supposedly gave up his chemical weapons after we threatened him. In Yemen we provide intelligence and targeting for Saudi bombers that end up killing scores of civilians, even though just a year ago we constantly criticized Israel for the same type of collateral damage in Gaza.
The thing that always bothered me about my fellow Iranians’ conspiracy theories was the cultural inferiority complex such beliefs betrayed. After all, if you believe that a country of 40 million people can be stirred into revolutionary frenzy and converted to a radically different society just because the CIA wanted it that way, you don’t think very highly of your own society.
What I wonder now is whether the US suffers from a similar but opposite superiority complex. From military invasion to drone strikes, we constantly overestimate our ability to bring about change, or at least the kind of change that we want. We have forgotten that invasions and air-strikes only destroy what is. They don’t also create a desirable aftermath, nor do they make us any new friends.
Yet we continue to not learn from our mistakes. If all we have to show for our air strikes in Libya are a dead ambassador and general anarchy, why would we consider doing the same in Syria? If our original invasion of Iraq only gave us a breeding ground for militant fundamentalism, why would we hope a more limited campaign against ISIS would yield anything different?
I extend to our government the same argument I have always made to my fellow Iranians: history is a tricky and complex process. It’s hard enough to understand the forces that determine the fates of nations, never mind controlling them. Often times it’s best to stay away and let those forces play out. That’s not to say that the world’s biggest superpower needs to recede into isolation. But if we are going to get involved we need to pick our spots, and have a master plan. The law of large numbers dictates that if America is going to be involved in every single conflict in a region, often with no coherent strategy from one conflict to another, then we are going to be on the losing side almost as often as the winning side.
I would also extend the same advice to all the people currently living in the Mid East. Its time to stop blaming their ills on the West, minority groups or Israel. Most of the suffering in that part of the world results from the refusal to embrace modernity. Doing so is one of the few ways a people can become the shepherds of their own destiny.