The Wisdom of Muddling Through in the Middle East

President Obama’s conservative critics often lambast him for being indecisive when it comes to foreign policy and dictatorial when it comes to domestic policy, so I guess in their eyes he’s sort of an indecisive dictator, or more to the point, whatever he does or doesn’t do they don’t like.

I think the president’s biggest foreign policy mistakes have come when he has succumbed to the temptation to talk tough, a manly thing, and only realized later he spoke too hastily, saw more clearly the consequences and then acted more prudently. Syria in particular comes to mind. He tends to be criticized for not arming the “moderate rebels” early enough, but who knows if the more effective radical forces wouldn’t have wound up with those arms as they did later when ISIS became weapons rich after Iraqi troops fled Mosul.

The mistake was asserting from the beginning of the rebellion that Assad must go, this while miscalculating the actual international support to make that happen, and the will of Putin to resist it by providing much support to Assad. So, the president encouraged the rebels’ dream of freedom while not doing much to assist them.

Now we have the odd situation of actually helping Assad stay in power by focusing on destroying ISIS, which is deemed the greater of two evils. And since Assad is the most stable force in Syria, we are not nearly as eager to take him down as we were before, this coming from a change in perspective regarding democracy and chaos in the Middle East. The Arab spring. which seemed so promising, now looks like the roots of Mid-East disintegration and the bad old dictators don’t seem as bad as they used to because they at least maintained order.

Eugene Robinson covers similar ground in a Washington Post column March 30“U.S. policies on the Middle East are inconsistent but wise”.    He addresses the Yemen Issue as well and how it raises one more foreign policy dilemma for the U. S..   He leads off with:  “As gung-ho ‘experts’ press President Obama to do this, that or the other in the Middle East, keep a simple rule in mind: Whatever the avid interventionists suggest probably won’t work — and surely will have unintended consequences.”

I can’t imagine more fertile ground for unintended consequences than the increasingly chaotic Middle East.

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THE ISIS CRISIS: The American Dilemma of Involvement

I have been slow to post because my mind keeps spinning around trying to grasp how President Obama’s strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS will actually work.   The phrase “many moving parts” is often associated with the plan, but what makes me particularly uneasy is the feeling no one knows how these parts will assemble and then reassemble in the months and probably years to come.

One key problem with the grand strategy is that while many nations have pledged support, the degree of support or each remains largely nebulous or not all that much.   ISIS looks like it doesn’t have a chance on paper, but their fanatical warriors continue to capture ground in both Syria and Iraq.  The generally shared belief is that degrading and destroying ISIS will require “boots on the ground” to go along with air strikes, but other than the Kurds and the Iraqi government, no nation seems willing to provide those boots.

Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont

Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator from Vermont (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the case of the Iraqi army, their boots have been largely useless, this despite years of training.   Now I hear talk of them needing more training.  Maybe, but they most need the will to fight against enemies quite willing to die for their beliefs, while my guess is most of the Iraqi army is largely fighting for a pay check.

So, we’re back to counting on the Kurds for the most part to supply boots that actually want to charge the enemy rather than run away from them.   And what I think 0f as a fantasy plan of training carefully vetted folks from the Free Syrian Army required to take a break from the action to get real good at fighting and then be inserted back into, well, who knows what and where by then?

Because we cannot  count on the fighting forces of other nations in this fight, there is a call by Senator John McCain and others  for more American boots on the ground as forward observers for the air strikes and as special forces, as well as more air strikes and a couple of other steps aimed at weakening Syria’s President Assad so he can’t take advantage of our weakening ISIS in Syria.

McCain argues that we are not doing enough to win right now, which may be true, but what is left unstated is  this very important question:  What do we do if his more robust plan doesn’t work, either?   Do we just pack up and go home?  More likely we get more and more deeply involved just as we did in Vietnam.   Talk of winning a war implies a willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed.

