By Thomas L. Friedman
Jan. 22, 2019
President Trump’s sudden announcement that
he’s pulling U.S. troops out of Syria and shrinking their number in Afghanistan
has prompted a new debate about American ground forces in the Middle East and
whether keeping them there is vital or not. I’m asking myself the same
question. To answer that question, though, I need to start with another
Why is it that the one Arab Spring country
that managed to make a relatively peaceful transition from dictatorship to a
constitutional democracy — with full empowerment for its women — is the country
we’ve had the least to do with and where we’ve never sent soldiers to fight and
die? It’s called Tunisia.
Yes, Tunisia, the only Middle East country
to achieve the ends that we so badly desired for Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya,
Yemen and Afghanistan, did so after having hosted more U.S. Peace Corps workers
over the last 50 years than U.S. military advisers and after having received
only about $1 billion in U.S. aid (and three loan guarantees) since its 2010-11
By comparison, the U.S. is now spending
about $45 billion a year in Afghanistan — after 17 years of trying to transform
it into a pluralistic democracy. That is an insane contrast. Especially when
you consider that Tunisia’s self-propelled democracy is such an important model
for the region, but an increasingly frail one.
It’s threatened by labour strikes, the
spill over of instability from Libya, a slowing economy that can’t produce
enough jobs or income for its educated young people, a 2016 International
Monetary Fund loan that restricts the government from hiring, all causing
stresses among the key players in its power-sharing deal involving trade
unionists, Islamists, old-regime types and new democrats. For now, Tunisia is
holding together, but it could sure use one week’s worth of what we spend in
Why could Tunisia transition to democracy
when others couldn’t? It starts with its founding father, Habib Bourguiba,
Tunisia’s leader from independence, in 1956, to 1987.
Though he was a president-for-life like
other Arab autocrats, Bourguiba was unique in other ways: He kept his army very
small and did not waste four decades trying to destroy Israel; he was actually
a lonely voice calling for coexistence.
He educated and empowered Tunisian women
and allowed relatively strong civil society groups to emerge — trade unions,
lawyers’ syndicates, women’s groups, who were vital to toppling Bourguiba’s
tyrannical successor and forging a new Constitution with Tunisia’s Islamic
movement. Tunisia was also blessed by having little oil, so it had to invest in
its people’s education.
Tunisia, in short, had the cultural
underpinnings to sustain a democratic revolution. But political and cultural
transformations move at different speeds. The U.S. (myself included) wanted to
rush the necessary cultural transformation of Afghanistan and Iraq, but as
Peter Drucker once noted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That fact —
plus our own incompetence and their corruption — has eaten alive the U.S. democracy
efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All of this shapes how I think about
Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw from Syria and desire to get out of
Afghanistan. I think he is right on Afghanistan. We’ve defeated Al Qaeda there;
it’s time for us to negotiate with the Taliban and Pakistan the best phased
exit we can — and take as many people who worked for us as we can. Afghanistan
has hard countries around it — Russia, Pakistan, India, China and Iran — and
they have the ability to contain and manage the disorder there. We gave at the
I’d keep our special forces in Syria,
though, but not because we’ve yet to defeat ISIS. ISIS is a direct by-product
of the wider regional struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, led by Saudi Arabia
and Iran. ISIS arose as an extreme Sunni response to the extreme efforts by
Iran and pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria to ethnically cleanse
and strip power from Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. As long as Iran pursues that
strategy, there will be an ISIS in some form or other.
That’s why the only peace process that
could have a stabilizing effect across the Middle East today is not between
Israelis and Palestinians — but between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
What the small, not-all-that-costly U.S.
force in Syria does that is most important is prevent the awful there from
becoming the truly disastrous in a couple ways. It does so in part by
protecting the Kurds and moderate Sunnis from the murderous Syrian government
and Turkey. The mainstream Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have been, for the most part,
forces for decency and Western values in that corner of the world. One day we
might build on their islands of decency; they’re worth preserving.
Our forces also help stabilize
north-eastern Syria, making it less likely that another huge wave of refugees
will emerge from there that could further destabilize Lebanon and Jordan and
create nativist backlashes in the European Union like the earlier wave did. To
me, the European Union is the other United States of the world, and we and NATO
have a vital interest in protecting the E.U. from being fractured over a fight
over the influx of Mideast refugees.
Finally, I’d take $2 billion of the $45
billion we’d save from getting out of Afghanistan and invest it regionally in
all the cultural changes that made Tunisia unique — across the whole Arab
world. I’d give huge aid to the American University in Cairo, the American
University in Beirut, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and the
American University of Afghanistan.
And I’d massively expand the scholarship
program we once ran by which top Arab public school students were eligible for
a U.S.-funded scholarship to any U.S.-style liberal arts college in Lebanon or
anywhere else in the region.
I’d also massively expand student visas and
scholarships — especially for Arab women — for study in America. And I’d offer
5,000 scholarships for Iranians to come to America to get graduate degrees in
science, engineering or medicine, with visas available in Dubai. That line
would be so long! Nothing would embarrass the Iranian regime more.
And I’d give Tunisia a $1 billion
interest-free loan and quadruple the size of the Tunisian American Enterprise
Fund that promotes start-ups there.
The other $43 billion I’d spend on new
infrastructure in America.
Since 9/11, we’ve relied almost entirely on
hard power. Some was needed, some is still needed, but most of it failed. It’s
time we tried more soft power. It’s time we focused on giving more Arabs and
Iranians access to the ingredients that enabled Tunisia to transform itself by
itself into a democracy without a single U.S. war fighter.
Yes, it will take a long time. But there
was never a shortcut, and the approach we tried with the Pentagon in the lead
has only led to multiple dead ends.
Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the
paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven
books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award