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.