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Middle East Turmoil: An American Foreign Policy Failure?

Blame is easy. Alternatives not so much

Our self-proclaimed experts tell us that U.S. policy in the Middle East is in tatters and President Obama is largely to blame.

Syria is aflame, over 100,000 thought to be dead after three years of civil war. Half a dozen Syrian militia groups now
battle each other and al Qaeda for control. Over a million refugees have poured into Turkey and Jordan, the latter a small country that could collapse under the weight. Turkey is in a turmoil of its own devising, with weeks of demonstrations in Taksim Square in Istanbul followed by its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration coming under investigation for corruption.

Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni opposition in Syria — al Qaeda among them — whereas Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, threatened by losing its Iran-through-Syria weapons supply line, is fighting cross border in Syria in support of the regime of Shiite-Alawite Bashar al Assad and against the Sunni opposition.

Bombings in Beirut against Hezbollah’s participation and an assassination in retaliation threaten resumption of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Hezbollah’s threat to next door Israel is at least quiescent as a result, but Israel shows little sign of progress toward a two-state solution, throwing up preconditions to thwart negotiations while appropriating still more West Bank land for settlements, risking another intifada.

Iraq has become a client state of Iran, allowing its weapons to traverse Iraqi air space into Syria. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s blockade of Iraq’s Sunni population from representation in the government has led to a throwback to 2006’s daily bombings and the resurrection of al Qaeda in Iraq, which took control of the key cities Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province that the U.S. marines had won in the costliest engagements of the Iraq war.

In Egypt, the Arab Spring has ended in the tyranny of the military, with the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi deposed and locked in a cage at trial, 20 reporters from Al Jazera under arrest, bombings in Cairo and dozens killed in ongoing demonstrations — all against a backdrop of a collapsed economy and rampant unemployment.

Libya, rescued from its dictator by French and English forces from NATO with the U.S. in a support role, is in chaos, controlled by warring militias, al Qaeda assumed among them. Yemen is little different, its north controlled by al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula.

What irony, therefore, that Tunisia, which ignited the Arab Spring, is at peace having just adopted a constitution forged by compromise between differing groups.

how we got here

The neo-conservative crusade at the beginning of the new century sought to convert the Middle East to democracy. The belief was that one successfully converted country would seed a contagion that would cause uprisings in the rest. Led by Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and Lewis “Scooter” Libby — all working for or connected to the Defense Department — the neocons lobbied hard for taking on Iraq as the test case. All are Jewish and Iraq had lobbed Scud missiles into Israel during the 1991 Gulf War and had made further threats. They found in George W. Bush a ready participant who, for reasons unclear, pressed for attacking Iraq immediately after 9/11, even to the point (with Cheney whispering in his ear) of fabricating a connection between al Qaeda, Iraq and the attacks on America.

Iraq was of course a ruinously costly misadventure — a dictator toppled but with well over a hundred thousand dead and over 2 million refugees — yet when the Arab country uprisings occurred three years ago, the neocons came out of hiding to take credit. Our point in raising this is that they claimed it had planted the seed that took flower as the Arab Spring, never mind an unexplained dormancy of seven years.

Given how that has turned out, you would expect the neocons to be in retreat again, now that these nations have slid into chaos rather than democracy. Instead, they spoke out against Obama, blaming the fall of Fallujah and Ramadi on his not trying hard enough to keep American troops in Iraq. So do Senate hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham blame Obama for the same reason. The neocon group counts on our having forgotten that it was their war of choice that unleashed the Sunni-Shiite schism that led to today’s continued bombings and the battle for those cities, and that it was George W Bush who agreed to the withdrawal timetable.

Critics who say that we have no Mideast foreign policy may be right, but their perspective seems to assume that these countries should acknowledge United States supremacy over their affairs. Once we had the convenience of dealing with a few dictators who had a boot on the chest of their countries and found it worth their while to keep the U.S. as something of an ally.

But then we removed Hussein, the Arab Spring toppled Ben Ali, Mubarak and Qaddafi, and Assad’s control is threatened by an unending civil war. Wasn’t regime change by overthrow exactly what the West had always wished for as the cure for the backward Middle East. Alas, what we got — predictably for those who know history — was the resumption of the centuries old Sunni-Shiite death spiral that redraws the maps by sect rather than by the arbitrary national boundaries drawn mindlessly by the British following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War

Hussein excepted, the implosion of the Arab world is entirely their own doing, so why is it thought an American foreign policy failure that we no longer have the same influence as before? The splintering of these countries into fragments poses the difficulty of sorting out which faction to deal with.

critics left and right

The critics’ lamentations about lost power come across as nostalgia for the simpler days of dictatorships and are found among those on both the left and right. As example, Bob Dreyfuss, a contributing editor at the liberal magazine The Nation accused the Obama administration of “a series of foreign policy flubs, stumbles and mini-disasters”, sprinkling his long critique with subheads such as “Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag”, “Debacle in Syria” and “Laughingstock in Egypt”. In Egypt, Obama suspended delivery of weapons to the military rulers but continued aid for counterterrorism. For Dreyfuss, what makes us a joke is that we no longer have influence with the military rulers. But isn’t that because we have been outbid by Saudi Arabia’s $12 billion infusion that dwarfs our own? Does Dreyfuss think that Obama is free to write checks? And the punches that Saudi Arabia is throwing at the United States are for our not taking military action in Syria on behalf of their fellow-Sunni insurgents? They apparently think it is for the U.S. to do the fighting, not themselves. What is the desert kingdom doing with the world’s 3rd largest fleet of F-15s?

