Monday, February 01, 2016

It's Time America and Her Posse Had a New Mideast Policy. Enough of This "Fool's Errand."




The Sheriff (USA) and his posse (Canada and our fellow minions) are not doing all that well in the Middle East these days. Fact is we haven't been doing much good at all for the past 16 years. Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international relations, thinks it's time for a change, radical change.

For most of the past half-century, U.S. leaders knew who their friends and enemies were and had a fairly clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish. No longer. Today, there is greater uncertainty about U.S. interests in the region, more reason to question the support it gives its traditional partners, and no consensus on how to deal with the dizzying array of actors and forces that are now buffeting the region.

One thing is clear: The playbook we’ve been using since the 1940s isn’t going to cut it anymore. We still seem to think the Middle East can be managed if we curry favor with local autocrats, back Israel to the hilt, constantly reiterate the need for U.S. “leadership,” and when all else fails, blow some stuff up. But this approach is manifestly not working, and principles that informed U.S. policy in the past are no longer helpful.


...When the Cold War ended, one might have expected that U.S. involvement in the region would decline, because there was no longer a significant external threat to contain. Instead, the U.S. role deepened, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War. Instead of its earlier balance-of-power approach, the Clinton administration’s strategy of “dual containment” cast Washington in the role of regional policeman. Unfortunately, this ill-conceived strategy required the United States to keep substantial ground and air forces in Saudi Arabia, infuriating Osama bin Laden and helping to convince him to attack the United States directly on 9/11.

America’s military role increased even more after the 9/11 attacks — after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney drank the neocon Kool-Aid and embarked on their delusional effort at “regional transformation.” The results were disastrous, and Barack Obama was elected on promises to end the Iraq War, rebuild America’s relations with the Muslim world, achieve a two-state solution, and put U.S. relations with Iran on a new footing. Although he eventually reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, the rest of his Middle East policy has been no more successful than that of his inept predecessor. Syria is in ruins; al Qaeda remains an active force; the Islamic State is sowing violence around the world; Libya and Yemen are war-torn failed states; and the peace process is in tatters.

Why is the United States having such trouble? Because it has failed to take account of the dramatic changes that have transformed the Middle East’s strategic landscape.


Today ...there is no single overarching threat to the region and thus no clear organizing principle to guide U.S. policymakers. Some people would like to cast Iran in that role, but as an actor, it’s still far too weak and internally hamstrung to serve as the organizing focus of U.S. strategy. And on some issues — such as the Islamic State — the United States and Iran are largely on the same side. In short, what we are grappling with today is a fiendishly complicated array of actors pursuing a variety of objectives, and who is on our side and who is against us varies from issue to issue.

U.S. relations with all of its traditional Middle East allies are at their lowest point in years. Turkey has drifted back toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, and its policies toward the crisis in Syria and the Islamic State are frequently at odds with U.S. preferences. Israel continues to move to the right, while still rejecting the two-state solution that Washington favors, and actively tried to sabotage the nuclear deal with Iran. Egypt is again in the hands of a thuggish military dictatorship with few redeeming features, and relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained by the partial U.S. d├ętente with Iran, disagreements about the proper approach to the Syrian civil war, and by growing concerns over the Saudi role in promoting a version of Islam that has inspired a generation of anti-Western extremists. The CIA may still have close ties with Saudi intelligence, but I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not.

America’s track record in the region over the past 20-plus years also raises serious questions about its ability to identify realistic goals and then achieve them. Global influence rests in part on an image of competence, and the past three administrations have done little to burnish that image. Indeed, when it comes to the Middle East, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have been King Midas in reverse: Everything they touch turns not to gold but to lead or, even worse, into a violent conflagration.

If you can stand it, just look at the record: 1) “Dual containment” in the Gulf helped convince bin Laden to launch the 9/11 attacks; 2) two decades of U.S. stewardship over the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has killed off the “two-state solution” that Washington favored; 3) the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a policy blunder of vast proportions whose ill effects continue to multiply; 4) U.S. interference in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen helped create failed states there, too; and 5) Washington has not exactly covered itself in glory in Syria either. Given that record, it is hardly surprising that Americans and Middle Easterners openly question what the U.S. role should be and why some of us think trying to “manage” the Middle East is a fool’s errand.

Finally, it is hard to figure out what the U.S. role should be because the policy instruments that are easiest for Washington to use are increasingly irrelevant to the problems now convulsing the region. The United States’ most readily usable instrument is its still-powerful military, whether in the form of material aid, training, airstrikes, naval task forces, drones, Special Operations Forces, or in extreme cases, the full Rapid Deployment Force. Unfortunately, the central problem facing most of the Middle East is not a powerful conventional army (i.e., the kind of enemy we’re good at defeating) but the lack of legitimate and effective institutions of local governance. As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is not designed for or good at creating local political institutions, and the more we use this tool, the more fragile, fractious, and violent local politics usually become.

The Middle East is shifting before our very eyes, and the old verities of U.S. policy no longer apply. Our most potent tools of influence are of little value, and our strategic interest in the region is declining. And none of our current allies there deserve unconditional support on moral grounds either.

Well, here’s a radical thought: If the strategic importance of a region is declining, if none of the local actors deserve unvarnished U.S. backing, if our best efforts make both friends and foes angry at us, then maybe — just maybe — the United States ought to stop trying to fix problems that it has neither the wisdom nor the will to address. In the end, the fate of the Middle East is going to be determined by the people who live there and not by us, though we might be able to play a constructive role on occasion. And the sooner Americans recognize that they’re better off coaching from the sidelines, instead of getting bloodied on the field, the better off they’ll be.

A Blast From the Past

6 comments:

Toby said...

Back when the towers were attacked on 9/11 I announced to anyone who would listen that a military response was a bad idea. The attack was a crime and should be investigated and prosecuted as a crime. Of course, I was regularly and often loudly told that the attack was an act of war and that we all needed to join forces with the US and bomb the guilty back to the stone age. The trouble was, no one quite knew who the guilty were until the Bush administration accused Bin-laden. Then everyone insisted we had to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq because Bush said so. Where did that get us?

In spite of the big failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Syria and . . . , and . . . we still have the same sheep telling us that we have to keep bombing. When pressed, no one quite knows where to drop the bombs but we need to do it anyway.

It is very easy, too easy, to get people riled up to wage war. It is almost impossible to persuade them to calm down and think about it.


Dana said...

We must be up to Crusade number 10 by now wouldn't you say?

CV SoG said...

The extremely cynical side of me believes it's completely by design.

Keep all parties in the Middle East divided or fighting so they'd never really come together and become a potentially dominant economic/regional power. This way all of the US's interests (corporate and otherwise) can remain in place and continue their monopolies for profit.

Any side effects (i.e. war, terror, bloodshed, etc.) don't appear to be of any consequence.

The Mound of Sound said...


War without a significant political outcome is just a waste of time, money and lives. It becomes a murderous game of "whack a mole" and nothing else. Going along with it is to embrace "permawar" - war without end which is effectively war without purpose.

Professor Walt reveals how our adventures in the ME have become utterly incoherent and it is that lack of coherence that gives rise to our futility.

As I've written here for years, the cardinal rule has to be to never get into wars without a clear idea, going in, of what victory looks like and, even then, never without the will and means to achieve that victory. The corollary - don't fight wars you're bound to lose. Wouldn't it be nice if that was actually obvious?

Toby said...

Mound asks, "Wouldn't it be nice if that was actually obvious?"

It is obvious, Mound. Most people let their emotions get in the way of obvious. Unfortunately, so do our political and military leaders.

Steve said...

terrorists I see terroists not reason