Should U.S. pull out from Middle East, North Africa?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 10:36 p.m. MDT

In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, an unidentified man takes a picture of  the charred remains of  trucks used by radical Islamists, on the outskirt of Diabaly, Mali. (Associated Press) In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, an unidentified man takes a picture of the charred remains of trucks used by radical Islamists, on the outskirt of Diabaly, Mali. (Associated Press)

Yes: Our presence in unstable regions encourages extremism

By John B. Quigley

Mcclatchy-Tribune News Service

COLUMBUS, Ohio — "When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer; our security at home is threatened."

So declared Hillary Clinton in her final appearance as secretary of state before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Clinton was referring to the Middle East and the north of Africa, where a chain reaction of events has brought violence to the region.

She was wrong. Our intervention in Libya brought an attack on a consulate we set up in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. officials.

That same intervention unleashed military elements of the Tuareg ethnic group — which once had served Col. Moammar Gadhafi — to return to their home area in northern Mali to fight for independence from Mali. The Tuareg nationalists were shoved aside by Islamists, leading to the current French-led military intervention in northern Mali.

Clinton was not challenged on her point. Extremism, however, may be fed by our military presence in that part of the world. Our interests may suffer precisely because of our presence.

The Islamists in Mali are part of what is called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. In Arabic, Maghreb means "west," so it is the group operating in the Western reaches of Islamic-populated countries in the north of Africa.

From Mali, these Islamists infiltrated a few weeks ago into Algeria, where they took over an oil facility, killing workers there. Three Americans are among the dead at the oil base.

The Obama administration is acting on Clinton's view, though with some caution. It is aiding the French on communications and logistics in Mali but is not jumping into a Mali intervention with both feet. It is beefing up our military's Europe-based Africa command, which has responsibility for anything we might decide to do in Africa.

Tellingly, we just made an arrangement with Niger, which abuts Mali, to operate pilotless drone aircraft from Niger territory.

Drones are used for surveillance but can also fire missiles to kill individuals on the ground. But our drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan generate anger against the United States.

Reports abound of civilians killed when missiles are fired from drones. Drone aircraft hover for hours at a time over certain areas in Pakistan, awaiting a human target. The populations below, hearing the whirr, live in constant fear.

If we begin using drones in North Africa, we may find new populations aligned against us.

While the Obama administration finds these missile strikes effective, there is no way to know the long-term consequences. Even if we reap a short-term military gain, the practice may come back to haunt us.

The Obama administration would do well to learn the lessons of recent history. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is the descendant of the mujahedeen — the guerrilla fighters who operated in Afghanistan, starting in 1979.

The Afghani mujahedeen were largely our creation. We funded them to oppose a pro-Soviet government then in power in Afghanistan. We did make life difficult for the USSR in Afghanistan, but after the mujahedeen evicted the pro-Soviet government, they turned their guns on us.

It is descendants of the mujahedeen who now plant roadside bombs to drive us out of Afghanistan. Even as we draw down forces there, it is hard to demonstrate that our presence there improves our security.

Our financing gave birth to the groups all over the region that use the name al-Qaida. Our longtime backing of Israel over the Palestinians provided these militants a rallying point. Our invasion of Iraq fueled the fire.

A major military presence in the north of Africa, if that is what the Obama administration envisages, may bring us more blowback.

John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.

No: Dangers will mount if U.S. exits these war zones prematurely

By Lawrence J. Haas

Mcclatchy-Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON — Surveying the Greater Middle East, where chaos reigns from Egypt to Syria and where chances of war among any number of players are rising, one can hardly blame the typical American for wanting to wish it away.

But the 43 percent of U.S. voters who think that America is "too involved" in the Middle East, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, or the 58 percent who think that we should "leave things alone" in the Islamic world have it backward.

"Let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world," a departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it aptly at recent congressional hearings. "When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer and our security at home is threatened."

Indeed, the tumult across the Greater Middle East of late, which has emboldened America's state and non-state adversaries and worried our allies, shows what happens when the United States reduces its voice and footprint.

We want to believe that, as President Barack Obama likes to say, "the tide of war is receding" but, beyond America's shores, the world hasn't received the memo. Quite the contrary, as the United States seeks a respite from the region's messiness, our reduced role is a big reason why dangers are mounting.

In Syria, for instance, our reticence to work with our European and regional allies to establish a no-fly zone that would throttle Syria's air force has left a predictable vacuum, with Syria's neighbors unable to mount a collective effort to more effectively pressure Bashar al-Assad or aid the rebels.

By enabling al-Assad to hang on, U.S. reticence has lengthened the bloodbath through which al-Assad has now slaughtered an estimated 60,000 of his own people while giving jihadists more time to enter the playing field and position themselves to shape a post-Assad Syria in ways that we'll regret.

In Iran, the regime continues to make progress in its nuclear pursuit, with no signs that the economic and financial sanctions that are clearing impairing the nation's economy are deterring its leaders.

In Egypt, the United States showers the Muslim Brotherhood-led government with economic and military aid, presumably to buttress regional stability by strengthening the regime and preventing a national collapse.

But, Washington sends a disturbing signal to secular reformers in the region by staying largely mute as Cairo violates civil liberties and threatens to build a religious autocracy to replace its secular predecessor.

At least twice before, the United States has seen the harmful consequences of its retreat on the world stage.

After Versailles, our isolationism of the 1920s and '30s nourished not only the global economic warfare that fueled the Great Depression but also the European and Asian militarism that produced World War II.

After Vietnam, an uncertain United States turned inward again, leaving the Soviet Union to stoke Third World revolution in Ethiopia, Angola and Rhodesia before invading Afghanistan in late 1979. The Islamic Revolution topped a staunch U.S. ally in Iran, students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized our personnel, and America assumed the embarrassing posture of a paper tiger.

What's true today has been true for decades. The world looks to America for leadership. The more dangerous the region, the higher are the stakes when we decide whether to assume or avoid the role.

Today in the Greater Middle East, we need more U.S. engagement, not less.

Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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