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Middle East In Flames: The Fruit Of White House Policy In Syria


At long last, the NYT begins to observe that the Middle East is in flames and the chief cause is the war in Syria. “The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders, reigniting long-simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and, experts fear, shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire,” reads an important story that ran in the Grey Lady yesterday.

Regular readers of this blog know that we’ve seen that the radicalization of the region and the spread of sectarian war were the likeliest consequences of the refusal of the White House to act earlier to bring the conflict to a close and that as time went by, the danger of the conflict would rise and the options to the US would get worse and worse. That is pretty much where things are going.

At the moment, mainstream media criticism of the President’s foreign policy mostly centers around the issues that bother the legalist left: too many drones, not enough closure at Guantanamo, too much persecution of reporters trying to ferret the President’s dark secrets out of his staff. What isn’t taking place, yet, is a process of examining the consequences of key administration moves in the Middle East.

Afghanistan, where the Duke of York style surge (he marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again) doesn’t seem to have gotten all that much done; Iraq, where failure to get a SOFA agreement left that country open to Iranian influence and made its return to civil war more likely, adding to the dangers of the Iranian conflict; Libya, where an ill-judged intervention was a distraction from core US interests and has created a dangerous strategic vacuum where jihadis are on the advance; Syria, where US inaction has enabled the rise of a new generation of jihadi combatants in the heart of the region.

Decisions over intervention don’t bring out the best in this administration (not that its predecessor got all this right, either—decisions like this are hard and armchair critics should never lose sight of that fact). With a Republican president these dots would have been connected some time ago, and we’d be hearing a lot of discussion about a pattern of poor strategic choices undermining the US position in a key theater of the world. As it is, the Hosannas of the administration’s strategic genius are quietly going away without much attempt to come to grips with the relationship between decisions made in DC and ugly facts on the ground. This will come late if at all; the MSM shares too many of the President’s ideas about strategy and foreign policy to read all the tea leaves.

The cost of the meltdown in Syria and of the regional eruption of sectarian war will be felt for some time to come. Many Americans look at the mess the way our grandparents and great-grandparents looked at the mess in Europe in 1939, thinking that all that trouble over there couldn’t possibly affect us over here, and believing that common sense dictated that we stay out. The longer we sat out the war, the uglier it got and the higher the price we ultimately paid. The Sunni-Shiite war now engulfing the Middle East will not mestatasize into a WWII-style challenge to national survival, but in the months and years ahead many moments will come when we will wish that the US had done more to stop the war in its early stages.

A generation that thinks of the Iraq war as the source of all strategic wisdom should prepare to relearn the most important lesson that the twentieth century tried to teach the United States: that while you shouldn’t intervene always and everywhere in every conflict, on the whole there is less risk, less cost and less bloodshed when the US takes an active role in maintaining order and peace overseas in key theaters than when it sits on its hands.

[Frowning Obama photo courtesy Getty Images]

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  • wigwag

    Remind me again why a Shia-Sunni civil war couldn’t possibly be the best possible outcome for the United States in the Middle East.

    • Corlyss

      LOL Wag, you are soooo naughty . . .

    • USNK2

      Reminder #1 would be the USA treaty obligations with Sunni nations, and the permanent (for now) US bases in Bahrain.
      The dilemma of the UK having to hand off their obligations and bases to pay the USA back for all that Lend-Lease during WW2.
      Reminder #2 is that the USA is technically at war with Iran since 1979, and
      #3 the Sunni monarchies do NOT want a nuclear Iran with a proxy on the Mediterranean Sea.
      I expect the Alawites to suddenly reveal they are secret Christians, just to throw everyone off-balance, except for Russia. Assad is using Putin’s 1999 playbook to destroy Sunni Islam in Chechnya.

      • Bob_from_Ohio

        “#1 would be the USA treaty obligations with Sunni nations”

        We do not have mutual defense treaties with anyone in the Mideast.

        So, what are the treaty obligations you refer to?

    • Douglas Levene

      So long as neither side wins.

    • Jeremy Goldberg

      Because they’re God’s children too! We’re mocking him/her with such an evil policy. And if you don’t care about that, the Christians in Syria are going to pay a very heavy price for this Balkanization policy, just like has already happened in Iraq.

    • Bob_from_Ohio

      May it last for decades!

    • Fred

      I’ve said before, I don’t give a rat’s hindquarters if those savages kill each other. That’s what savages do. I do care if they disrupt the flow of oil to the point of causing grave economic difficulty to the civilized world.

  • Luke Lea

    Regular readers of this blog know that we’ve seen that the radicalization of the region and the spread of sectarian war were the likeliest consequences of the refusal of the White House to act earlier to bring the conflict to a close . . .

    Funny, I’ve noticed no such clairvoyance at Via Meadia. Rather haven’t you observed there were no easy or obvious answers? As for bringing things “to a close” how pray tell is one supposed to do that? And how do you know that trying to restore the status quo anti is (or was) either doable or better than letting things play out?

    At this point we (or I at any rate) lack either the wisdom of hindsight or foresight.

    • Andrew Allison
      • Luke Lea

        That was from a few days ago. Here’s from last year:

        “The best policy option for the US: watch, wait and work with others to try to build the Syrian opposition into a viable political force that at least conceivably could govern the country with some kind of minimal effectiveness. That, and do our best to monitor the financial and arms flows to understand new terror networks that may be taking shape — and keep a close eye on the people involved.”

        • Andrew Allison

          From your first reference” “The longer this tragedy continues, the more dangerous it becomes — for
          Syrians and for others in the region. A new wave of fanatical sectarian
          zealots is emerging from the horror of Syria: there is no better
          recruiting ground for the agents of Al-Qaeda like movements than a fight
          of this kind.”

