Obligation doesn’t equal necessity in Middle East

“As commander-in-chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” President Obama said last week, even as he announced that U.S. forces would indeed be dragged into fighting once again in Iraq, if only on a limited basis.

The contradiction tells us a lot, most importantly that we have helped to create a problem for which we have no easy solutions. In fact, the debates that must be going on at the White House, at the State Department and at the Pentagon are calling into question some basic assumptions about American power and responsibility in the 21st century.

Part of Obama’s wariness reflects the hard-earned lesson that everything that we do in the Middle East produces repercussions that we cannot predict. We may be the most powerful nation that the world has ever known, but we possess neither the power nor the wisdom to solve the problems of a region where age-old hatreds and religious conflicts still burn with an intensity that escapes our understanding.

So the answer is easy then, right? We take the counsel of those like Harvard professor Stephen Walt, who argues in a provocative essay in Foreign Policy magazine that “It’s time to walk away and not look back” at the Middle East.

No. Because even as we are chastened by yet another lesson in humility, we remain “the indispensable nation”, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously put it. Nobody else, for example, has the capability to intervene on behalf of those terrorized people on Mount Sinjar, and with genocide at stake, possessing the capability to act means we have the obligation to act.

The problem is that overwhelming military power does more than produce an obligation to act. It also produces the temptation to act. Time and again, our inability or unwillingness to distinguish between temptation and obligation has gotten us into trouble. In 2003, to cite the most relevant example, there was no obligation to invade Iraq; there was merely the temptation that was marketed to us as an obligation.

Albright offered her famous description of the United States as “the indispensable nation” back in 1998, when she was defending the use of air strikes against Iraq to force Saddam to allow arms inspectors to return.

“… if we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation,” Albright said at the time. “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”

That statement explains in part why temptation and obligation can be so difficult to distinguish. Albright was wrong. We do not see further than other countries into the future, and it is exceeding dangerous to think that we do. Having the most powerful military force on the planet does not in any way enhance our foresight; to the contrary, the arrogance that it produces can blind us and deceive us into vastly exaggerating our power to force others to behave as we think appropriate.

I guess you could say that the closer we get to omnipotence, the farther we get from omniscience. Put in less fancy terms, power can make you stupid, and it’s the stupidity that usually gets you.

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