In the first, Fareed Zakaria (whom I don’t always agree with, but who is undeniably thoughtful and interesting) writes:
Washington’s foreign policy elites have developed a mind-set that mistakes activity for achievement. They assume that every crisis in the world can and should be solved by a vigorous assertion of U.S. power, preferably military power. Failure to do so is passivity and produces weakness. By this logic, Russia and Iran are the new masters of the Middle East. Never mind that those countries are desperately trying to shore up a sinking ally. Their clients, the Alawites of Syria, are a minority regime — representing less than 15 percent of the country’s people — and face deadly insurgencies supported by vast portions of the population. Iran is bleeding resources in Syria. And if Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize. The United States has been “in the driver’s seat” in Afghanistan for 14 years. Has that strengthened America?
In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe’s major powers were scrambling to gain influence in Africa, the last unclaimed land on the globe. All but one nation: Germany. Its steely-eyed chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, believed that such interventions would drain Germany’s power and divert its focus away from its central strategic challenges. When shown a map of the continent to entice him, he responded, “Your map of Africa is all very fine, but my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France, and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”
And in this, by Steven Chapman:
What does the U.S. stand to lose from Putin’s venture? Nothing of critical importance. Assad’s regime poses no threat to us, and most of its enemies do. Our involvement in the region has yielded us mostly huge losses and the chronic threat of terrorism. If we extricate ourselves from the brambles just as Putin plunges in, we’ll be better off, not worse.
We once felt obligated to police the Persian Gulf to prevent the Soviets or anyone else from using its vast oil reserves for coercive purposes. Fortunately, the 1970s are over. The oil weapon, always overrated, is now about as frightening as a fly swatter.
Hawks think we have to use military force to stop terrorism. By now, we should comprehend that intervening in a foreign civil war swarming with jihadis is the best possible way to generate terrorist attacks on American targets.
What the alarmists regard as weakness and indecision can be more accurately characterized as firm prudence and immunity to panic. The administration’s critics let themselves be addled by appearances.
It seems that our reflexive, interventionist foreign policy does little to further out interests. It arguably created ISIS, in this instance, because we thought we were clever enough to use jihadis to get rid of Assad, without them becoming anti-American jihadis. That, incidentally, was the argument often raised against our arming of the mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 80s, which, by contrast, did a lot to help unseat the Soviet Union, which was a much more vexing and genuine threat to our freedoms than the otherwise weak Assad is. And their focus on us likely would have been diminished but for our continued efforts in the region, presence in Saudi Arabia, and the like. But we have doubled down on interventionism, in spite of its meager benefits and manifest costs.
The US should avoid the Middle East. We should avoid unstable, lawless corners of the world generally. To the extent we’re involved, we should avoid anything or anyone that is not directly threatening us, and only be involved on a short-term, ad hoc basis. Most of all, we should give up the pipedream of importing democracy or of playing Sunnis against Shias, because both are either threats or not depending on the day. If we are not there–Lebanon in 70s, Syria today–they seem to focus their bellicosity on one another. Finally, we should stop allowing Israel to confuse our interests with theirs. This has much to do with our anti-Assad position, when he seems the best bet of being someone we can live with. The most sensible course is to preserve our power (and money and personnel) for when a threat is genuine, actually capable of harming us. Instead, we are inviting threats and creating self-imposed costs to our military and prestige, and reigning a cold war with the inevitably powerful nation of Russia, by thinking we can balance the centrifugal forces in this wacky part of the world with an incoherent strategy of whack-a-mole.