Migrant Crisis – “If you break it, you own it”

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Contemporary multilateral diplomatic language is replete with unique lingos.  Some of the most notable are; “lessons learned”, “missed opportunities”, “incentivized” and “shared responsibilities”.  Nowhere are these value-laden argots more pertinent than in the migration challenge now confronting Europe.  From all indications, the migrant overspill is just the beginning. The long-term security implication of an unchecked wave of Arab migrants for Europe, is yet to be fathomed. How did this happen and what are the lessons? For long, realpolitik and strategic geopolitical considerations orchestrated U.S. and European policies in the Middle-East, especially in those states where the leaders were considered roguish and therefore not always compliant to democratic values, human rights, and good governance or considerate of Western interests. Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen topped the list. In the end, the Western coalition partners, either jointly or unilaterally, rallied successfully to target perceived rogue leadership in these countries, especially in the wake of the now almost forgotten Arab Spring.

Iraq and Libya have been destroyed and eternally upended as nation-states.  Both will never be whole again.  Syria, Iran and Yemen are on the brink of a similar fate.  In Yemen, a war of many parts is still raging. Former President Zaidi Shia who was ousted with the tacit Western support and his Houthis rebel supporters continue to make Yemen ungovernable and President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s hold on power very tenuous.  After five years of civil war, Syria is more than half-way through its own upending process.  Iran it seems might be spared, thanks to the lessons learned, a better understanding of the negative consequences of externally-induced regime change and the recent conclusion of the Iran and Six World Powers Nuclear deal. It’s worth recalling that at the onset of the Western support of the rebels military campaign against Syria, President Bashar al Assad warned that Syria was not Iraq, and that any military campaign against Syria would make the crisis in Iraq and the consequent fallout, a child’s play. Unlike Saddam Hussein and Maummar Gaddafi, President Assad at least enjoyed the benefit of Russian and Chinese support in the U.N. Security Council and opaque Russian materiel and financial support in executing his civil war. 

Despite the obvious interconnectedness, the nexus between the unfolding migrant flow into Europe and the collapse of the nations of Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, are not being discussed openly.   Indeed, the discussion of any such linkages by Western leaders tends to be dodgy. What is also not being discussed in this context is Samuel Huntington’s warning many years back, of the clash of civilizations. Also not being discussed is how indigenous opposition to the leadership in these Arab countries were “incentivized” in different ways by the Western powers. A key variable ever hardly discussed, is the warning by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the need to modulate the spread of U.S. and Western influence in the Middle East by using diplomacy rather than force, or in analytical-speak, using “soft power” rather than  “hard power”.  Clearly, “hard power” has proven to be of limited success in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, while “soft power” seems to be working in Iran. Apropos, the Middle East, Collin Powell had warned despite his military background, of the consequences of meddling, inheriting other peoples war, and more directly, about an American invasion of Iraq. He buttressed his point with this famous maxim: “if you break it, you own it”. Scant attention was given to that admonition by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of the U.K., who found every justification –including non-existent WMDs – as excuse for the invasion and regime change in Iraq. Developments in Iraq as unsavory as they were gave impetus to further extraneous meddling in Libya and consequently, Syria. Perhaps, to some, the desired ends justified the means.

But the chicken may have come home to roost. The ongoing migrant flow is a defining moment and litmus  test of the EU’s common will and capacity. The drowning death of two Syrian children, Aylan Kurdi (2 years) and his brother Galip Kurdi (3 years), after their boat sank off the Greek islands poignantly brought the migrant crisis to the fore. And as Gen. Martin Dempsey, the U.S. Chairmen of Joint Chief of Staff rightly observed, the migrant flow is “a real crisis”. This is more so, in the context of finding a European response consensus.  Contextually, the crushing migrant flow into Europe with over one million asylum seekers envisaged will dent most of the counter-terrorism measures put in place by European countries since 9/11 attacks in 2001, aimed to preempting the planting of terrorist cells in European countries. Truly, the migrants entering Europe may be genuine refugees; but some, especially those refusing to be screened and fingerprinted may be hiding something. It is also not certain that the immigrants are all of Syrian nationality, even as empathy and respect for international humanitarian laws dictate addressing their plight regardless of their nationalities.

So, what was Collin Powell’s observation that remains instructive and should have formed part of the lessons learned?  His exact words: “The famous expression, “if you break it you own it” — which is not a Pottery Barn expression, by the way — was a simple statement of the fact that when you take out a regime and you bring down a government, you become the government. On the day that the statue came down and Saddam Hussein’s regime ended, the United States was the occupying power. We might also have been the liberating power, and we were initially seen as liberators. But we were essentially the new government until a government could be put in place.” But there were also other responsibilities for those who engaged in regime change. Such acts, compelling and justifiable as they were deemed, did not conjure any statute of limitation in terms of their short, medium and long-term impact, good or bad. As Collin Powell, recalled with the benefit of hindsight, “In the second phase of this conflict, which was beginning after the statue fell; we made serious mistakes in not acting like a government. One, maintaining order. Two, keeping people from destroying their own property. Three, not having in place security forces—either ours or theirs or a combination of the two to keep order. And in the absence of order, chaos ensues.”  It is the absence of order and the ensuing chaos, in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and now Syria that translated to the rise and growth of the Levant ISIS and the unprecedented wave of refugees now besieging Europe. Call it what you may, the migrant flow is the unintended consequences of extraneous meddling in countries deemed imperfect, due to their unpopular or non-malleable leadership. Rhetorical as it may seem, last April, President Assad said in an interview with French Television 2 that the Levant ISIS was created in Iraq. His words:  “ISIS was created in Iraq in 2006 under the supervision of the Americans. I wasn’t controlling Iraq. The Americans controlled Iraq, and ISIS came from Iraq to Syria, because chaos is contagious.”  Yes, chaos is contagious.

For Africa, there are very cogent lessons to be learned. We know that peace continues to elude Sudan even after splintering into two nations, thanks to the self-serving and father-knows-best wisdom of Western powers.  We need to internalize that home grown solutions to conflicts, archaic as they may be, should be preferred to foreign-induced, one-size-fits-all solutions targeted at every suspect leadership. This reality speaks to the added value of the 2006 Greentree Agreement on Bakassi and the use of the Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroun and Benin military coalition in tackling Boko Haram. It’s worth contemplating what might have happened if Nigeria had gone another route in both instances.  Imagine a situation where one-tenth of Nigeria’s 160 million people would stream into other African countries and Europe as refugees. Unthinkable! We must draw strategic lessons from the policy follies confronting others, in our enlightened national interest. 

For Europe, the refugee convoy headed its way didn’t happen in a vacuum. There should be no pretenses. The migrant flight is the unintended consequence of strategic policy failure and the Western decision to support Assad’s opponents and doing so half-heartedly.  Syria is broken, perhaps not entirely. Still those who contributed to its implosion and the rise of ISIS must take full ownership of the process and the outcome, including the refugees. Such ownership shouldn’t be hard to fathom. Finally, world governments can’t all be democratic and perfect. Some nations may fall just short. In such instances, the applicable “soft power” maxim ought to be: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Meanwhile, for Europe this migrant crisis offers a slate of “lessons learned”, “missed opportunities” and certainly, the need for “shared responsibilities” in tackling the refugee problem.

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Obaze is a strategic public policy adviser and the immediate-past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.

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