If there’s one lesson Washington simply refuses to learn when it comes to Mid-East foreign policy it’s that forcibly removing autocrats almost invariably leads to chaos.
That’s not to say that promoting democratic principles and encouraging government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” isn’t somehow a noble pursuit at the theoretical level. It’s simply to say that real political change must be completely organic and cannot be brought about via military intervention or by covert attempts to support popular uprisings.
Importantly, this principle applies in countries where the seeds for change have already been sown. That is, you must let the process play out on its own, even if the ball is already rolling. You cannot, for instance, say something like this: “well, there are popular uprisings against someone we believe to be a dictator and so, because the populace clearly wants change, we’ll go in and accelerate the process by fomenting discord.”
That strategy will not work.
The people are just as likely as not to view outside interference as stemming from ulterior motives and the regime is just as likely as not to become even more dictatorial than it already was in the face of what will inevitably be perceived as foreign meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state.
The results of implementing this type of failed strategy are everywhere apparent in the Mid-East. There’s Libya, which is now a war-torn wasteland in the wake of Gaddafi’s death. There’s Egypt, where the confusion that reigned during the Arab Spring cornered the US into supporting the rise of Mohamed Morsi only to see his government overthrown in a counter coup that eventually installed Mubarak’s former head of military intelligence Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Presidency. There’s Syria, where efforts on the part of Washington, Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha to destabilize the Assad regime have led to a bloody civil war that’s left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. And of course there’s Iraq, which the US and Britain invaded on false pretenses only to see the country careen into chaos following Saddam’s ouster.
Now, former British PM Tony Blair is out with an apology for his country’s role in Iraq, and although he stops short of saying that removing Saddam was a mistake, he does admit that there were no WMDs and that the presence of the UK and the US did contribute to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq which, if you believe the narrative, led directly to the birth of ISIS:
Now obviously, the story of how ISIS became what it is today in the wake of al-Zarqawi's death is shrouded in CIA secrecy and we'll likely never know the whole story, but there's certainly a deep connection with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the establishment of which owes much to the Western invasion.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he's sorry for "mistakes" made in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but he doesn't regret bringing down dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong because, even though he had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others, the program in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought," Blair said
The ensuing war and dismantling of Saddam's government plunged Iraq into chaos, resulting in years of deadly sectarian violence and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq, a precursor of ISIS. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, more than 4,000 U.S. troops and 179 British service members were killed in the lengthy conflict.
Blair told Zakaria that besides the flawed Iraq intelligence, he also apologizes "for some of the mistakes in planning and, certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime."
But he stopped short of a full apology for the war.
"I find it hard to apologize for removing Saddam. I think, even from today in 2015, it is better that he's not there than that he is there," Blair said.
Blair acknowledged to Zakaria that there are "elements of truth" in the view that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the principle cause of the rise of ISIS.
"Of course, you can't say that those of us who removed Saddam in 2003 bear no responsibility for the situation in 2015," he said. "But it's important also to realize, one, that the Arab Spring which began in 2011 would also have had its impact on Iraq today, and two, ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq."
More broadly, Blair said, the policy debate on Western intervention remains inconclusive.
"We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we've tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we've tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria," he said. "It's not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies have worked better."
We feel compelled to offer a few closing remarks here. First, how Tony Blair did not "understand what would happen once you removed the regime" is beyond us. History is replete with examples of the unintended consquences of destabilizing countries and if any nation knows the ins and outs of what amounts to colonialism, it's Britain.
Second, if you've "tried intervention and putting down troops" and you've "tried intervention without putting in troops" and you've "tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change," and none of it has worked, maybe you should try this: laissez-faire.