When it comes to Syria, let Iraq be the lesson

How many times do people ask themselves “what if,” consciously considering what has happened and what might have been? What if you had taken a different job, or married someone else? These questions are a fundamental feature of the human condition.

They are also a good exercise in understanding the world and suggesting alternative approaches to identifying and achieving goals. In that sense, they can be applied to current events in the Middle East.

The fancy name for “what if’ questions is counterfactual thinking. For historians, this is a way of thinking about a past that did not happen. For the rest of us it is, among other things, one way to make sense of experiences and think about what to do differently in the future.

Popular culture likes counterfactuals as a conventional story telling device. For example, the current Amazon television series “Man in the High Castle,” an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, is essentially a counterfactual, imagining America had the Nazis won World War II.

Today the Middle East is in chaos and is the most active war zone in the world. But what if the United States had not invaded Iraq in 2003? We will never truly know, but let’s look at how things might be different.

Sure Saddam Hussein was a gruesome dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of people and started wars. But after spending much in American blood and treasure, is Iraq a stable functioning democracy, or did the invasion simply cause geopolitical chaos and a humanitarian tragedy?

Under Hussein, Iraq was a bulwark to contain Iran, which now exercises far greater influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the entire Middle East than it did before the invasion. After the United States packed up and left in 2011, Iran rushed into the power vacuum.

At the time of the Iraq invasion, Libya had been ruled by the same strongman for over 40 years, but it was stable. Policy makers in Washington decided to go along with France, the United Kingdom and others to topple Muammar Gadhafi’s regime, once again without a viable alternative in place to replace the old order. The result is a failed state and another humanitarian tragedy.

It can be argued that the invasion of Iraq diverted military and financial resources away from Afghanistan before the Taliban had been defeated. A greater focus on Afghanistan might also have kept Pakistan from engaging in mischief.

Perhaps it doesn’t make sense for the United States to simultaneously pursue ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while targeting ISIS and radical Islamists of all stripes in Syria. And would ousting Assad simply result in the same murderous chaos we have seen in Iraq and Libya?

The United States may be at a stage in the Middle East where is has to decide whether ISIS or keeping Assad in power with the support of Iran and Russia represents a greater national security threat. Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to get past his Putinphobia and cut a deal with him as the allies did with Stalin to defeat the Nazis in World War II. The current strategy isn’t working, so why not work with Russia and Iran to create an international solution?

There are no easy answers in the fight against radical Islamist terror groups, but when the President and others say they will destroy them, it is incumbent on them to explain a detailed strategy. It is not enough for world leaders to say that ISIS will be defeated. They need to describe what those words really mean. What will success look like, how do you measure it, and how long will it take?

Asking what might have been had the United States not invaded Iraq provides an interesting lens through which to view the Middle East. And perhaps it offers some insights into how to deal with that troubled region more than a decade after the invasion.

Originally Published: December 19, 2015

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