By third grade we have figured out which group to align ourselves with to be safe on the playground and in the bathroom. WE have no intention of getting into a fight and that’s why we make sure that we are associated with those who will stand up for us and throw a punch if necessary. This isn’t rocket science. Every kid learns that our associations are either a liability or an asset. We all understand from childhood into adulthood that whether we are in the workplace or on the ball field, it is best to associate with those who are willing to do what it takes to be strong and successful. Nations have understood this concept for a very long time as well. It became particularly prevalent in recent history with the creation of NATO and all of the similar mutual defense associations. Basically, the underpinnings upon which these associations were created were the expectation that if any member state was attacked by a non-member state, all of the other states would come to their defense. In truth, however, the reality was that if any member of NATO were attacked it meant that they could depend on the United States to come to their rescue. The Warsaw Pact nations could in turn depend upon the Soviet Union to protect their interests. This bi-polar world-order created a surprising degree of stability during its time. However, times have changed and the world has become much more complex with multiple points of influence and interest. It consists not only of nation-states, but non-state players as well. The Middle East is particularly complex and defies easy understanding or solutions. While our engagement in the past might have seemed rational to some, today it belies those rational explanations. The rules and expectations of yesterday are no longer relevant. Today we must ask, are we willing to continue to be the proxy warriors of the Middle East?
Many years ago when I was in my teens I went to a lecture given by Marvin Kalb, then the Diplomatic Correspondent for CBS News, now the Director of the Kennedy School at Harvard. I have always remembered a key point that he made in his presentation. He stated that we should always understand that nations act only out of national self-interest. If it also works for other nations with which they associate, all the better. But it first has to serve the interests of the acting nation. Is this no longer true, or have we lost sight of what our national interests truly are? Even as kids we learn that there are playgrounds that are simply not safe to play at regardless of who are friends are. As a nation what are our obligations and priorities? Is our commitment to ideology or security? Is our obligation first to create domestic tranquility before international tranquillity? In Econ 101 we all learned about the natural tension created by the tug and pull between guns and butter. Are we to place our priorities first at building a nation that provides the best quality of life possible for its citizens or are we first obligated to provide military cover for all of those who choose to associate with us?
It may seem that I am presenting a dichotomy that is unrealistic to resolve. You may feel that there needs to be a midpoint somewhere that can serve all involved parties. In some cases that may be possible, but not in the current confrontation with ISIS. I believe that we have committed all of the blood and treasure to the Middle East that is appropriate. Actually I believe that we have spent much more than we ever should have. Our young men have died and we have spent our national treasure as those who live in the neighborhood pledge minor involvement only after extreme coaxing from our Secretary of State. Frankly, it is their problem, not ours. I think it is time to completely vacate the area of all American interests and citizens and wish them good luck. Our national security is in jeopardy only because we are there. It is time for us to stop serving as the proxy warriors of the Middle East. Now is the time for the inhabitants of the neighborhood to take responsibility for cleaning up their own mess. We have other issues that are far more important to our national self-interest.