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An Unappetizing Menu
How We’re Failing in the Middle East

The always-insightful Aaron David Miller has a good short piece in the Wall Street Journal today which vividly illustrates how the Obama Administration has worked itself into a place in the Middle East where there aren’t any good options.

Miller first runs through how several policies the Administration is either considering or is actively implementing are counterproductive in one way or another. Should we directly arm the Sunni tribes of Anbar to fight ISIS? Doing so would likely weaken Haider al-Abadi government in Baghdad in the eyes of Shi’a supporters. The decision taken to cooperate with Tehran in fighting ISIS? It has also weakened Baghdad as an autonomous actor and fanned the flames of sectarian conflict—something which ISIS is happy to capitalize on. The decision to ease up on pressuring Bashar al-Assad in Syria? It, too feeds the perceptions of a pro-Shi’a tilt in American foreign policy across the region.

(Miller’s piece doesn’t go on to mention that Syria policy is failing even more profoundly than that. This weekend, a Turkish newspaper revealed that the country’s intelligence services had been sending arms into Syria—arms that were likely ending up in the hands of the very radicals our policy was meant to be combating.)

Miller concludes his piece with this kicker:

An agreement between the U.S. and Iran would presumably delay and even constrain Tehran’s nuclear program, avoiding war and an acceleration of Iran’s breakout capacity. But the costs are considerable: Nuclear talks have already alienated this country’s two oldest allies in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel. A deal would lead to billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and given the residual nuclear infrastructure Iran is likely to be allowed to maintain, it’s not certain there are any real assurances that Iran won’t wait out the time frame specified in an agreement–and still be left will an option to weaponize. Put another way: What is intended to contain a rising Iran could lead to its empowerment and expansion.

By failing to integrate Iran policy into a sustainable regional policy (which means reassuring old allies that we will not let Iran, even when sanctions are lifted, become the dominant player in the region), White House has unintentionally created a trap for itself. It sees Iran outreach as a centerpiece of a stabilization program for the region, but under the existing circumstances the more it reaches out to Iran, the less stable the region becomes.

Though strategic incoherence was hardly absence from the Bush administration’s policies in the same region, it is not easy to recall a moment of similar incoherence, ineptitude and strategic disarray in American foreign policy as we’re seeing today.

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  • JR

    Methinks there is a bit too much pessimism, as it has become fashionable to lament the current state of things as “horrible”, “awful”, “no good”, etc etc etc… And things are bad. However, we do have oil at $60/barrel, we have an informal but very real alliance between Israel and moderate Sunni regimes (Jews and Muslims can, and for many centuries, did get along. no reason to assume they can’t do it again. Look at Egypt and especially Jordan for models on how this can work when pragmatism and not blind hatred is the order of the day), and most importantly, we have Saudi Arabia finally providing some real leadership in the Middle East, something they haven’t done for a while. The future is so bright I got to wear shades.

    “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” ~Winston Churchill

    • Arkeygeezer

      …… and U.S. servicemen are not dying to enforce foreign policy in a region in which the U.S. has no national interest.

    • qet

      As for Saudi Arabia, in light of recent events, one wonders if what Hitler (sorry) said of Russia in 1940 is true of Saudi Arabia: “You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” I know little of Saudi Arabia but it has been speculated that the government has but a tenuous hold on much of the country and the local jihadis appear to be testing that proposition.

      • JR

        House of Al-Saud really really really likes being in power. I doubt they would go down easily. And bear in mind, this is Saudi Arabia, not Bowdoin College. Rules of engagement are different.

        • qet

          Maybe. But Stalin wasn’t Bowdoin either, and basically his whole rotten structure did come crashing down. In any case, the ROE were different in Syria as well and look at how that turned out for the ruling dynasty.

          • JR

            Agree completely. I think there is a very strong pessimist case to be made as well. My guess is this iteration of Sunni-Shia civil war will burn hot for a while and then cool down after the craziest a$$holez get killed off. I look at it as Nature’s way of getting rid of excess population. Let’s hope it all works out. But I think my larger point is true. There is very little US can do to alter the path the region is on. And given the amount of resources that is needed to alter that path, I’m not sure it is worth it.

          • qet

            Well, this is always THE question, isn’t it? Should the US “do” something? CAN it do something? I tend to agree with you that the answer here practically speaking, is no. But I felt (and still feel) the same way about Rwanda, for example. Yet many people still wring their collective hands and don the hair shirt and beg forgiveness from the “international community” for not having done something, when to me it was always plain that when people hate each other enough to pick up machetes and hack them to death by the tens of thousands, there is little anyone can do. As for Serbia/Bosnia, as I remember it the US intervened only after most of the massacring had been done already.

            I think that for a lot of people in the “foreign policy establishment,” acknowledging that there is really nothing to be done is tantamount to an admission that their entire professional lives have been wasted, an admission they are naturally loath to make.

