Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun

The Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) has picked up the mantle of Al Qaeda in Iraq and now controls Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. The extremist group uses gruesome violence to promote its new Islamic caliphate.

Some American senators and commentators are calling for a major troop intervention, but the public is suffering from “Iraq fatigue.” President Obama has said that America should use military force unilaterally, if necessary, when its security or that of its allies is threatened. Otherwise, the U.S. should not act alone and only use force if there is a good prospect of success. These are reasonable principles, but what if a civil war like Syria’s allows Bashar Assad to kill his citizens and for ISIS/ISIL to establish a safe haven? The U.S. must try to influence outcomes by hard and soft power means, but if there is a clear lesson from the 2003 experience in Iraq, it is that we should stay out of the business of invasion and occupation.

In an age of nationalism and socially mobilized populations, foreign occupation is bound to breed resentment. Military force is an important component of American power, but those who point to the success of an American troop presence in East Asia forget that our troops are welcome in Japan and South Korea because of a clear and present external threat. An American strategy that holds the military balance in Europe or East Asia while maintaining alliances is important, but trying to occupy and control the internal politics of nationalistic populations in the Middle East revolutions is a recipe for failure.

The Middle East is undergoing a complex set of revolutions stemming from artificial postcolonial boundaries, religious sectarian strife and the delayed modernization described in the UN’s Arab Human Development Report. The resulting turmoil may last for decades. It took 25 years after the French Revolution for stability to return to Europe, and interventions by outside powers like Austria and Prussia made things worse rather than better. Even with reduced energy imports from the Middle East, we cannot turn our back on the region because of our interests in Israel, nonproliferation and human rights, among others. But our policy should be one of containment, nudging and influencing from the sidelines rather than trying to assert a control that would not only be costly, but counterproductive, as well. Thus, Obama has talked about organizing a broad coalition of countries to degrade and, ultimately, defeat ISIS, but doing it through air strikes, military advisors and diplomacy that tries to remove Assad. Further steps may involve safe zones for Syrian refugees and a no-fly zone over Syria.

Contrary to current conventional wisdom, the United States is not turning isolationist, but it is learning to be smarter in its interventions.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author most recently of “Is the American Century Over?”


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