Outside powers have been crashing into the Middle East for more than a century. At first we presumed that people there would not mind, or even that they would welcome us. Ultimately we realized that our interventions were provoking hatred and violent turmoil. We took refuge in another comforting illusion: That no matter how awful the reaction was, it would be confined to the Middle East.
At least since the 9/11 attacks 14 years ago, it has been clear that this is fantasy. Terrorism and mass migration are bitter results of outside meddling in the Middle East. They will intensify.
Interventions multiply our enemies. Every village raid, every drone strike, and every shot fired in anger on foreign soil produces anti-Western passion. Some are shocked when that passion leads to violent reaction. They should not be. The instinct to protect one’s own, and to strike back against attackers, is older than humanity itself.
Horrific terror assaults cannot be justified as any kind of self-defense. Their savagery is inexcusable by all legal, political, and moral standards. But they do not emerge from nowhere. In countries that have been invaded and bombed, some people thirst for bloody revenge.
It was never realistic for the West — the invading world — to imagine that it is an impregnable fortress, or an island, or a planet apart from the regions its armies invade. This is especially true of Europe, which is literally just a long walk from the conflict zone. Now that Russia has joined the list of intervening powers, it too is vulnerable. So is the United States. We are further away and protected by oceans, but in the modern world, that is not enough. Blowback is now global.
Violent intervention always leaves a trail of “collateral damage” in the form of families killed, homes destroyed, and lives wrecked. Usually this is explained as mistaken or unavoidable. That does nothing to reduce the damage — or the anger that survivors pass down through generations.
A new terror attack inside the United States is likely. When it happens, how will Americans respond? If the past is any guide, we will clamor to fight the evil-doers. This will be described not as aggression, but as reaction and forward defense.
A strategy based on invading or bombing might make sense if the number of militants were finite. It is not. Terror groups in the Middle East are attracting recruits faster than they can process them. Killing some creates more, not fewer.
Countries, nations, and peoples must shape their own fates. Often they do so by reacting to oppression. Religion kept Europe in the Dark Ages for a thousand years. Russians and Chinese accepted brutal Communist rule for generations. Violent extremism in the Middle East will end only when people who live there end it. That cannot begin to happen until outsiders leave the region to its own people. The Middle East will not stabilize until its people are allowed to act for themselves, rather than being acted upon by others.
Watching cruel terror in Middle Eastern countries — or in Western capitals — is painful. It stirs our emotions. We want to avenge the victims, and imagine that in doing so, we will also be protecting ourselves. Too often, though, we fail to realize that Western power, vast as it is, cannot smash cultural patterns that have existed for longer than the United States or any European nation. Emotion overcomes sober reasoning. It naturally intensifies after horrific attacks. That is dangerous. Emotion pushes us toward rash and self-defeating choices. It is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.
Fanatics are trying to draw the United States back into Middle East quicksand. If we fall into that trap, we will not only intensify the war that is raging there, but bring it home.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.