CHESS: More than One Tactic Required for Iran
Published: Friday, March 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2013 01:03
This week’s revelation that Iran has once again returned to the nuclear negotiating table brings global attention back to the Middle East and presents an early test for newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry. President Obama and his administration have consistently stated their preference of a diplomatic resolution to tensions with Iran. Some scholars, such as Georgetown’s own assistant professor of government Matthew Kroenig, have advocated that the time is right to strike Iran and eliminate the country’s nuclear capabilities. As a result, it might be wise to check the record and examine the historical efficacy of dramatic American action in the Middle East.
Contrary to popular belief, American involvement in the Middle East is not purely a product of post-World-War-II geopolitical realities and energy demands. In fact, Washington’s conflict with the region has existed as long as the United States itself. America’s first international, armed conflict was a set of wars known today as the Barbary Wars, which lasted from 1801 to 1805. At the time, the North African coast was dotted with city-states that gained most of their riches from pirating ships, and, then ransoming their hostages and participating in imperial trade. Since his term as minster to France, Thomas Jefferson had been trying to build up a military force capable of ending the practice altogether. One of his first acts as president was to commission six frigates capable of defending American commerce on the high seas.
In 1804, one of these frigates, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli harbor. The Navy felt that it was too valuable to be left in the hands of the enemy, so Lt. Stephen Decatur secretly burned the ship one evening under the watch of the Tripolians. Adm. Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.” One year later, the American flag was raised for the first time on foreign soil in victory.
Since that initial triumph, the results of America’s dramatic action in the region have been mixed. In Lebanon’s dragged-out decades-long civil war, the United States attempted to intervene multiple times. In 1958, acting under the Truman Doctrine, President Eisenhower sent nearly 14,000 U.S. troops to Lebanon in order to stabilize Camille Chamoun’s Western-friendly government. The crisis ended badly for the United States: Chamoun was replaced by a pro-Nasser and Soviet-friendly government and Lebanon remained in a brutal and violent civil war for another 30 years.
In the past two decades, the majority of American attention in the Middle East has centered on Iraq. Although the final outcome of two wars and thousands of American lives lost to neutralize any threat — real or perceived — has yet to be written, it can be said without a doubt that it will be opaque. Although optimistic predictions suggest that Iraq’s most democratic and stable days lie ahead, it would be foolish to ignore the nearly 10 years of internal violence that have ravaged the country.
On the other hand, Washington’s most recent direct engagement in the region, in Libya, brought a much clearer success. This time, a concerted, international coalition assembled by the United States relentlessly urged Libya for months until Gaddafi’s regime was terminally damaged.
Something all of these cases have in common is that the accomplishment of immediate military objectives had little bearing on the outcome of the situation the direct action was trying to solve in the first place.
Iraq and Libya are truly open questions. Both have shown potential for a positive move, but also may be prone to more dangerous paths since their U.S.-led — technically, NATO-led in Libya’s case — interventions. What the historical record shows is that the Middle East is far too complex a region for one episode of diplomacy or military action to alter its landscape in a lasting way. No one set of air strikes or negotiated agreements will succeed in neutralizing the Iranian threat. That is simply not how things have worked historically in the Middle East, and it would be foolish to start thinking that now.
Ethan Chess is a junior in the College. PAST IS PRESENT appears every other Friday.