The Islamic State (ISIS) proves the law of unintended consequences. Congratulations America! We killed Christianity in the Middle East and unleashed a terror organization with far greater reach and power than Al Qaeda ever possessed. If insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then our foreign policy needs to have been locked away in an institution a long, long time ago.
The law of unintended consequences suggests that every good action we take will produce some ill effects. A law to close one tax loophole inadvertently creates two more. A law to benefit the poor creates new opportunities to exploit "the least of these." The law of unintended consequences is even more true the less we plan. When we do not think too much about the possible consequences of military intervention, the more likely those consequences are to be unanticipated. Of course, when it comes to military intervention, especially in the Middle East, we should know what the consequences are: We create more enemies.
I do not deny that we have good intentions. We went to Iraq and ousted a dictator who
was amassing weapons of mass destruction... I mean, who hated freedom. So we set up a puppet government full of corrupt politicians, gave them lots of money that disappeared, and equipped their ineffective army with weapons that are now being used by radical jihadists. Saddam Hussein was a terrible man. So is Bashar al-Assad. But ISIS is worse. We had good intentions when we invaded Iraq. We had good intentions when we provided support to Syrian militants. But we ended up unleashing an even greater hell upon the region and possibly ourselves.
"But this time we can do it better. This time will be different." That is what an insane person says. I understand the desire to intervene, to fix what we broke, but we need to learn a little bit of humility. When it comes to the Middle East, the United States is a bull in a china shop. When the bull breaks the china shop, don't send it back in with bombs.
I am not saying we should just roll over and do nothing; I am saying we should do something better. If you know a little history, then you know that the weapons we give our allies end up killing us. So do the children of the people we kill. Hate is like a virus, and murder is how it spreads. Kill the patient, and you infect his daughters and sons. It is only natural. Think about it! If a drone strike killed your mother in the middle of the night, could anything quiet your rage? What if someone from the other side of the world went on TV and apologized for the "unfortunate civilian casualties"? Would that make you feel better? I promise you, even as I write these words, that if shrapnel were to pierce the body of one of my little ones, there are no guarantees that I would not seek vengeance. Only God could save me from the basest parts of myself at that point.
If you are accusing me of pacifism, you are right. (If you are accusing me of "passivism," you need to learn how to spell.) Pacifism does not mean to be passive. It means to bring peace. To pacify people is to calm them down, to help them be less angry. I think the best way to do that is not to kill their family.
Let me put my cards on the table and say that I am a Christian theologian. I take that "turn the other cheek" stuff seriously, but I am not technically committed to non-violence in every circumstance. I can imagine scenarios in which violence might not be something we can avoid, but I also know that violence is a bad idea most of the time, especially when it comes to other countries. Yes, Jesus said things like, "Love your enemies" and "do good to those who hate you" (Matt 5:44). I believe those words, but religion has nothing to do with it. I believe those words because they are good advice. King and Gandhi proved that nonviolence can be more effective than weapons. Not striking back takes far more courage than taking up arms (for then you have nothing but hope to keep you from harm). Showing dignity in the face of abuse, and showing dignity to one's attacker, is not cowardice, and it certainly is not passive!
ISIS is tearing across the Middle East. We did that. We made that happen. President Obama is now suggesting we start dropping bombs. Again! (Seriously, can anybody remember the last time the United States went a year without bombing someone?) We have done all of this before. We know how this story ends: badly!
When I say "get out" of the Middle East, I mean that we need to get the guns out. We should be involved in the region, but with more compassion and restraint than we have heretofore displayed. Will the innocent suffer if we do not strike? Yes. God, have mercy! The innocent will suffer. They will suffer under ISIS. But bombs do not ease suffering, not now, and not ten years from now. To pacify the region, we need to do something braver than drop bombs from drones.
What if we took just a little bit of what we spend on tanks and guns and bought mosquito nets instead? What if we spent more on vaccination programs? Imagine how much safer we would be if we were known as the country that brought clean water and electricity to the region instead of the country that made the weapons that killed dad.
Over fifty years ago, President Eisenhower (a former general) warned us against a growing "military industrial complex." We ignored him. We spent over $600 billion on the military last year, and God help any politician who talks about cutting that number, lest her opponents accuse her of wanting to make the United States weak. But strength is not to be had in weapons. The only way to win peace, over the long term, is to stand firm on the moral high ground.
Our enemy will threaten us and harm others. We will want to do something about it, and I think we should do something about it! We must be noble enough to quell our fury and humble enough to know our limitations. The United States has a big hand. When we try to bring hell to our enemies, we bring hell to the innocent, and turn them into those who will one day attack us. Violence begets more violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, and the United States has lived by the sword long enough. It is time for a new approach. Instead of raising our collective hand to strike, we should stretch it out to help where we can.
We cannot save the world by shooting it. Sometimes the best way to fight back is not to fight. Am I suggesting that we go back to the days before WWII? Am I advocating isolationism? While I will admit that my foreign policy is me at my most libertarian, I am not advocating isolationism (unless that is the only alternative to shooting people with drones, then yes, we should be isolationists). But I actually am proposing a more radical form of interventionism. Shoot people with needles, not bullets. Vaccinate them. Give them something to eat and drink. Be attacked, but do not drop bombs. A drone strike keeps a soldier safe, but it puts the next generation at greater risk of harm.
Can we expect to have some level of insecurity in the United States? Yes. ISIS will make us less secure, but the greatest danger is the illusion that we can secure our safety with weapons. Risk to life and limb is the cost of living in a free society. If we want to bring peace to the Middle East - and by extension the United States - then it is time to put away the bombs. We know what happens if we do not. More death. More hatred. More insanity.