Beware unintended consequences
AP Photo / Bill Foley
Rescuers prepare to lower a U.S. Marine on a stretcher down to safety below, Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut, Lebanon, following a car bomb attack on the Marines’ headquarters near the Beirut airport.
Most of us have fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences, (such as the day you stopped at a local farm to let your 5-year-old daughter have a pony ride — which led to her becoming a competitive rider and you spending every spring and summer weekend at horse shows for the next decade). That’s life, and, unintended or not, such consequences can be positive.
Yet in the world of foreign policymakers, the unintended consequences that can follow their decisions are almost always negative. For instance, the decision in the 1980s to supply arms to Islamic Mujahedeen fighters to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was quite successful.
The Russians left — except that among the fighters was Osama bin Laden, who founded al-Qaida out of like-minded extremists, set up terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a few years later attacked America on 9/11.
But there is another modern example of unintended consequences arguably even more significant. Next month PBS is running a new three-part documentary on the Reagan presidency, written and directed by Chip Duncan.
In the section dealing with the Middle East, former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz and former George W. Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lament the unintended consequences of Reagan’s policy in Lebanon.
They say Reagan’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Lebanon after 241 American servicemen were killed in the 1983 terrorist bombing attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, created a power vacuum that had broad consequences we are still dealing with. To be specific:
Into that vacuum the Shiites of Lebanon emerged as a major militant force under the banner of Hezbollah (the Party of God).
The then new Shiite theocracy of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard became a permanent influence in Lebanese affairs.
Iran, Syria (ruled by the Alawite sect which is a Shia offshoot) and Hezbollah cemented what became a long-term alliance. A major goal of this new Shiite alliance has been to challenge the previous dominance of Sunni Muslims, often using terrorist tactics.
As for the present, when the latest major changes in the region began two years ago with the people’s revolutions of the Arab Spring, decisions were made by American policymakers, with consequences we are just now beginning to see in Egypt, Libya and Syria, which were neither obvious at the time nor intended.
The senior Egyptian military commander said this past week that the new democratically elected government may be on the verge of collapse if feuding civilian leaders cannot restore order in the country. He was speaking after more than 60 people had been killed in anti-government rioting. Residents of three Suez Canal cities put under a strict 9 p.m. curfew refused to comply. Major confrontations elsewhere, including in Cairo, continued unabated. Protesters accuse President Muhammad Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood Party of hijacking the revolution and of the same violent tactics ousted President Hosni Mubarak used to silence his opponents. No expert I have heard or read this past week seems to know where all this is heading. But a military takeover is a possibility.
This inevitably raises questions. Was the Egyptian revolution such a good thing after all? And from America’s perspective, was President Obama premature in supporting the revolution and calling for Mubarak to step down? I agreed with Obama on the timing and substance of his decisions and still do.
I don’t believe America, as the exemplar of democracy, had any other choice. And frankly I don’t think Obama’s decision was a determining factor in Mubarak’s demise. But if Egypt is again taken over by generals, or if it sinks into anarchy bitterly divided by religious differences, it will be argued that in the interests of stability, America should not have so cavalierly abandoned Mubarak.
Libya is a different matter. Obama’s decision to get United Nations approval for an American-led NATO and Arab League military action to support anti-Gadhafi rebels seemed like a good idea at the time. But there is now clearly a power vacuum in Libya, which Islamic extremists are exploiting. Also Gadhafi’s once bulging arsenals are now the weapons being used by the latest bin Laden franchise, al-Qaida in the Maghreb, and by other groups inciting Islamic extremism in parts of North and Central Africa. Islamists established a significant presence in northern Mali, where the French, with American logistical support, are now challenging them. Similar radicals were involved in the recent hostage taking at an oil refinery in Algeria where several dozen hostages, including three Americans, were killed.
Finally, there is Syria, where some 60,000 people have been killed in the two years since unarmed protesters began to call for the end of the Assad regime. President Obama has resisted getting involved militarily or arming the rebels for the very reason that such action might indeed have unintended consequences. It has become clear that one of the most effective Syrian rebel groups is linked to al-Qaida. There are chemical weapons that, if Assad should fall, could certainly end up in the wrong hands. That makes Israel edgy enough to have already made air strikes on military targets within Syria. Right now, no one can even define a possible acceptable outcome to the Syrian crisis.
When President Reagan decided to send American troops into Lebanon in the early 1980s, not only were the Lebanese fighting their own civil war, but Palestinian, Syrian, Iranian and Israeli forces were also in the country. This was a recipe for the disaster that ultimately occurred. Unintended consequences can not always be avoided — but serious and dispassionate analysis before resorting to force can reduce their likelihood. Today there are apparently new Islamic extremist threats to be reckoned with, but there is always the danger of overstating such threats and overreaction. And as we know from bitter experience, getting into wars is far easier than getting out of them.
Barrie Dunsmore is a retired foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.