  • Andrew Allison

    The problem is older than Afgahistan, and can be traced back half-a-century, to the Korean War. Avoid war if possible, but if it’s necessary, go all out to end it quickly. It appears that we’ve leaned nothing from the humanitarian disaster in North Korea and utter waste of life in Vietnam, Afgahistan, and Iraq.

    In answer to wigag, the reason is that not only may the conflagration spread to encompass the arc from Turkey to Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Algeria, but it will be impossible to contain the weapons deployed.

    • Douglas Levene

      How can you not view the Korean War as successful? The US prevented the communists from conquering the entire Korean peninsula, and today South Korea is one of the most prosperous countries in the world. Yes, it would have been better to have defeated the communists altogether and united the whole country under non-communist rule – just as it would have been far better for the Vietnamese people if the US had won that war – but that was never going to happen in Korea once the the Chinese army entered the picture. Indeed, I suspect that fear of the Chinese army becoming involved was the principal reason that American troops never went into North Vietnam. In any event, it is far from clear to me what lessons the battles on the periphery of China have for the dissolving and unnatural states of the middle east.

  • Anthony

    “…shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire…. armchair critics should never lose sight of that (fact).” History, history, history remain the inevitable path.

  • Corlyss

    “setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders . . . ”
    Not like existed in the Middle East before . . . .
    I do wish the media had memories longer than a that of a Bessie bug. Back when Bush invaded Iraq, the media branded the allegedly faux Freedom agenda as the cause of sw asia lighting up like a Roman candle. Now that they want to “out” Obama for a variety of solipsistic transgressions, what many could rightly call the continuing conflagration in the region that’s been going on in one form or another for, oh, 2000 years, is all Obama’s fault. Is it any wonder most of us don’t trust the media to know its bum from a hole in the ground?

    • Andrew Allison

      While it’s true that the Shi’a and Sunni have been mortal enemies for over 100 years (, the Caliphates kept them from each others throats. While I’m no historian, it appears to me that the seeds of the present mess were sown in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century and subsequent establishment of artificial states by the victors in two world wars.

      • Corlyss

        I take your point on not having to go back to Adam to explain everything about the current situation. Just back to Abraham.
        The crossroadsiness of the place has made it a battleground for thousands of years as empires grind against each other. The place is just naturally fractious.

        • Andrew Allison

          Unhappily, history shows that the human race is naturally fractious! I was suggesting that it was the despotic rule of the Caliphates and their successors which kept sectarian strife under control (cf. the former Yugoslavia, etc., etc.).

        • Luke Lea

          No, back to Adam was right:

          Abraham is on a different page altogether:

          They are as different as war and peace.

  • jeburke

    I’m open to suggestions as to what “active role” the US might play that truly is consistent with some vital national interest and larger global strategy. But personally, I can’t think what it might be, given the series of mistakes made in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and in a different sense, Egypt. I think that somehow, we need to find a way to make utterly clear to all the actors in the region that they can kill each other relentlessly but raising a hostile hand to the US will result in rapid, inevitable, ruthless reprisal. Any serious study of the rise of al Qaeda must conclude that bin Laden gained confidence, recruits, and financial and political support as, step by step, he struck at American targets with impunity. It was entirely within US means to have killed him (along with other al Qaeda leaders, guards, flunkies, wives, children, and visiting jihadis) in 1998 or 2000. Doing so would have saved tens of thousands of lives, but feckless leaders shrank from the task lest harm come to some supposedly innocenr “civilians” (living at bin Laden’s Khandahar compound). No, we don’t need 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, much less Syria, but we do need the political will to strike murderously and withour pity at our murderous enemies.

  • Jeremy Goldberg

    I don’t think you’re right about Afghanistan (except insofar as the surge was a waste), Iraq or Libya: (1) No one wins a war against the Pashtun. (2) The only way we might have been able to keep troops in Iraq would have been to subject them to Iraqi law. (3) We’ve made a lot of friends for ourselves in Libya, something we’re very short of in the Middle East – except for our official Best Foreign Friend Forever, of course.

    Which brings me to the real reason for our truly insane policy in Syria: a Shia-Sunni civil war in Islam is Israel’s wet dream. (Yes, there are dangers; after ramming themselves down the Palestinians’ throat, that’s a given forever). To put it another way: this is the next step in the Zionist Balkanization plan for the Middle East.

    The phony-baloney’s on the “Christian” right ought to actually read what George Washington had to say, i.e. about having a best foreign friend forever, before they destroy what’s left of this country’s future for the sake of their pseudo-Christian Dispensationalist pseudo-exegesis.

  • bpuharic

    I’m in the midst of reading WRM’s ‘Special Providence’ right now. What I see here is a litany of no’s, but no yes’s. What would WRM recommend? The Muslim world is in turmoil and it’s the height of hubris to pretend we can control the destiny of a billion people, especially a young, religiously fanatical population.

    Which of the Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian schools would he say applies here? I respect his analysis but he seems lost for a recommendation about how we can ‘manage’ a crisis affecting a group of people possessed of a religious tradition resolutely intolerant of tolerance.

  • Pait

    I do not understand the argument here. You don’t like the intervention in Libya, and you don’t the non-intervention in Syria, but you don’t say what actions you would support. Would you have supported Obama letting the Libyan civil war runs its course, although the US could do something? Would you support a Libya-style intervention in Syria, even going against Russia?

    You have not presented an argument as to why correct course of action would have been the reverse of what Obama did. Until you do, I am not learning much from the posts.

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