Senator Bernie Sanders, on the far left on the Democratic spectrum, shares McCain’s belief we should fight ISIS and is open to doing a little more than we are presently in this fight, but he is most concerned about us becoming bogged down in an endless war.  He makes the very sensible point: The more we are willing to do, the less the nations in the area feel they have to do?

Where are the troops from Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Turkey?  Where are their boots on the ground?  Do you realize Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in spending on arms world wide?   Behind only the U. S., China and Russia?    The Saudis have shown some support for the coalition in air strikes on ISIS and perhaps there has been money promised or more.  I don’t know.   But I recently saw photos of some of their pilots who are also Saudi princes and their involvement so far seems more likely a family photo shoot than a strong military commitment.  They don’t seem to be doing a lot in proportion to the danger ISIS poses to them.

But again as Sander points out, why should Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey do more as long as we seem willing to do more than our share?

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P. S. – Each of those three nations has other concerns that often trump our desire for them to do more versus ISIS.   In future posts I will expand on their agendas that only partially harmonize with our goal of degrading and destroying ISIS.

WAR WITH ISIS: So far, Bashar Al-Assad Looks Like the Winner

I was beginning to think of President Obama’s vision of a large coalition of countries to fight ISIS as the Coalition of the Loitering, but more and more nations have stepped up and made public commitments of one form or another.   For example, the British parliament is about to vote as to  their commitment and my guess is it will pass.

Perhaps most significant was the involvement of five predominantly Sunni Arab states in bombing raids against ISIS in recent days, significant because ISIS is composed of radical Sunnis and, given the general schism between Shia and Sunni in the region, it is noteworthy when members of either sect publicly go against “their own”, so to speak.    The fact that nobody thinks of ISIS as their own opens up a new dynamic.

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...

English: Brasilia – The president of the Syrian Arab Republic, Bashar Al-Assad(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I agree with commentators who remind us that the United States is likely more committed to destroying ISIS than are our Mid-East Arab allies, who have a tendency of playing both ends against the middle guided by their own priorities not ours.

Once ISIS is degraded significantly and fear of them is reduced, who knows which Arab nations will still be there for the long haul?

For example, Saudi Arabia has a large military, but this has been developed primarily out of the fear of possible conflicts with Iran and now a Shia dominated Iraq.   They want to save their ground troops if needed against Shia.

That is an underlying  fear that may take precedent again once ISIS is weakened.   On the other hand, the Iraqi Shias probably wouldn’t welcome Sunni Saudi Arabian troops on their soil, even if there to fight ISIS.  This is but one small example of the gargantuan complexity of this situation.

And in thinking about this complexity, I think of Bashar Al-Assad, who remains dictator of a good chunk of Syria and how he seems to be benefiting from all of this.    I am generally sympathetic to President Obama when it comes to foreign policy as I believe he inherited an unraveling international order, especially in the Greater Middle East (*1).   Other presidents have faced huge problems, but the path forward for each seemed clearer than the various dilemmas  Obama is facing.

Having said that, I think  Obama’s biggest foreign policy mistake was when he insisted that Bashar Al-Assad had to go early in the Syrian civil war.    In doing so he miscalculated the international support for that to happen, while also underestimating  Russia’s (Putin’s) determination  for it not to happen.

Also, in trying to gather international support and sounding so adamant about the removal of Assad, he encouraged rebels to believe they would get more support than they did.  In short, though I don’t feel happy about saying this, the world may have been better off allowing Assad to brutally put down the resistance as his ancestors had so successfully done.   Far fewer would have died or been displaced.

The more I think about the Middle East, the more it seems that the choice is usually between dictators who govern brutally and lands that become ungovernable.   I will write more about that in a future post.

Of course, that goes against both our humanitarian and democratic values and Obama was likely pumped up by the success of toppling Ghadafi in Algeria months before, but I think there is no question he overreached and in the process set up the present dilemma in finding an end game to wipe out ISIS.  By painting Assad as evil incarnate, he made it impossible to deal with him as a political partner, even against a force even more evil.

