Somewhere over the Atlantic, there is an Islamic militia that has proclaimed an Islamic state. It controls territory in several countries, has kidnapped and murdered many innocent people, including Christians, and openly professes its disdain for Western learning. Despite the undeniably barbarous nature of this militia, no American politician of note has advocated using American air power against it, much less American troops. This militia is Boko Haram, which has spread terror in Nigeria and neighboring countries in West Africa.
Boko Haram’s ideological ally in Syria and Iraq, ISIS, has engendered a different reaction. We are engaged in a bombing campaign against ISIS that enjoys a high level of bipartisan support, and many politicians are clamoring for American boots on the ground to combat ISIS. The divergent response to Boko Haram and ISIS cannot be explained by different levels of barbarism; both groups are thoroughly appalling. Rather, the difference lies in geography. Most Americans see Africa as lacking strategic significance but reflexively regard the Mideast as vitally important.
It is time to question that reflex. As Pat Buchanan pointed out during the runup to our first war with Iraq, nearly a quarter of a century ago, our only vital interest in the Mideast is oil, and whoever controls the oil will be compelled, by economic necessity, to sell it on the world market. That observation is even truer today, as American production of oil and gas has increased and OPEC has lost much of its former cohesiveness.
But we show no signs of shaking off our Mideast fetish. The news that Russian jets have begun bombing ISIS and other opponents of the Assad regime in Syria has generated hysteria in several quarters. Last week I listened as Jay Sekulow painted an apocalyptic picture of what is happening in Syria for his radio audience. The presence of Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah fighting on behalf of Assad required us to do something, Sekulow argued, because inaction would mean ceding American leadership in the Mideast to Russia. Left unsaid was how America or Americans have benefited from our supposed leadership in the Mideast. Over the last 25 years, we have sacrificed thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of American dollars in an effort to create a Mideast more to our liking, and the region is at least as chaotic as it was before we rescued the Emir of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Indeed, it was the presence of US troops on Saudi soil during our first war with Iraq that Osama bin Laden used to recruit for Al-Qaeda.
Sekulow’s hysteria notwithstanding, it is hard to see how America is harmed by letting Russians fight ISIS or even prop up Assad, who poses no threat to us and whose father even joined George H. W. Bush’s coalition during the Gulf War. The Christians of Syria, who rightly fear what will happen to them if Assad falls, seem to welcome Russian involvement. And if there is any terrorist response as a result of what the Russians are doing, that response will be directed at them, not at us. Rather than threatening Russia over its attempt to defend its ally, we should quietly stand aside and let someone else, for a change, bear the costs of intervention in that perennially troubled region.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.