When Henry Kissinger’s name was cited in a recent debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the reference immediately reopened cleavages of generations past.
As she mentioned Kissinger among many voices she consults on foreign policy issues, Sanders emphatically riposted “he’s no friend of mine”, referencing Kissinger’s role in the illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
The exchange was typical of many foreign policy discussions on the campaign trail, framed in terms of decisions past, particularly about who supported the Iraq War and who opposed the Iran deal.
The invocation of Kissinger offered an opportunity to discuss a pressing issue concerning the United States’ involvement in the Middle East – the arming, training and supporting of non-state proxies to effect change and fulfil US foreign policy goals.
This stratagem – invoked and developed under Kissinger’s leadership while secretary of state – still casts a large shadow over US activities in this region. Unfortunately, the presidential candidates failed to seize an opportunity to assess this strategy.
Same old method
Reliance on proxies in the pursuit of policy goals is nothing new for the US, recurring as an element of policy through successive Cold War and post-Cold War administrations – from South America to Southeast Asia – with variations in commitment, transparency, and results.
The proxy-training and support apparatus remains robust with US Special Operations forces scattered across the globe in nearly 135 countries.
The well-known case of the arming and training mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s - which subsequently helped form the core of Al-Qaeda in the 1990s - demonstrates the policy's potential risk.
Non-state proxies now seem to be perceived as the US’ preferred method to engage militarily moving into the future.
Just as an aversion to commit US “boots on the ground” has led to enhanced drone strikes, the questionable results of two ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with “regime change” fatigue elsewhere, have accelerated this tactic of military mobilisation.
In Syria, the US allocated $500m to the Syrian Train and Equip Programme to train “moderate” Syrian rebels to target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Abandoned in October 2015 shortly after its launch, the programme sought to train rebel fighters in places such as Jordan and Turkey before re-integrating them back into the Syrian battlefield.
It was soon discarded because of the limited numbers of rebel fighters who would prioritise fighting ISIL – and because of the long vetting process to ensure that these fighters were not “extremist” themselves.
According to the testimony of the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, the programme trained a mere 60 rebel fighters at a price tag of about $4m each before being shut down.
Yet, it was almost immediately replaced with a different programme meant to arm another set of Syrian proxies, this time by providing arms to already existent fighting units.
Shipments were transferred to an umbrella group known as the Syrian Arab Coalition, with a large portion of the arms landing in the hands of Syria’s Kurdish rebels.
In March 2016, with the fight against ISIL and need for proxies ongoing, President Barack Obama has recently authorised yet another Pentagon-driven plan to arm and train Syrian rebels.
In Iraq, the US continues to rely on non-state actors to battle ISIL, including various Sunni tribes of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the Kurds, raising questions about the extent to which these groups should be directly armed by Washington.
In congressional debates over the passing of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, an attempt was made to regard various Iraqi militias as “countries”, in order to sanction the US government arming them directly.
Such a designation, eventually removed after protests that this would undermine Iraq’s sovereignty, continues to muster bi-partisan support, including that of Clinton. Attempts to arm Kurdish forces directly in Iraq are ongoing.
In Libya, while no definitive evidence links the direct supply of arms by the US to Libyan rebels seeking to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, President Obama signed a presidential finding to provide the legal framework for such a possibility; and his administration approved the transfer of arms to the rebels by various Gulf countries.
The lack of transparency over the decision by the US potentially to arm rebels has fuelled conspiratorial ire towards the role played by Clinton as secretary of state.
The latest in contradictory messaging over the intent to arm Libyan rebels can be seen in the indictment of Marc Turi, an arms dealer who sought to sell arms to the rebels within the disguise of selling them to Gulf countries – a plan the US initially sought to approve but then seemed to abandon.
While the arming and training of proxies in Syria and Iraq help to roll back ISIL gains, the long-term consequences of this policy remain unknown.
The well-known case of the arming and training of mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s – which subsequently helped to form the core of Al-Qaeda in the 1990s – demonstrates the policy’s potential risk.
The policy can never guarantee that arms and training provided to non-state proxy groups will be continually used in the service of the country that sponsors them and their foreign policy goals, even if the results initially seem to be a short-term salve.
Indeed, the longer-term results may run counter to a patron’s policy goals. As it was recently reported, the Pentagon and CIA-funded and trained rebels are now fighting one another in Syria.
There is much finger-pointing at various Middle Eastern countries for funding and supporting non-state proxies.
While the ongoing policy of the use of proxies by the US receives significantly less attention, there are accusations that such activities lend themselves to greater regional instability.
As the use of proxies appears to be the US’ preferred method of engagement, it must be treated with the same scrutiny and held to account for the potential ill-effects it may hold, and debated in front of the American people in a transparent manner this election season.
Kevin Schwartz is a visiting professor at the United States Naval Academy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of the Department of the Navy or the United States government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.