(Image: Flickr / U.S. Army)

(Image: Flickr / U.S. Army)

On this day in 2011, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, following massive protests in the streets. It was the first victory of the Arab Spring. The lessons, Laila Lalami wrote in The Nation at the time, were several: “To the Arab dictators: you are not invincible. To the West: you are not needed. And to the Arab people: you are not powerless.”

Five years later, those parties—as well as newer arrivals on the scene, like Russia, Turkey, and the Islamic State—remain locked in a gruesome struggle for the future of the region. In war-torn Syria, half of the country’s pre-war population of 11 million have either been killed or forced to leave their homes; the government has targeted its own citizens with barrel bombs and chemical weapons; an apocalyptic death cult has conquered territory the size of Britain; and the architectural remains of some of the world’s earliest civilizations have been looted and destroyed.

Contrary to President Barack Obama’s claim in his State of the Union address that the crisis in the Middle East is “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 lit a match to the region’s sectarian divisions, and the fire is burning out of control—as this magazine repeatedly warned would happen. Yet even those on the left who accept this basic reading of recent history disagree about what should now be done. Some believe that the United States still has a responsibility to fix what it broke in the region; others that continued US presence in Iraq and Syria will only lead to more death and destruction.

To launch “That’s Debatable,” The Nation’s new series of online forums about questions that remain unsettled on the left, we asked four experts to answer this question: “Is it time for the United States to pull out of Iraq and Syria?”
–Richard Kreitner


While US troops and planes and bombs and drones should be pulled out of Iraq and Syria immediately, we can’t just walk away. We have to talk about what we owe the people of Iraq and Syria who continue to face the consequences of years or decades of horrific wars. We have an obligation to help support reconstruction, humanitarian relief, diplomacy, compensation, and much more.

But first, the United States needs to stop the airstrikes. They kill civilians and undermine the goal of ending popular support for ISIS. Bombing destroys cities, so ousting ISIS becomes a pyrrhic victory. And when ISIS loses territory, it reverts to old-fashioned terror attacks. Troops and weapons don’t work to stop terrorism; they aren’t keeping the Syrian or Iraqi people safe (let alone keeping Americans safe); and they prevent the implementation of many of the non-military strategies that even US officials agree are needed to counter ISIS. You can’t bomb terrorism—you can only bomb people. Sometimes the dead might include terrorists, but killing them just sparks more terrorism, not less.

We need powerful diplomatic action to replace powerful but failed military action—and that includes serious engagement with Iran, among other regional players.

We need to start talking about an arms embargo on all sides. As long as the region continues to be flooded by mostly US-made weapons, the United States has no credibility telling Iran and Russia to stop arming the Syrian regime. With escalating tensions threatening all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, any US effort to “avoid taking sides” requires Washington to halt its current support for Saudi military action (including in Yemen). Instead, the United States needs to exert serious pressure on its longtime ally to end Riyadh’s deliberate provocations, including by cancelling the multibillion-dollar arms purchases at the core of US-Saudi relations.

“Pulling out” is what we do with troops, planes, bombs and drones. But crafting a serious strategy does not end with pulling them out; we also need to take the money now being spent on a failing war and redirect it to serve domestic needs and to assist the countries and peoples we’ve been bombing for so long. That means welcoming refugees to the United States, and massive increases in our contributions to UN agencies struggling to care for the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as for reconstruction of devastated towns, cities, and countries.

Read expert takes from Jeff Faux, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, and Sherle R. Schwenninger, who also weighed in for this article, on The Nation’s website. 

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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