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America’s Hydra Problem in the Middle East

U.S. military strategy towards the Middle East often ignores the underlying issues that nurture militant movements and make them resilient, which are often the product of American policies.

Foreign Policy in Focus

In the Greek myth, Heracles battles the Hydra — a multi-headed reptilian monster that was terrorizing the Greek countryside.

However, every time a head was cut off, two grew in its place, so cutting off one head at a time was an ineffective plan of attack. Heracles succeeded in slaying the Hydra only with the help of his nephew Iolaus, who quickly cauterized each severed stump so new heads could not regenerate.

The Hydra was invincible as long as a single head remained, and this Heracles succeeded in cutting off after the other heads were eliminated — finally dispatching the beast.

The Hydra myth is usually treated as just another Greek story of monsters and gods and heroes, suitable for dramatizing in comic books and movies, and often employed a metaphor for multi-faceted and multiplying threats. Indeed, the Hydra metaphor has often been used to describe the threat posed by Islamist extremists such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Variants of Islamist insurgency just keep popping up as fast as we think one has been dealt with.

It may be worth considering the myth in greater detail. Perhaps it was a Greek way of expressing, in very graphic form, a truism: For some evils, a direct approach that seeks to decapitate the threat only results in the multiplication of that threat. This myth could well have been a Greek political allegory told as a cautionary tale.

Striking Without Asking

Our current approach to the Islamic State and the greater Middle East tracks the Greeks’ pre-Heracles whack-a-mole approach to the Hydra.

We attack one manifestation of violence at a time, without a thought about the likely consequences of our own violence. We’re surprised when the threat morphs, metastasizes, or appears in a new place. We note that the terrorists are resilient or adaptive or flexible, but do not ask why or whether our own actions contributed to their resilience. Describing the problem as “hydra-headed” conveys puzzlement and frustration, but it’s merely descriptive — there’s no further analysis.

Even our language fits the Hydra myth pattern. We seek to “decapitate” the leadership of terrorist organizations. Take out Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the problem will be solved. However, cutting off these heads has made no appreciable dent in the threat posed by the groups they led. When a movement arises out of frustration and grievance, emergent leadership is more likely a consequence of the movement than a cause of it.

The term “counter-terrorism” itself evokes a classic Hydra strategy. As President Obama stated last September, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [the Islamic State] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.”

That is, we expect to prevail by attacking the attacker, rather than figuring out why the threat keeps multiplying, or why Islamist insurgencies have enjoyed at least passive support from populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and throughout the Middle East.

Unintended Consequences

The Hydra myth also symbolizes the dangers of taking action without considering predictable collateral consequences. Again, our language is suggestive.

We take pride in our “surgical” strikes, for example. Following a medical analogy, we pretend we can excise the tumor or repair the heart valve with precision, not affecting surrounding tissue — like lopping off a Hydra head. Implicitly, we assume that the “removal” of a drone strike target has no effect on the human environment in which the alleged insurgent was embedded. “Hey! No collateral damage,” we cry. “We didn’t kill any civilians.”

These strikes do, in fact, kill plenty of civilians. But more to the point, enraging and humiliating them can be similarly detrimental. Every time we kick in a door in search of insurgents, or attack a convoy or wedding party with drones, the typical result is the creation of more angry and disaffected people ready to take revenge. A “surgical strike” is a Hydra tactic.

Right now we see the Hydra strategy playing out most visibly in the Middle East, but this approach has long been a staple of American foreign policy around the world.

This is the same mentality so well described by historian Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers, which chronicles the tale of Allen and John Foster Dulles blithely deposing foreign governments. The former CIA director and secretary of state, respectively, believed we could just swoop in and remove Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran, former Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, et al. and thereby eliminate whatever we perceived the problem to be (usually Communism).

There was no thought of collateral consequences — which of course invariably came back to haunt us later. It was a long fuse, for example, but Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was undoubtedly set in motion by the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. The fuse, of course, was much shorter when we removed Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam in Iraq without considering what might come next.

Cauterizing the Wound

For a more productive strategy, it may be useful to analyze the myth more deeply. “Cauterization” was key to Heracles’ ultimate success because it stopped the generation of more heads. What might “cauterization” mean in the political context?

It seems unlikely that the Greeks were advocating a scorched earth policy of annihilating the source of regeneration. That sounds too much like the original “cut the head off” tactic. More likely, the lesson is to think more broadly about how to make regeneration impossible or unlikely.

How might the dynamic be changed so that terrorists do not gain traction? This is a very different question from “how do we attack and eliminate today’s batch of terrorists?”

A first step is identifying what’s different in the circumstances between societies that give rise to or host terrorists and those that do not. Not all places seem to be equally vulnerable.

It seems highly unlikely that a full-blown terrorist insurgency would ever gain much traction in the United States, for instance.

Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building 20 years ago this April, did not attract followers or catalyze a broad-based movement. September 11 didn’t turn many Americans against their government either.

