It is entirely predictable that a group such as ISIS would emerge in the power vacuum of Syria and Iraq. After our policies of regime change, the Iraqi power structure was eviscerated and its Syrian counterpart greatly weakened, making sectarian conflict inevitable. Power abhors a vacuum, and so weakening the national regimes left jihadism as the only organizing force in the region. Motivated by the mediagenic barbarism of ISIS, the Western powers are springing into poorly-defined action based on an inchoate mix of “this could threaten Tulsa” realpolitik and neoliberal humanitarianism. So the West is going to war – even with the Canadians in tow! – and the mission is to “degrade and destroy” this supposed non-state actor that we now call a state. McNamara-style body counts are being reported, and Western suburbanites can sleep soundly knowing that their leaders are Doing Something about this band of lunatics that wears ski masks in Syria in August.
There is, unsurprisingly, zero endgame in sight and zero reckoning with past policies, such as, “Hey, maybe those moderate rebels we armed weren’t so moderate!” or “We are pretty terrible at establishing peaceful nation-states in the Middle East!” Still, we are headed back to destroy the thing that emerged after the last thing we destroyed. The tactics that are currently approved are airstrikes, meaning that once again we intend to destroy things, but building things will be beyond our purview – for now. One supposes that the preferred strategic outcome would be for stable, liberal, Western-style democratic nation-states to emerge in the places where our bombs just fell, but the national security is far from broaching the particulars of our plan. I have a solution to offer which is out of the current Overton Window of political discourse: Empire.
Empires excelled at managing large expanses of land with little regard to modern exigences of nation-state governance. Land could be acquired and managed through the following military process:
- Enter territory with vastly superior army
- Kill existing group of males capable of fighting
- Announce to locals that they are now part of your Empire
- Agree to build a bunch of new infrastructure, let them practice their religion, and keep them safe from other Empires, so long as they agree to behave and use the Empire’s currency
- Continue until rise of another, more powerful Empire takes you out, or until internal contradictions slowly degrade the Empire within, ending with collapse
This worked extremely well for centuries, from the ancient Sumerians up until about 1946. The Empire took care of all the inconvenient parts of running a nation-state, from militaries to courts to banking systems. It tended to offer social mobility, especially if the subjugated people were especially impoverished upon conquest and there were jobs to be had from the local Viceroy. For the rest it was at least stable, and often less violent than the rule of local warlords. With the rise of information technologies and the development of the nation-state system throughout much of the world, having an out-and-out Empire became passé, replaced by a more surreptitious system of client states and CIA-style electioneering, more than just giving people all new flags and coinage. But perhaps we have lost something in the exchange.
Today, America and its allies are really trying to do Empire on the cheap. There is no dirtier epithet in Washington than “isolationist,” which applies to all elected officials and policy-makers who are hesitant about invading other people’s countries. There is a broad consensus from Maine to San Diego that America’s interests clearly extend from our main streets all the way to the middle of Eurasia. We will even spend a trillion or two invading Iraq and Afghanistan, only to quickly shift our mission to the construction of a nation-state to quickly take its place in the regional power balance. And when they fail, as they usually will given such a design, we will be right back to bombing the newest bad guys. We essentially crave the geopolitical control that comes from Empire, but we skip the step where we keep the infrastructure working and provide security.
Again, this has fallen outside of the window of political correctness, but someone needs to do a cost benefit analysis of how much it would cost to just run one of these countries, administer police, courts, roads, and hospitals and just call it East Texas, as opposed to spending thirteen years knocking down power structures and hoping for a suitable, friendly power to emerge. Surely the Rand Corporation can make a detailed model of the cost of running wars versus the cost of running countries. In the Middle East, empires and caliphates have the best track record of running the place effectively. The guys in the ski masks have already declared the latter. Perhaps it is time to get curious about committing to the former.