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The Only Path to a U.S. Victory in the Middle East Is to Leave Now

American foreign policy is unmoored from American reality

Lee Smith
February 20, 2019
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images
A member of the U.S. Air Force at Kandahar Air Field in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2017Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images
A member of the U.S. Air Force at Kandahar Air Field in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 2017Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

It is still possible to achieve bipartisan consensus in Congress. Just vote to oppose Trump and prolong lost wars.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell showed how it’s done late last month with an amendment rebuking the president’s plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria passed by a wide 70-26 majority. Even that endorsement of the status quo was only a symbolic measure since a second-order amendment stipulated that McConnell’s could not be interpreted as legally authorizing military force in those conflicts.

But symbolizing what? An appetite for never-ending war? That there is no cost to opposing Trump even when a vast majority of the American public, Democratic and Republican, want out of the Middle East? The answer is a little bit of both—which is to say, it symbolizes the fact that U.S. foreign policy has become unmoored from American reality.

All the Senate Democrats who have declared their candidacy for president voted no, as did four Republicans, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and John Kennedy.

A day after the vote, Cruz delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where he outlined his rationale for supporting Trump’s withdrawal. He described a strategy somewhere between interventionism and isolationism, based on the idea that America should “be extremely reluctant to intervene militarily and risk the lives of our sons and daughters.”

Cruz traces his strategy back to the founders and takes as its motto “Don’t Tread on Me”—leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. There are signs as well of more contemporary influences, like the “Tea Party Foreign Policy” articulated in 2015 by conservative intellectual Angelo Codevilla, which bears notable similarities to Cruz’s proposals.

Cruz’s opponents represent a clear majority in the Senate and broader national security establishment. They say that if we don’t stick it out, our enemies will say we cut and run. Further, a U.S. withdrawal from the region will be seen as an abdication of global leadership. American Exceptionalism, the notion that we have a special mission in the world, will run aground. What is remarkable about this position is how reality-resistant it is. If we worry that leaving will embolden our enemies, perhaps it’s worth asking what effect staying has had when after nearly two decades of war the Taliban still controls or contests more than half of Afghanistan.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said in his State of the Union address. On those terms, how does a nearly 18-year-long war in Afghanistan represent leadership?

The fact that the United States continues to rotate combat forces into Afghanistan is unprecedented in American history—but not unheard of outside our borders. Israel also occupied a country for 18 years, Lebanon, an engagement typically regarded as a stain on the country’s moral as well as its military record.

It’s common to meet veterans of Israel’s first Lebanon war who believe that they backed the wrong actors—had they only sided with the Shiite community then Hezbollah never would’ve found a foothold in Lebanon. There may be some psychological salve in believing that Lebanon’s political fate was within Israel’s grasp before slipping away but such delusions come at a cost.

As fellow Tablet contributor Tony Badran, senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has explained, the fact that prominent Israelis like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak believe the occupation gave rise to Hezbollah does not make it true. Iranian activists loyal to Ruhollah Khomeini seeded the Party of God in the mid-’70s. There was nothing that Israel could have done to prevent that, because there is nothing that Israel can do to prevent Lebanon from being Lebanon.

The same is true for Afghanistan and every Middle Eastern country where the United States has troops. The issue is not that America can’t fix Afghanistan, but that most of our leaders do not understand that Afghanistan can only ever be Afghanistan.


The foreign policy establishment has replaced strategy with symbolism. The problem is that symbols represent differently in different cultures. To Picasso, for instance, a primitive mask was a kind of artwork, but to the culture that designed it, the mask was a different kind of totem.

The danger is in confusing contexts. This has been a central issue in the United States’ engagement in the Middle East.

You can bet that policymakers and Pentagon officials defend the continued U.S. deployments citing Osama bin Laden’s conviction that the United States’ 1983 withdrawal from Lebanon signaled America is a paper tiger.

So what would convince a bin Laden that the U.S. is not feeble? A longer U.S. deployment, a permanent one? America killing thousands of Arabs, millions? Eradicating a town, a clan, an entire nation? Those aren’t American answers because it’s not an American question. It was bin Laden’s question freighted with the meaning of his symbols.

The proper American question is, what constitutes an American victory, in the eyes of Americans?

America’s first urge after the 9/11 attacks was to take revenge for our American dead and root out the terrorists responsible. It was soon replaced by what appeared to be a more temperate instinct, a more nuanced and far-reaching response: To prevent further attacks on America, the Arab world would have to change. We had to “drain the swamps” of Arab state tyranny, or so went the symbolism of that phrase the first time an American president used it in the 21st century.

After all, the real problem wasn’t the attacks carried out by a handful of jihadi terrorists but how ordinary Arabs celebrated them. Arab political culture had to be remade to give individual Arabs the space to express their political lives freely. The end result of that flowering of freedom would be liberal democracies, sure to be different than our own in their local variations, but still places where individual rights and democratic norms were the prize.

Policymakers, regional experts, and journalists, myself included, saw free elections as evidence that this hope was being realized. Instead, it marked an epic bout of American narcissism.

Rather than giving more luster to the ethos of “Americanness,” the narcissism actually cheapened the object of its esteem. What is American exceptionalism if its apostles believe that any society, no matter its culture and history, can easily adopt the principles and disciplines of American public life and politics?

Voters brought Hamas to power in Gaza, elected a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, legitimized Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon, and gave Iran leverage over the Iraqi government. Rather than recognize that U.S.-style and U.S.-backed elections tended to reward anti-American forces in the region, Washington doubled down.

Consider Iraq. Demographics showed that elections would bring to power the Shiite majority. History suggested that this community would seek revenge on the Sunnis who, under Saddam Hussein, had persecuted it. Further, culture, history, and geography provided evidence that Iraq’s Shiites would find partners in the Shiite power on their border, Iran.

Instead of acknowledging failure, or declaring victory, and getting U.S. troops from out of the middle of a sectarian war, America stayed the course to disastrous effect for both Americans and foreigners. In what is euphemistically known as the anti-ISIS campaign, American military backing and critical air support allowed Iranian backed Shiite militias to extend their control over the country’s security and political institutions. Effectively, the U.S. has helped Iranian proxy forces prosecute a campaign of revenge against the country’s Sunnis.

The Pentagon reasons that in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, ISIS is likely to regroup. Perhaps that is true, but there is little that the United States can do—except for help recruit members.

Just as the Shiites did not want to be hunted by the Sunnis, the Sunnis do not now want to live under an Iranian-soled Shiite boot. Anyone who would take up arms to fight the Iranian order is going to join forces with those already fighting—ISIS, or similar Sunni vehicles for contesting Iranian hegemony. And they will in turn be targeted by Iranian-backed forces, in partnership with the United States.

There is nothing the United States can do to change the sectarian dynamic of the region. To stay in Iraq enlists the United States in an endless war against the Sunni population. And unless the U.S. wants to switch sides and turn its weapons on Iran and its allies, there is nothing American forces can do to change that reality, except leave.

Our almost two-decade long stay in the Middle East and Central Asia has shown that the U.S. has no power to shape the region’s essential political and cultural dynamics. Perhaps the greatest impact has been on our own political elite who have become fluent in using symbols that are not ours to project and answer questions that belong to others.

The U.S. public has already answered what constitutes an American victory—get out, now.