Obama in the Middle East.

Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War?  Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS?  These questions matter on several levels.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no?  Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?

For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election.  The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint.  Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints.  Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.

Lonely voices defend the president.[1]  To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests.[2]  Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  It’s a tricky business.  In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Neither country will bend before American will.

Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans.  For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way.  For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts.  Neither interpretation could be further from the truth.[3]  The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts.  The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government.  In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality.  In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya.  On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars.  Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.

Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century.  Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  The Middle East has oil but no industry.  The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues.  Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.

Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”  The voice of reason.

[1] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).

[2] “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.

[3] See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).

 

The Muslim Civil War.

With the “Arab Spring” of 2011, the “corrupt and dysfunctional Arab autocracies that had stood for half a century in places like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya lost credibility because they had failed to meet the needs of the citizens.”[1]

Well, no. The “Arab Spring” counted not at all compared to American interventions. The corrupt and dysfunctional autocracies of Iraq and Libya were overthrown only by American attack. The corrupt and dysfunctional autocracy in Egypt quickly reasserted itself after a moment of panic induced by an American moment of panic. The corrupt and dysfunctional autocracy in Syria has retained the loyalty of many of its citizens and the Obama administration has tacitly abandoned its intemperate demand that Bashar al-Assad leave power.

Now, “an array of local players and regional powers are fighting skirmishes across the region as they vie to shape the new order, or at least enlarge their share of it.”

Well, no. We’re witnessing the outbreak of a Muslim civil war.[2] Sunni Saudi Arabia never got around to sending air or ground forces to battle the radical Sunnis fighting against the Shi’ite-dominated government of Iraq, but it has now intervened in the fighting against the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen. Shi’ite Iran is the principal supporter of the Shi’ite governments in Baghdad and Yemen and of the Alawite government in Damascus.

The Obama administration has claimed that there are “moderate” forces with which it can work to create stable states, if only people will get with the program.

Well, no. The Shi’ite-dominated government of Iraq began persecuting the Sunnis the minute the Americans were out the door. The Syrian “moderates” were virtually non-existent and unwilling to fight. Yemen is a primitive tribal society which a thin shellac of Western government titles could not disguise. Now Iranian forces have been introduced into Iraq’s fight against ISIS.

The administration claims to discern a difference between “moderate” and “hard line” forces in Iran. It hopes to strike a deal with the moderates over Iran’s nuclear program. The American drive to get a deal with Iran has most publically angered Israel’s prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. However, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are just as concerned as is Israel that the United States has started to tilt back toward Tehran as its chief partner in the Middle East.

Iran is trying to obtain nuclear weapons to shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Iran to get nuclear weapons. Israel doesn’t want Iran to get nuclear weapons. Neither country places much trust in the fair words and promises of a distant United States. Both have modern American supplied air forces and airborne control systems. Aside from American objections, the chief impediments to an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities have been that the Israelis don’t have enough planes and they would have to over-fly Saudi Arabia. You do the math. (While you’re at it, Israel has nuclear weapons.)

If a “Muslim Civil War” does break out in flames, what course should the United States pursue? Intervene or stay neutral? Intervene against the country that already hates us (Iran)? Intervene on the side of those most likely to win in the short run (Saudi Arabia if backed by Israel)? Do a lot of off-shore drilling and tell the Middle East to solve its own problems? Head it off?  There’s no clear guide here, but there is the need to choose.

[1] Mark Mazzetti and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Policy Puzzle in the Middle East,” NYT, 27 March 2015.

[2] Or perhaps just a renewal of the long wars between the Shi’ite Safavid Empire of Persia and the Sunni Ottoman Empire.

The Iran Dilemma.

Tom Friedman’s opinion on Middle Eastern matters must command respect. Friedman has remarkable access to American government sources. The Obama administration often appears to voice its views through his column.

Since the Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Shah, the United States and Iran have been at odds. At the same time, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran have been at odds. So, an alliance of convenience formed between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the upheavals in the Middle East have consolidated the grip on power of Iranian clients in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Over the longer term, however, Iran’s long pursuit of nuclear weapons has been profoundly destabilizing to the region. (See: Bomb ‘em ‘till the mullahs bounce.)

Friedman’s recent column on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program lays out some essential issues, even if it does not fully explore them.[1]

First, the Obama Administration hopes that a nuclear deal with Iran will be “transformational.” If sanctions are lifted, Iran can be drawn into the larger world. Contact with more liberal societies may—eventually—turn Iran into a “normal,” non-revolutionary state.

Second, the Obama administration sees Iran as a legitimate counter-weight to the Wahhabist version of Islam sponsored by America’s nominal “ally,” Saudi Arabia. Iran has competitive (if not “free”) elections; respect for women beyond the norm in the Muslim world; and real military power that it is willing to use. In contrast, Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy that sponsors the spread of the extremist Wahhabism that can easily turn into Islamic radicalism, but will not use its powerful military for more than air shows.

Third, “America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shi’ite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.”

Fourth, “managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem [the United States] should own. We’ve amply proved we don’t know how.”

Points worth discussing.

What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, contact with the West or the inherent stupidity of Communism? Is expanded contact with the West eroding the power of the Chinese Communist Party? These examples go to the “transformational” aspect of the issue.

Is the Obama administration hoping for a Nixon-Kissinger style “opening” (as to China) that will remake the politics of the Middle East? If so, is the game worth the candle? What American interests will be advanced by such an opening? Iran will fight ISIS and Saudi Arabia will back opponents of the Shi’ite government in Baghdad regardless of such a change.

Does the Obama administration accept that we are witnessing the undoing of the Sykes-Picot borders? If so, which borders are likely to be redrawn? Iraq, Syria, and Libya are failed states. What about Saudi Arabia (home to most of the foreign fighters in ISIS) or Egypt?

Finally, Friedman argues that “if one assumes that Iran already has the know-how and tools to build a nuclear weapon, changing the character of the regime is the only way it becomes less threatening.” First, he accepts the thrust of the piece by Broad and Sanger, that Iraq knows how to make a nuclear weapon. (See: A note of caution in Iran.) Second, he argues that changing attitudes is the “only” way to deal with the danger. Really? Soldiers usually plan for an enemy’s capabilities, not his intentions—which can be hard to discern.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Looking Before Leaping,” NYT, 25 March 2015.