There is no popular sense in the United States that large-scale political violence is either acceptable or necessary. Whatever discontent the American population might have with (for example) congressional gridlock or budget sequesters, there is no feeling that things are so bad and people so helpless to effect change by other means that they would tolerate or passively support terrorists. Leaders (we don’t call them rulers) are elected, even if imperfectly, and the population always has the “throw the bums out” option for the next election.

What’s different in the countries that are susceptible to extremism and violence? It isn’t too hard to see a common pattern.

Rulers (not democratically elected leaders) serve their own interests while oppressing a population that is without power to effect change. Too often, these autocrats are supported by the United States in the interests of regional “stability” or keeping the oil flowing.

Think of Egypt under Mubarak, Iraq under Saddam, Libya under Gaddafi, or Saudi Arabia under the Saud family. The list could go on. As Sarah Chayes points out in her recent book Thieves of State, a common thread in countries with insurgencies is governmental corruption and rent-seeking by elites to extract resources from the population rather than serve them. In each case, the population has had no means of effecting peaceful change.

Accommodations with Strongmen

Recent upheavals have unfortunately mostly resulted in capture of the state by new elites and strongmen — Tunisia may be the exception, but even there it’s been a rocky road.

We’re surprised at the continuing cycles of violence in Iraq (the Hydra popping up again), yet have been oblivious to the disaffection engendered by the Sunni-Shi’a dynamic. The Shi’a majority that took power in Iraq after the United States deposed the minority government led by Saddam Hussein promptly marginalized and persecuted the minority Sunnis. Many Sunnis, in turn, embraced al-Qaeda as the only source of aid and local support in 2006-07, and have at least passively supported the subsequent rise of the Islamic State. Why did we think the Sunnis would acquiesce to Iraq’s increasingly sectarian government instead of looking for support wherever they could find it?

We’re also puzzled when national armies in Iraq and Afghanistan show limited enthusiasm for fighting and dying in service to a classic Hydra strategy on behalf of a corrupt and unaccountable regime.

In both countries, U.S. authorities complain about military incompetence and cite a need for training. The question we should be asking is why the central government doesn’t have the loyalty of its citizens. These continuing waves of violence in Afghanistan and the Middle East were entirely predictable (like Heracles knowing that cutting one head would result in the generation of two), yet we never seem to connect the dots.

At the very least, we should stop playing into the elites’ game by fighting anyone they designate as “terrorists” and supporting the elites’ retention of power.

We see this dynamic playing out in Egypt, where Washington has continued to support the military government that seized power in a coup, imprisoned the democratically elected president, and designated all Muslim Brotherhood adherents as terrorists. In Yemen, the United States supports a (Sunni) Saudi bombing campaign against (Shi’a) Houthis. Elsewhere we see it in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov — famous for boiling opponents alive — has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as terrorists, yet the Obama administration has sought special human rights waivers to continue supporting the regime.

In short, Washington policymakers buy in to the equation “regime opponent equals terrorist,” only to be surprised when suppressed dissent explodes. We need to understand that short-term accommodations with strongmen have long-term consequences, the Karzai family in Afghanistan being a case in point.

The Hydra’s Point of View

It’s worth noting that Heracles was unable to succeed alone; it took a helper who could cauterize the severed stump.

What might this mean in modern terms? Perhaps it means that while military force has its place in extreme contingencies, other resources are needed to turn the problem off at its source. Particularly when the underlying problem is corruption and lack of governmental accountability, a range of diplomatic, political, and development resources might be brought to bear.

Consider the story from the Hydra’s point of view. The myth does not explain what the Hydra was trying to accomplish; it might have been terror for its own sake, or control over the population for some other purpose. In any case, the Hydra had only one arrow in its quiver — to slash with its poisonous fangs. It had apparently not considered tools other than terror for controlling the local population — such as offering protection against competing monsters, or gaining the locals’ support by offering street repairs, trash collection, and better schools.

ISIS has styled itself a “state” and tried to recruit technocrats who can operate the administrative apparatus of a state, including trash collection, telecoms, and oil refineries. While this has not been as successful as advertised, the efforts suggest that this particular hydra is thinking outside the box about how to gain the adherence of a population. This in turn suggests that those seeking to oppose ISIS need to think about whether incumbent governments are satisfying their citizens, although services and benefits in the absence of accountability (as in Saudi Arabia) do not satisfy the population indefinitely.

It’s time to attend more carefully to what the Greeks sought to teach as we make decisions about Hydra-style outbreaks of violence in the Middle East and elsewhere. A proactive strategy — promoting governmental accountability to all citizens rather than supporting suppression and disenfranchisement and waiting for the inevitable violence to erupt — would likely result in dramatically fewer Hydra monsters to be dealt with.

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Update was slow, but still no lag in the editor window, and footnotes are intact.     This has been updated – Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May 2018, was a renowned British-American historian of Islam and the Middle East. A former British intelligence officer, Foreign Office staffer, and Princeton University professor, Lewis was…

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