Right now as ISIS in Syria is weakened by our bombings, Assad’s hand becomes stronger.   While he might complain about a lack of coordination of American air strikes, his air defenses do nothing to prevent them.  The more we degrade ISIS the better for him.  As I type, I imagine him doing a happy dance.

Also, the belated dubious plan to train 5,000 Syrian moderates includes the notion that once trained in Saudi Arabia they will return somewhere in Syria to fight ISIS, more good news for Assad, assuming it works that way.  Critics of the plan suggest those fighters are more likely to turn their guns back on Assad, their primary enemy, but who knows?    Also, these well trained fighters will not return for maybe 18 months or so, and by then who knows what strength their counterparts remaining in Syria will still have?  Will they even have a place to come back to?

All of this suggests to me that if we really want to crush ISIS in the end, we will have to make some sort of deal with Assad.   Most commentators assert that this situation cannot be decided militarily alone.  It requires a political solution.   At this point, I see no political solution in Syria that does not include Assad.   And no end to ISIS without one.

I know it is a tough pill to swallow Mr. President, but think about it.  It may boil down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.

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(*1)   The Greater Middle East is a term concocted during the G. W. Bush presidency to cover an expansive region stretching roughly from Morocco to Pakistan, which at times seems more useful in discussing upheaval in the Muslim world than the traditional notion of the Middle East stretching from Egypt to Iran.   Wikipedia offers more details and a map.

Syria: To Strike or Not or Do Something Completely Different?

(NOTE:  i wrote the post below yesterday in preparation for the President’s address to the nation tonight.  Then news broke suggesting an alternative to strike-or-not-strike was a possibility.  Amazing on the surface, it went something like this.  In a news conference in Britain, Secretary of State John Kerry was asked if there might be a way out of this dilemma.  He said in an off hand manner if the Assad regime allowed his chemical weapons to be secured by the international community, that could prevent a strike. 

Soon the Russians were saying they backed that notion and Assad said he was willing to comply.   Suddenly, the whole ball game looked different, as if we were playing football one moment and soccer the next.   These events just happen to fit with a proposal a few days ago by Democratic Senators Joe Mancin and Heidi Heitcamp to give Syria 45 days to sign a chemical weapons ban “or face the wrath of American military might.”

Rather than rewrite my post, I thought it useful to show how the situation looked earlier in the day and then suddenly changed, a sudden change that figures to have an impact on the President’s address tonight.)

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Middle East Map עברית: מפה מדינית של המזרח התי...

Middle East Map  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Congress is split on the issue of making retaliatory strikes on the Assad regime for its apparent use of chemical weapons and, unlike its run-of-the-mill gridlock, the disagreements are not predominantly along party lines.    More so in the House than the Senate, but the overwhelming vote in both parties at the moment lies in the undecided or leaning-against camps.

Even though I am in favor of strikes as indicated in my previous post, I like the sense that there is actually democracy at work here.   If strikes are rejected in Congress it will feel like an expression of the will of the American people, something  that often seems unrelated to congressional action these days.

Even though Obama went to Congress on second thought after the Parliament nixed British backing of strikes, this is a matter that could harbor huge ramifications impacting us all.  We all have skin in this game.  We just don’t know how much.

The Middle East has become more a powder keg than ever as the age of despots is passing while  experiments with democratic principles are far from replacing the stability the dictators provided in the region.  Mostly just the reverse…  Syria is the present poster child of the new disorder.

Tonight President Obama will address the nation to make his case and it better be a good one for us to come together behind him.  In attempting to thread the needle, so as to find a consensus, administration statements have become satirized as “the Goldilocks strike”  implying not too hot and not to cold, just right.

As Congress debates and arms are twisted this week in search of votes in favor or against, the key question will be:  Will a strike make a bad situation worse or better? (*1)  Tied to that is the law of unintended consequences multiplied by burgeoning chaos, which makes the arguments of better or worse particularly dicey.

