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July 13, 2016

U.K. Chilcot Report Points to Persistent Weakness in U.S. Foreign Policy

The Chilcot Report on the U.K’s involvement in the war in Iraq, released last week in London, attributes plenty of blame to British policy makers complicit in what has been described the worst foreign policy mistake in recent U.S. history. One of Sir John Chilcot’s main criticisms of then Prime Minister Tony Blair is that he overestimated the U.K’s capacity to influence U.S. conduct of the war. So it proved to be, with the United States disregarding U.K. advice on the administration of Iraq after the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein.

Chilcot writes, “The scale of the U.K. effort in post-conflict Iraq never matched the scale of the challenge.” As the United States was by far the dominant power in the coalition, this criticism rests more appropriately on American shoulders, and it is a far-reaching insight. The failure to meet the challenge of post-conflict reconstruction has been a feature of U.S. policy since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Sweeping aside the Taliban in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad proved to be easy, whereas rebuilding societies damaged by decades of internal conflict and dictatorial rule remains an elusive goal.

The problem has only been compounded by Washington’s response to the collapse of longstanding authoritarian rulers in Middle East and North African states, which, with the welcome exception of Tunisia, have either suffered subjugation under resurgent autocrats—backed by the United States—or plunged into internal armed conflict with wide-ranging destabilizing consequences.

These failures have major implications for the ways people in the Middle East view the United States.  Many hold the United States responsible for the devastation inflicted on their countries, and some therefore have a degree of sympathy for groups hostile towards the United States.

The United States faces a massive challenge to restore a level of sustainable stability, peace, and security to the crescent of countries from Pakistan in the East to Mali and other parts of the Sahel in the West. It is not a task it can carry out alone, but—as demonstrated by the conflict in Syria, the attacks by the so-called Islamic State in many parts of the world, and the continuing flow of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean and into Europe—it is not something that the United States can leave to others.

The Obama Administration has prided itself on its patience and its ability to avoid entanglements exemplified by the misadventures in Iraq. The appeal of such an approach is easy to see and no one wants to repeat mistakes.

On the other hand, as crises worsen and spread, restraint can start to look like neglect, and the argument for greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East becomes more persuasive. The question facing this administration in its last few months in office, and the new administration in January 2017, is not whether to be engaged, but how. The United States should address deep structural problems: dysfunctional and often abusive authoritarian governments, internal conflicts that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions, and the growing reach of violent extremist groups.

These interrelated problems demand attention not only because they directly threaten U.S. interests, but also because of they contribute to instability of essential U.S. allies in Europe. Already the failure of European leaders to find a collective solution to the immediate and longer term challenges of the migration crisis has strengthened the enemies of tolerant, inclusive societies based on human rights and the rule of law. This failure contributed to the Brexit vote, which, in turn, has fueled political and economic uncertainty and a spike in hate crimes as racist extremists in the U.K. assault and threaten immigrants and people from minority communities.

If the United States is going to help people of the Middle East fulfill the hopes of the remarkable spring of 2011—and if it is going to lead in defending the liberal democratic order that it helped build after World War II—a new approach is needed. It should help rebuild and stabilize devastated countries, promote democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, initiate multilateral action to end conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, work to align policies with aspirational rhetoric, and implement comprehensive measures to prevent violent extremism.