The Spectacle Blog

Showing Restraint in Iraq is Nothing New

By on 6.18.14 | 10:44AM

Author and academic C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” to describe the logical fallacy of dismissing that which is old because it is old and embracing that which is new because it is new. Barry Posen, writing in Politico about American foreign policy, avoids this fallacy by avoiding history all together. Not dismissive of the past, he fails to acknowledge a geopolitical world before the Cold War at all, reducing his examination of evidence to basically his own professional lifetime.

In the apparently paramount present, Posen argues that it is in the United States’ best interest to practice “Restraint” in foreign policy, particularly in Iraq faced with the rise of ISIS and further sectarian conflict. Restraint in this case means staying home and watching ISIS carve out its little Caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria, and waiting for the powder keg to blow. Posen is very proud of himself and his “small but increasing” cadre of elites who agree with him. He says they are “beginning to subscribe to a new view of U.S. grand strategy.”

It’s a little out of touch for Posen to describe his view as a minority one; Pew Research found last year that 52 percent of Americans think America should probably stick to gazing at its own navel and stop trying to pick other people’s belly button lint—in other words, mind its own business. But are those who think that America should pause and think before involving itself overseas, and maybe even not go over there at all, really subscribing to a new view of foreign policy? America has surely never advocated for non-interventionism. It’s not like it was a doctrine or something that America would combat expanding colonialism in its backyard and not engage in colonialism or interfere abroad—oh, wait, it was; that one’s the Monroe. 

Restraint is hardly new. From Washington on, presidents have been looking at the foreign policies they inherited and attempting to “set priorities more rigorously and calculate both costs and chances of success with a more skeptical eye,” just as Posen would have them do. There have been failures and successes and failures again, but from the Barbary pirates to Texas to World War II there are examples of measured action by the federal government in response to troubles abroad. Like Texas’s war for independence, there are plenty of times when America could have participated but chose not to and it worked out in her favor. Have you had tex-mex? That stuff’s amazing.

Cautious consideration before military intervention is not the only “new” development in foreign policy Posen mentions. He, accurately, assesses the internal politics of the basically artificial nation of Iraq as complicated and dangerous to interfere with. But instead of basing that assessment on the artificial nature of the country or the nearly 1,400-year-old conflicts that tear it apart, Posen labels the trouble “identity politics.” Waving that self-satisfied phrase around, and again disregarding history, he writes:

Though the timing and the causes are murky, identity politics have surged across much of the world, a phenomenon that probably antedates the end of the Cold War. Here’s how it works: Political entrepreneurs organize followers around appeals to national, ethnic and religious identities.

Yep, no one ever did that before Osama bin Laden.

I’ll insert the now-obligatory George Santayana quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m not sure exactly what Posen will be repeating, besides himself. Though he does come to what I argue is a smart conclusion about the current situation in Iraq. It is hardly to America’s advantage to try to hold together a country that only exists because British academics and spies drew lines in the sand, ignoring two millennia of tribal and then religious divisions.

So as Posen says, Iraq is divided. But we would have saved a lot of money and lives if we'd come to that conclusion by, say, remembering that even the Ottoman Empire thought local princes rather than central authority should rule the cities now part of Iraq. Instead we fought a decade of war and now we seem to learn only by looking back on that decade of war. Allowing Iraq to shatter and Iran to sort it out may not be worst idea in the world. But one of the worst ideas in the world is being ignorant of history.

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