When Barack Obama proclaimed that Bashir Al-Assad must go a few years ago, it seemed like a good idea. Revolution was in the air, and since 1776 we’ve all been against dictators, let alone ruthless ones (is there any other kind?). But just as occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there was not much thought, not to mention understanding, as to what or who would replace him if he went. It now turns out that if Assad is somehow deposed, the likely beneficiaries will be the caliphate of ISIS which, although it seemed impossible to imagine at the time, would be exponentially worse, both for the world and whoever remains in Syria.


There is another group having some small success opposing Assad, but they belong to Al Qaeda, our sworn enemies since 9/11. Certain opposition members of our Congress want Obama to be more forceful in arming Assad’s opponents, but no one is able to find supporters of American-style democracy to carry our banner. To the extent there ever is such a one, we would do well to look more carefully than we did with Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq: we tend to be easily fooled by Mideasterners who want our money and our military backing for their own ends, not their stated purpose.


The fight against ISIS has a similar convolution: the only effective fighting force against them so far is the Kurds. The only country that can effectively help, because of its proximity, is Turkey. But Turkey’s price for letting us use their air bases, etc., is our allowing them to wipe out the Kurds. The other force combatting ISIS is the Shiite militias of Iraq, but letting them loose antagonizes the remnant Sunni population of Iraq, contributing to the continuing civil war in that country.


In short, we have no unencumbered ally in the region, no one we would want unequivocally to “win.” And beyond that, deep down pretty much everyone other there resents our presence, if not our materiel and money. So, what are we doing there, especially since the Mideast is so far from America? And is there any good reason we shouldn’t just walk away, letting the Arabs resolve their own conflicts?


To those questions I have no good answers. That we are there is due to history, both ours and theirs. There was a time, not so long ago, when we were the world’s policeman, based on might as much as right. American exceptionalism held that we were the world’s shining light, knew what was best for everyone – which was to be like us – and it was up to us to stop bad things from happening. Of course, it was more important that we exercise this power in places like the Mideast where we had an economic interest (oil); we didn’t really have to intervene in Africa, where bad things were happening pretty much everyday.


The other factor – and here any analysis gets tricky, and controversial – is America’s dependent relationship on Israel. If there were any doubt that the Jewish Lobby – or more politely, the pro-Israeli Lobby – runs American foreign policy, that has been erased by the current “debate” over the nuclear arms treaty with Iran, in which a majority of both houses of Congress have come out in support of Israel’s Prime Mininster Netanyahu over their American president. It was clear before then when Netanyahu was invited to address the Congress and was gushed over in a way Obama never has been. Netanyahu has far more opposition in Israel (although clearly not enough) than he does in the United States.


Israel’s goal is, and has been, to weaken, if not destroy, the rival powers in its region: Iraq, Syria and Iran. Netanyahu’s government sees these countries as existential threats to Israel. Whether they are, or were, is debatable; the sincerity, indeed ferocity, of that belief is not. Israel by now takes its support from the U.S. as a given. It is not concerned that anything it does or says will diminish the financial and military aid it regularly receives via our subservient Congress. The battle, instead, is getting the United States to help it diminish the perceived threat from Iraq, Syria and Iran.


Iraq is one down. It is hard for me to see any reason for the Iraq War beyond Israeli prodding. I am not clear on the cause of the overlap between American neoconservative policy and Israeli lobbying – was it just like minds thinking, or was strengthening Israel’s position a neoconservative touchstone? – but the political power of the Jewish lobby buttressed the Wolfowitz/Cheney/Krystal cadre that carried the day with a president who was clearly out of his depth in foreign affairs. I won’t rehash the alleged causes of the Iraq War here, but will just note that Iraq bore no responsibility for 9/11, it possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and its demise was not likely to lead to mass democratization in the Middle East. The only guaranteed outcome was the removal of an enemy of Israel.


Even more a threat to Israel, because of their common border, is Syria, which harbors Hezbollah, an organization that has carried out anti-Israel attacks in the past. There, Israel has taken matters into its own hands, carrying out bombing raids on Syrian military facilities. As a dictator who liquidates his opponents rather than giving them a vote, Assad seemed worthy of overthrow to the innocent American. But look what has come of the revolt against him, which we have cheered on and supported where we can. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have been killed; Europe is drowning in Syrian refugees; the nation has been chopped up into regions controlled by different warring factions; and Assad is still in power.


A similar case can be made for Libya, although I can’t pin blame here on Israel or the neoconservatives, now out of office. I, too, thought it humanitarian that we stop Qaddafi’s march on Agedabia, where he was primed to slaughter the dissidents who had arisen to topple him, in a reverberation of Arab Spring. Moreover, we were acting in support of the French and British, and even some Arab states. Nevertheless, it is hard to see any positive result: the country of Libya basically no longer exists (whether it should have been created in the first place is part of the problem). There is no peace for anyone, except perhaps in my oasis of Aujila, and ISIS is threatening to extend its caliphate here in North Africa.


The only bright light I see in this dark picture is the amazing nuclear arms treaty recently concluded with Iran. I say “amazing,” because it is almost unheard-of for China, Russia, Germany, France, England and the U.S. to agree on anything, let alone a pact with Iran. How effective it will be in forestalling Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb – the purported concern of American politicians – is anyone’s guess; many insiders say Iran had and has no intention of developing a bomb in the first place. What the treaty does effectively do is forestall Israel’s starting a war with Iran, either on its own or using the U.S. again as its puppet. My Mideast expert John Whitbeck convincingly argues that the fear of Israel attacking Iran, with horrendous worldwide consequences – not any fear of Iran’s attacking Israel – is what united the 5+1 powers in their negotiations. (The just-published, in Israel, memoirs of Ehud Barak reveal how close Israel has come to starting such a war.)


Finally, would the world be a better place if Hussein, Qaddafi and Assad were still unchallenged in power? Certainly, life for the common man in Iraq, Libya and Syria would be much better. Do we have the right to ask for anything more? If there is a revolution in a foreign land, when, if ever, should we involve American forces? It didn’t pay off in Vietnam; it didn’t work in Iraq. Our economic embargo of Cuba is another instance where we have hurt, not helped, the local people, to ultimately no advantage or benefit for America.


This may sound like an argument for an isolationist foreign policy. To some extent it is. The Arabs themselves will have to defeat ISIS. All we do by sticking our nose in is aggravate the wound, helping ISIS recruit more soldiers. It is easy to cast Uncle Sam as the Great Satan. Our floundering efforts in Afghanistan – the longest war in American history – are a case study in futility. But I am not an isolationist, and there may be places where we can provide a positive influence. What we need, however, is an understanding of the situation we are entering. Every conflict is not good guys vs. bad guys. Just as important, we need a game plan that takes into account what happens next. Knocking off Qaddafi cannot be the end goal; we must know who can take his place and have some idea of what becomes of his country without him. If the Iraq War is to be good for anything – and so far, it has not been – it will be as a cautionary lesson to American policymakers to think long-term before your short-term act. And it would be nice to put America’s interests before Israel’s, but that’s perhaps just as unrealistic.