Creating Chaos: Time to Learn From Our Mistakes

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article noting that the head of the UN Mission in Libya fears “the country is very close to total chaos.” Islamic fundamentalist insurgents took control of Tripoli last summer, forcing what remains of the government into exile in Tobruk, and things have only gotten worse since then. Back in 2011, when we started military action which eventually led to the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, I warned of Libyan Blowback, Libyan Delusions, and the largely overlooked nuclear proliferation incentives we created by attacking a regime Pres. Bush had welcomed back into the family of nations when it gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Yet, with most American officials still maintaining that “Assad has to  go,” we seem not to have learned our lesson.

Worse, we should have learned that lesson long before our 2011 attack on Libya. We intervened in Afghanistan in the 1980s to oppose a Soviet-backed government that we saw as despicable. What was the result? Islamic radicals (initially seen by us as “freedom fighters”) took over the government, leading to 9/11.

We didn’t learn from that mistake, and repeated it in 2003 when we intervened in Iraq to topple another despicable government. Again the result was similar to Afghanistan: total chaos which allowed a dangerous, radical Islamic presence to take hold.

Before we remove Assad from power in Syria – a goal repeatedly espoused by the highest levels in the Obama administration – we need to carefully assess why we think this time will be different. That is especially true given the maps which appeared yesterday in a Wall Street Journal article showing how ISIS control of Syria has grown in the last four and a half months. Due to potential copyright restrictions, the map below (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) only shows what the Journal labeled as January 10’s status.


150114_SyriaMap 150114_SyriaLegend


Isn’t it time we thought things through more carefully before unleashing America’s awesome power? Chaos does not have a good track record as being our friend.

Martin Hellman

UPDATE (20 JAN 2015): Today’s New York Times has a front page story indicating a change of direction within the Obama administration along the lines advocated above. It starts off (emphasis added):

American support for a pair of diplomatic initiatives in Syria underscores the shifting views of how to end the civil war there and the West’s quiet retreat from its demand that the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, step down immediately.

Maybe we are starting to learn from our past mistakes!

UPDATE (25 JAN 2015): A New York Times editorial today also recognizes the risks of removing Assad (emphasis added):

As recently as October, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that there will never be peace in Syria as long as President Bashar al-Assad “remains the focus of power” there. Even now, American officials continue to insist that any lasting political solution will require Mr. Assad’s exit. But the unsettling truth is that the brutal dictator is still clinging to power and the United States and its allies are going to have to live with him, at least for nowMr. Kerry seemed tacitly to acknowledge as much recently when he urged Mr. Assad to change his policies, while omitting the usual call for him to leave office.

Aside from the risk that Islamic fundamentalists might replace Assad, I see no way that he will step down without a huge fight – and therefore huge bloodshed.

If you think these ideas need wider consideration, please add a link on Facebook, tweet it on Twitter, and use other social media to help get the word out. Thank you!

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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