Last month, on the same day President Obama gave a speech that defended his decision not to militarily intervene in Syria, Max Abrahms, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in terrorism, tweeted a blunt query: "When was the last US intervention in the Muslim world that was a resounding success?"
That's a hard question to answer. For one thing, what does a "resounding success" even mean in foreign policy? Generally, political scientists would argue military intervention can only be called a success if it achieves its aims, but the aims of government intervention abroad are often unclear. It can also be hard to ascertain whether the government's actions itself helped complete that aim, or whether outside actions played a role.
However, recent events suggest give reason to raise the question again. The situation unfolding in Iraq is not only raising the possibility of U.S. intervention, but also casting a harsh light on America's invasion and nine-year presence in the country.
So where are the interventions that have gone well? Recent examples aren't encouraging. The Afghanistan War may have eventually led to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, but as The Post's Kabul correspondent Kevin Sieff recently pointed out, its not yet clear what legacy the U.S. have left in the country itself. Americans themselves aren't sure either: According to a Pew/USA Today poll earlier this year, some 52 percent of Americans don't think the U.S. achieved its goals in the region.
Meanwhile, the bilateral intervention in Libya may contributed to the ousting (and killing) of dictator Moammar Gaddafi, but almost three years later the country seems intractably split between Islamist militias and rogue generals, and the deadly 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi continue to reverberate in American politics.
A possible "success" is NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and Kosovo in 1998. These may not strike you as obvious examples of U.S. intervention in the Muslim world, taking place in Eastern Europe rather than the Middle East, Central Asia, or Northern Africa, but it was a case of NATO offering military support to Muslim people against Christian rivals. Both interventions achieved their immediate aims relatively quickly and appear to have stopped further violence. Things are far from perfect in either country today, of course: Earlier this year there were riots in Bosnia, largely due to economic uncertainty in the state, and just this weekend a Kosovar parliamentary candidate was shot dead, a signal of the violence that still marks the country's politics.
The U.S. bombing campaign against Libya in 1986 is another candidate. Ronald Reagan's retaliation for the bombing of a West Berlin nightclub that killed two U.S. soldiers was clearly a military victory, but its longer term effects are less clear cut. It did appear to create a lull in Libya-sponsored terrorism and it succeeded in putting terrorism in the cross hairs of the international community, but it failed to end Libyan-sponsored terrorism once and for all. Gaddafi himself portrayed it as a victory for him, later erecting a monument to the strike near Misurata – a "golden fist crushing an American jet" (two American planes went down during the bombing).
One final, no doubt tongue-in-cheek, suggestion to Abrahms goes back even further back: The Barbary Wars.These early 19th century battles saw the United States take on pirates from the Ottoman Empire's possessions in Northern Africa. There were clearly positives to these wars – they put an end to Barbary piracy and helped to create the U.S. Navy – but comparing these to modern day U.S. intervention is quite a stretch.
For Abrahms, the First Iraq War was probably the best candidate he could think of. "The Bush Snr. administration was very specific about what exactly it hoped to achieve," he explained in a telephone call on Monday, pointing out that the war succeeded in its short term goals of liberating Kuwait, protecting Saudi oil fields, and containing Saddam Hussein. The war didn't lead Iraqis to overthrow Hussein as they might have hoped, but that was not its primary intention.
Abrahms, however, also points out that perception may be key to understanding why even U.S. interventions that achieve their goals could be thought of as failures. "I think the lesson in recent history is that regardless of how benevolent U.S. intentions can be, when we go to the Muslim world and occupy it, ultimately our presence there soon becomes unwelcome," he explains. The U.S. might be able to achieve its primary aims during intervention, but the damage to perceptions can negate that.
"Part of the problem is that there's a huge discrepancy between the reason why we are there and the reason why we are perceived to be there," Abrahms says. "I think that regardless again of our perception, what really matters is how we are perceived."