And better-or-worse is not just matter of Syrian well being but that of the stability of the entire region.   There is the debatable question of what striking or not striking will do to American credibility.   And there are likely important issues that have  not surfaced yet, as well as one issue which seems to surface more each day:  What is the  overall U. S. strategy for dealing with the ongoing eruptions in the Middle East?

Syria is often characterized as a “proxy war” between Shia and Sunni dominated Muslim states in the Middle East, suggesting the entire region is a tinderbox and Syria a match.

The President has a lot of clarifying and convincing to do tonight and over the next couple of weeks.  Otherwise, we will face a situation that is unprecedented (as far as I know), where an American president makes a categorical statement to the world regarding U. S. action and then has to recant it:

“Sorry guys, I guess I was guilty of overstatement.”

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(*1)  Of course, it may actually be the second key question, the first being:  How will this affect my chances for reelection?

(*2)  President Wilson might be the closest as he was instrumental in developing a League of Nations after WW I, but while the league came into being, the U. S. Senate blocked America’s joining.

President Washington came close to being undermined by Congress when, through his Secretary of State, a treaty was shaped with England to avoid a second war with conditions deemed humiliating by the likes of fellow Virginians Jefferson and Madison.  The treaty was passed narrowly in the House because Washington was “….the one man who outweighs them all in influence over all the people.”…. in the words of Jefferson.

The Israeli Attack on Syria and John Kerry’s Visit to Russia

When you heard of the Israeli air strikes in Syria near Damascus early Sunday morning did you share my reaction?  “This Syrian thing could really get out of control.”  The attacks were reportedly  aimed at preventing the transfer of advanced Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon for possible use against Israel.

Not surprisingly, the Syria government has called them acts of war, but has yet to respond and they may not do so because they have their hands full with their civil war, which may have emboldened the Israelis to make the strike.

English: Bashar al-Assad under pressure

English: Bashar al-Assad under pressure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ironically, Israel does not seem  eager to topple the Assad regime, as they fear what might replace it.   Their goal is to stop weapons from Iran coming through Syria to Hezbollah.  Though  enemies, the two nations have co-existed quite well for decades, despite Syria’s support for terrorist attacks on Israel and an Israeli air strike on a nuclear plant in 2007.

All that just touches upon the complex nature of what one commentator called a murky situation bound to get murkier.   But now there is the possibility that the Israeli attack could prompt a regional conflict with consequences impossible to forecast.   This Washington Times article gives a fuller sense of the entanglements, for those who want more background information.

But it leaves out Russia’s role in all of this and Russia has been the biggest stumbling block to the international community’s resolving the Syrian civil war.   Amidst the murk, one thing clear is that without Russia’s backing, the Bashar Al-Assad government would fall.

Russia and Syria have diplomatic ties that go back decades.   Now Russia supplies them with the arms, oil and other economic necessities to continue their fight, the supply of which has gone up during the civil war.   Also, Russia is intricately involved in other ways,  with a naval base at a Syrian port and advisers aiding the Syrian anti-aircraft missile defense.

Which is why I am relieved that Secretary of  State John Kerry left for Russia yesterday to discuss this matter, among others.   Even if no agreements are made, it is extremely valuable that both governments understand each other and what might ignite the entire region.

Why Does Russia Support the Syrian Regime?  is a piece in About.com that provides an excellent overview of the relationship between Russia and Syria, while also linking to a piece that describes yet another reason Russia has maintained its support for Assad.

Russia firmly believes in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, as does China, both wary of the interference  of other states in their internal affairs.   And both believe that principle was “blatantly ignored” by the NATO coalition in the Libyan civil war.  In turn, both have prevented the U.N. from taking a stronger stand in Syria.

Despite its profits and principals, the Russian government surely knows it is backing a loser in Assad, and that may leave room for a turnaround in policy if it can be done in a way that does not make them lose face.

Come on, John.  Help ’em find a graceful way out.