It's a tempting response to the latest act of barbarism in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the unending violence of sect upon sect, tribe upon tribe, nation upon nation: Leave them to it. I've heard the sentiment expressed by a good number of friends, and by intelligent voices in the media: it's their problem, their religious sectarianism, their culture, their intolerance, their fratricidal rage... So what are we doing in the middle of it? Even if we manage, by force, to impose some kind of a provisional peace, there's no reason to believe it will survive unless our military hangs around for decades to enforce it.
I'm no military expert, but it seems clear that the only military way to defeat the worst of the aggressors in various parts of the Middle East is by dint of that increasingly irritating phrase, "boots on the ground." There is no shortage of nitwits who seem to think that we ought to bomb the daylights out of the terrorists/rebels/opposition forces everywhere they pop up, destroying them before they can do their damage and spread their poison. Could action from the air have preempted what has turned into a catastrophic civil war in Syria? Whom should we have bombed? Do we know the good guys? And what, in that general region, constitutes a good guy anyway? Even our good friend Israel, let's face it, acts in ways that simply provoke and promulgate more violence. It seems simple-minded to say this, but... it's complicated.
And yet, to walk away from it all does not seem to me an act of wisdom, nor the better part of valor. And I'm not one to believe that it's exclusively about the oil. The broader reality is that the social and political turbulence in the Middle East affects not merely the region, but the globe. We are long past the time when regional problems could be contained within the region. Borders are porous--not only to ill-intentioned individuals, but to vast armies of refugees and shifting populations. The ease and speed of physical movement around the world, along with the ability of a single individual or small cell to create chaos, makes a mockery of isolationism. And masses of refugees, no matter how much to be held in our compassion, will readily destabilize those areas where they seek refuge. In search of better opportunity, a more secure existence, and simple human dignity, whole populations of non-refugee communities are on the move. If Americans fret about their immigration "problem," they should take a look at Europe.
There's no nice, humanitarian solution to all this. There's not even a viable nasty one. With people and peoples in constant motion around the globe, containment is a pipe-dream. The seemingly attractive option to "leave them to it" is, in the real world, no option at all. And we have not even begun to stir into the mix the added complication of 21st century communications, the lightning speed of the Internet and its impact on the rushing current of international events. We are not just implicated. Willing or not, we are involved. We are engaged in situations from which we would clearly rather distance ourselves, if we were able. Our "power"--our military might, our economic weight, our global influence--allows us no escape from the responsibilities it incurs, simply by reason of being power. That is its nature. It is engaged. It is a necessary and inescapable part of the engine of a world in motion.
Given all of this, I think Obama is doing well to maintain his precarious balance. The caution for which he is much scorned by those on the right is exactly what it needed. He's a skillful, agile and attentive participant in the continuing and often unpredictable action. We are, unfortunately, in a situation in which steady observation and sober consideration is needed; in which it is wise to be long on patience and slow to action. We have already proved--surely to ourselves as much as to the world at large--that we are unable to control the turbulence. Nor are we able to ignore it. Willy-nilly, we're along for the ride, and our vaunted power, unless we wield it with circumspection, compassion and control, is likely to be more of a hindrance than an asset.
The feeling of impotence in the face of the appalling brutality that is casually practiced by the so-called Islamic State is galling. We need to ask ourselves: what does power look like, in such a circumstance. Does it look like aggression? Does it look like retreat? Neither one, I'm tempted to think. Power in this circumstance has to reside in wisdom, restraint, resilience and patience. And the sacrifice, on America's part, of some unhelpful national ego.