Lawrence of Arabia, in trying to pass on the wisdom he had learned in working with the Arab partners advised his colleagues “not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are there to help them, not to win it for them.” President Obama seems to have heard this advice and is very intent on emphasizing that the United States will not bear the burden of the fight against the ISIL alone. “Friends and allies” came up in the very first sentence of his speech on ISIL and the necessity of their contribution was highlighted throughout. Echoing Lawrence, the President insisted that “we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”
The emphasis on partners is obviously good domestic politics—no one in the United States wants to go it alone. But it is also a hard-earned lesson of recent years: the United States cannot bring stability to these regions without the help of effective local partners that share broad U.S. goals. As Lawrence warned in his very next sentence, “[a]ctually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” In less gentle words, the urge to substitute oneself for local actors is a form of imperial hubris.
So the political and strategic logic for seeking out partners is sound. But it also points to a critical potential flaw in the President’s strategy: do effective allies for these purposes exist in either Iraq or Syria? From the U.S. perspective, the desperate search for effective local partners has been almost the defining feature (and flaw) of recent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and even the non-intervention in Syria. Lawrence’s quotation was literally inscribed in stone outside NATO’s regional headquarters in Kandahar but after the fall of Taliban, the United States (through NATO) failed to find effective local partners there and found itself forced to increasingly take control of security in that city. It then had to spend years and billions of dollars training and equipping an Afghan force to hand control over to.
The President mentioned two key local partners in his speech: the Syrian moderate opposition and the new Iraqi government together with its security forces. It is very hard, from recent experience, to have confidence in either of these actors’ ability to serve U.S. goals or in the American capacity to effectively support them. In Iraq, the sectarianism of the previous Iraqi government and the near collapse of its security forces are some of the main reasons that the U.S. now needs to consider re-intervention. In Syria, the moderate opposition is squeezed on both sides – by the Assad regime and the Islamist extremists of ISIL and other groups – and is close to a non-factor in the civil war there.
The President’s speech reflected the usual U.S. response to the lack of effective local partners: build them. If the current Iraqi government is too sectarian, insist on a new one before helping it; if the moderate Syrian opposition is not militarily effective, train and equip it until it is. Unfortunately, the American record in building effective local partners, from Vietnam to Iraq, is very poor. There will undoubtedly be many well-thought out proposals from both within and beyond the government for how to learn from those mistakes and do better this time. But certain constants will necessarily remain. The United States will want the forces it builds or assists in Iraq or Syria to reflect American values and goals in a society that does not share them. The United States will be unpopular in that society and thus taint any local institution it builds or helps. And other U.S. priorities will limit the commitment the United States is willing to make to these efforts.
In the end, it is an odd logic that translates the insight that the United States cannot defeat the enemy without effective local partners into a policy to build them. It seems to forget that the key reason the United States needs local partners is that it doesn’t understand local dynamics and it doesn’t have the same stakes or interests as locals. As the President says, there are some things Iraqis and Syrians must do for themselves. It is just surprising that building an army and a government is not among them.