Speaking of “Scooter” Libby, on the right he and Hillel Fradkin, both at the Hudson Institute, writing in The Wall Street Journal, engage in an extended riff on Sisyphus, the mythical figure in Greek mythology condemned to push a rock halfway uphill only for it to roll down again, likening him to Obama’s “halfway presidency”. “National leaders are expected to find a new, better way of coping with challenges” is their vague prescription. Obama presents a “startling image of American futility and lack of vision”, which they immediately compare to (who else but) Ronald Reagan’s success with the Soviet Union. The premise of dealing with a single, still orderly country compared to coping with the turmoil of the Middle East today seems singularly inapt. They, too, speak of the Saudis “losing faith in the U.S.”, as if their blessing defines us.

Obama’s temerity to say “with the Afghan war ending” is somehow called by these two “rhetorical sleight of hand” and is enough for them to say, “What a contrast with Kennedy's ‘bear any burden’ Cold War call to arms and Reagan's flat-out challenge to the Soviets”, except that theirs was actual rhetoric, neither of those presidents being in a shooting war, unlike Obama who is responsible for the lives of our troops in Afghanistan.

undercutting the iran deal

Obama has repeatedly said that he will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but is following to the limit a policy of diplomacy to avoid having to act on that militarily. It may be hopelessly naïve to think that Iran can be persuaded to back away from its nuclear ambitions and “join the family of nations”, but it is easy to develop catastrophic scenarios for the region were the U.S. or Israel to attack. Yet, spurred on by the Israel lobby and Netanyahu — the head of yet another country that wants the U.S. to fight its battles — the Senate has come close to passing a bill that, in the midst of delicate negotiations, would tighten sanctions on Iran. Even Democrats went against Obama to pander to the Jewish vote, despite the move certain to end any hope of a lasting halt to weapons grade uranium enrichment, leaving only war as an option if Iran proceeds.

Finally, where Obama can truly be blamed is his policy — or its lack — for Syria. He is mocked for his ever receding “red lines”, of course (but he did not say Assad “must go”, which reads as a threat. He said, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside" (Aug 2011)” and, Assad “needs to go” (May 2013), but such subtle differences are lost on the commentariat). His failure to step into the fray and deliver weapons to the Syrian opposition early on, when there was a greater possibility of identifying and strengthening a preferred militia group, was a lost opportunity. Now, with al Qaeda having poured in, the worry is that weapons will find their way into the wrong hands, much as happened with the mujahedin in Afghanistan, who turned on the U.S. after our weapons helped them expel the Russians.

And now Assad has missed by a huge margin a deadline to remove chemical weapons which cannot be explained away by the deadline being too tight. A Washington Post editorial reacted with “Mr. Assad is playing games. This cannot be tolerated”, but that “Mr. Obama has been noticeably adverse to direct U.S. military action in Syria”. Well yes, he has, as any president should be, but those editors’ short memory forgets that it was just last August when the Navy brought three cruisers to the end of the Mediterranean ready to launch cruise missiles at Damascus and Obama went to Congress to win approval to launch. Instead he found himself hemmed in by the lack of a U.N. mandate — which both Bush’s had for their Iraq invasions — and by a Congress, backed 63% by a war-weary public, newly insisting that its constitutional role in deciding when to go to war be restored. Obama would have had to go it alone — one man declaring war backed by no one. When Putin extracted a pledge by Assad to remove Syria’s entire stock of chemical weapons, Obama was “rescued in humiliating fashion”, although it was the better solution. Commentators bewailed the Decline of American Power.

But with Assad going back on his pledge and Moscow giving him cover by saying he is “acting in good faith”, Obama is coming up on a final test of his resolve to use force. Perhaps this time Congress will relent.

1 Comment for “Middle East Turmoil: An American Foreign Policy Failure?”

  1. The author misses contextual information in his defense of the Administration and falls victim to the common journalistic fault of setting up a conservative straw man and knocking it down. The issues with US foreign policy are incoherence, lack of principles, inconsistencies, failure to understand geopolitics and failure to have a long term view. It has been politically correct and expert in public relations and celebratory visibility.

    An American President is supposed to support and defend the constitution and the country. There have been too many doubts, for too long, based on too many actions to just dismiss out of hand, something too many administrative supporters do.

    When it comes to the Arab spring, the issue is lack of advocating and supporting, in a consistent, coherent and long term self interested way, United State allies and priorities. Putin is at least a real version of what he is. The US Administration is an unreal version of a protean politically correct core. Allies can’t count on our policies or support. If you don’t value your allies you don’t have your allies.

    These policies are leading to long term realignments of global geopolitics stacked against the Unites States. These realignments will cost the US politically, economically and militarily. It doesn’t augur well for our future.

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