The American Interest

Managing the Quagmire

Twenty years ago Leon Hadar published Quagmire: America in the Middle East, an eloquent plea for U.S. disengagement from the region.  He warned that American leaders had neither the knowledge nor the power to manage long-standing disputes involving faraway people of whom we know little.  Attempts at meddling, he wrote, invariably made the various actors less responsible and less willing to settle their disputes, while breeding anti-American resentment and harming American interests.  Hadar advocated political, diplomatic, and military disengagement from the region and a policy of benign neglect.

Those insights are still valid, after two decades of often ill-conceived and sometimes disastrous U.S. “engagement” in the greater Middle East.  A key problem with the strategy of George W. Bush’s administration in the region was its tendency to treat opportunities as threats.  A weakened, friendless, and powerless Saddam Hussein could have been managed for years, with sanctions and no-fly zones, at little cost to U.S. taxpayers and no cost in American lives.  To a foreign-policy realist, this was an opportunity.  For reasons yet to be explained fully, Iraq was fraudulently presented as a threat.  There were never any weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda.

Today’s Iraq is an unstable, divided country whose people are more hostile to the United States...

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