Martin Dyckman: The road to Middle East stability isn’t through war

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Remember “freedom fries?”

That was how some Americans expressed their spite toward France when that nation, with vastly more experience than ours in the Middle East, wisely declined the opportunity to participate in George W. Bush‘s ego-driven war on Iraq.

There was a congresswoman from Florida who called for exhuming our military graves and bringing the remains home. She was ignorant of the fact that a grateful France had ceded those sites to the United States forever. The heartbreakingly beautiful cemetery atop the Normandy beachhead is as much American soil as Arlington itself.

But in Paris on Friday, France paid a terrible price for the chaos we created when we invaded Iraq and destroyed its government with no thought of history or of the consequences beyond the premature boast, “Mission accomplished.”

The evil we didn’t know proved to be worse than the evil we did.

Saddam Hussein, for all his crimes, was a stabilizing influence on Iraq and an effective counterweight to Iran – which, unlike Iraq, had declared its enmity of the U.S. and remains an essential ally of the Syrian dictatorship that provides the so-called Islamic State with a plausible raison d’etre.

When Bush’s civilian viceroy sacked the entire Iraqi army, he created legions of recruits for al-Qaida and its successor, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – aka ISIS.

Our failure in nation-building created a corrupt prime minister, Nouri Kamal al- Maliki, whose refusal to renew the status of forces agreement gave President Obama no choice, whatever other he might have chosen, but to bring all our troops home. No president of either party could have left them there exposed to Iraqi laws, arrests and prosecutions.

To understand this history is to be warned against repeating it. But America doesn’t learn that lesson very well. Vietnam should have taught us the difficulty of imposing our values on a different culture and to be leery of war where our national interest is not at stake. But the only lesson the politicians took to heart from that unpopular lost war was to abandon the draft and fight the next one with a volunteer force, a force that has been cruelly abused with too many successive combat deployments.

In the aftermath of the Paris massacres, we will be hearing again, from the usual suspects, that it’s time to unleash American military might to whatever extent it takes to exterminate ISIS.

But even if we could do that – and we can’t – something else would take its place, just as the burgeoning ISIS supplanted a decapitated al-Qaida.

The Democratic presidential candidates were right as they agreed, in their separate ways Friday night, that the fight against ISIS must be led by the Muslim states that are the radical movement’s primary intended victims.

The United States can help, and should. We are helping already, as are the French, and there is surely more that we can do, short of sending sophisticated weapons to dubious allies who might surrender them to ISIS. But it cannot be seen as an American war, or as French or British.

The more important point is that the ultimate solution can not be military. That can only prolong the strife and suffering.

By coincidence, the Imam of Asheville’s Muslim community, Egyptian-born Mohamed Taha, was the scheduled speaker Sunday at a brunch sponsored by the Brotherhood of my Reform Jewish congregation.

It was well-attended.

He talked mainly about the beliefs of Islam and its many similarities to Judaism, and its devotion to peace. But the slaughter at Paris hovered over the morning.

“These people,” he said, speaking of ISIS and its ilk, “they are extremists. The majority of Muslims don’t consider these people as Muslims. Mohamed warned against such people … they take some verse of the Koran and they twist its meaning.

“They don’t,” he added, “consider us as Muslims.”

To defeat the jihadists, he said, requires overcoming the conditions they exploit.

“They live in poverty,” he said of the populations where the jihadists enlist most of their support. “They have nothing. We have to help them to establish good countries, good communities. They have nothing in this life, so the extremists promise them everything in the next life.”

The solution is not military.

The wiser of our American experts on the Middle East, notably including The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, have been saying that for years.

After World War II, the United States deployed a non-military solution, the Marshall Plan, to help a ravaged Europe rise to its feet in democracy rather than communism. We surely could use a Marshall plan for the Middle East.

But how to help the people there to their feet without having the assistance stolen by the corruption that is endemic among the rulers there?

I asked that question. Taha acknowledged the difficulty.

It begins, he said, with affording an American education, steeped in American traditions and values, to Middle Eastern students who want to study here.

Inevitably, perhaps, some few of those students will have other values in mind, like those who prepared here for 9/11. And in the aftermath of Paris, there are politicians who would slam the door, to students as well as refugees, for fear of the few who would exploit our hospitality.

But that would be a mistake. It would betray that our values are not, in truth, what we would wish them to be.  It would postpone the redemption of the Middle East and perpetuate a war that cannot be won by arms alone.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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