          • JR

            Yes, our “elites” seem to have a very elevated sense of their self-worth. But I think W’s Mesopotamian Adventures and Obama’s skillful diplomacy in the same area of the world left majority of the people rightfully convinced that a pet rock will be an improvement. As long as oil prices remain stable and we don’t get involved in intra-religious blood letting, I’m willing to tolerate weepy NYT editorials about THE CHILDREN.

  • Ellen

    Yes, you are right JR. But the successes you mention are IN SPITE OF Obama and Kerry, not because of. And that was the point of this TAI piece. The incoherence of the Obamoids may have inadvertently produced an outcome that will be helpful in bringing to an end the awful bloodletting in Syria (a Sunni-Israel alliance). But the short term effect of this incoherence is the massive destruction of one and possibly two of the central countries of the Levant. Does anyone doubt that the nuclear negotiations have caused Obama to let Iran run wild in Syria (and Iraq and yemen and Lebanon)? This is what is known as “collateral damage” on a rather large scale. And for what? A nuclear agreement that will produce the opposite of the intended effect!

    Now is the time for another piece by WRM on the “Vainglorious John Kerry.” In case you didn’t read the news today, he is in the hospital in Zurich with a broken leg. That is a fitting place for him to be, and he should stay there until beyond June 30, to allow the nuclear negotiations to expire without a firesale for Iran. Norman Bailey has predicted that the Alawite/Shiite regime will be gone by then. Let’s see. (Personally, I would prefer to see Kerry under house arrest in Damascus, like certain members of the Assad regime that he is indirectly propping up).

    • JR

      A lot of things happened in spite of what the grandees of the time thought was a good idea. There is no doubt in my mind that when the history of our time will be written, that truism will hold true the same it always has and always will…

  • Anthony

    “Today the Middle East is arguably more volatile and more dangerous than it has been for centuries.” But, can Obama Administration’s foreign policy assume 100% responsibility (stipulating TAI’s said incoherence, ineptitude, and disarray – whether one agrees or disagrees) for a region in which since end of Cold War has revealed to world its basic social-cultural cleavages – exasperated (or exposed) by regional wars since 1991? “No single society has ever had the power, no leadership the resilience, and no faith the dynamism to impose its writ enduringly throughout the world.”

  • FriendlyGoat

    It is actually up to Israel and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt and Turkey and Pakistan) to assure that Iran does not become the “dominant player in the region”. It is not our region and it is not our nutty religion that no one seems to be able to corral with sense.

    • qet

      Well, you left out Turkmenistan. And Oman. And if Pakistan, why not India? Also, Russia is pretty close. Please give us your boundary line for “the region” and tell us how you arrived at it. I suppose the US is just “too far away,” even though I thought here in the globalizing 21st century, distances were no longer meaningful.

      • FriendlyGoat

        The Republican Congress is at liberty to declare all the wars its voters will go along with. We, the people, of course should insist on real time tax increases for funding the wars—-so they don’t spend the Social Security Trust Fund (again.)

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I say let them fight it out without American participation or bombing. Jihadists using all their resources to kill other Jihadists and vice-a-versa, is an ideal result for the west. Since, our attempt to change the Islamic Culture which is spawning all these Jihadists by planting a seed of the superior American Western Culture in the middle of Islamoland was dishonorably abandoned in unseemly haste by Obama. We have no strategy to deal with the continuous supply of Jihadists. The media are constantly hammering the public with the Jihadists horrifying atrocities and demanding that something must be done. Without ever saying what should be done, and what might work.
    So lets add fuel to the fire by supplying arms to which ever side is losing at the moment. And get the Jihadists killing Jihadists fight as hot as possible until it burns itself out. Time is on our side, the backward inferior Islamic Culture is incompatible with western created modern civilization, and will decline over time. If one does become the winner (highly unlikely for the uneducated Jihadist religious fanatics), we will at least have a real target to destroy.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      I wish. It worked well between 1980 and 1988 in the Iran-Iraq war.
      Unfortunately, the situation is not quite the same. This time around, we have a lot of volunteers from the West, who getting a training in how to be a terrorist. You can’t prevent all of them from coming back, as you often do not know that they went there. With the wrong twist, you can be in a really bad shape (think Israel during the second intifada, with a large amount of suicide bombers, and without the acquired realism Israel has to deal with non-politically correct situations.

  • Arkeygeezer

    NY Times opinion – Thomas L. Friedman

    U.S. policy now should be “containment, plus amplification.” Let’s help those who manifest the will to contain ISIS, like Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and the Kurds in Iraq, and amplify any constructive things that groups in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, or Syria are ready to do with their power, but we must not substitute our power for theirs. This has to be their fight for their future. If the fight against ISIS is not worth it to them, it surely can’t be for us.

    • qet

      Yup, another zero calorie offering from America’s foremost op-ed lightweight.

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