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.

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.


(*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.

ISIS vs. the World: “The Enemy of my Enemy is My Friend”

The Middle East has developed more hot spots than asphalt on a scorching summer day and I continue to sort through articles in search of an understanding of the underlying dynamics at work.  The most illuminating short piece I have found is by Adam  Taylor in the Washington Post from August 22.   There he nicely summarizes what seems an almost surreal situation in which former enemies seem close to becoming strange bed fellows out of the common desire to crush ISIS.

Flag of islamic state of iraq

Flag of islamic state of iraq (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It reminds me of the ancient proverb about friendly enemies quoted in the title of this post.  Or as Taylor describes the current situation:  “One remarkable result of the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been how it seems to be shifting broader conceptions in the Middle East. It sometimes looks like enemies are becoming potential allies – and even old friends are starting to look a little suspicious.”

While I suggest you read the article, here is a thumbnail sketch of its content along with a bit of me inserted here and there.

In order to stop ISIS it seems necessary to root them out of Syria as well as Iraq and that means some sort of working relationship with the Assad government, that same government President Obama has railed against for many months now.  Awkward.

On the other hand, recall that the U. S. did cooperate with Syria and Russia in the removal of chemical weapons there which meant the U. S. was actually shoring up the regime in a defacto way at least for the months it took to complete that deal.  This at the expense of the Free Syrian Army and other so-called moderate anti-government forces.  How is this so different than that?

Cooperation with Iran seems likely, too.   Maybe more likely.  I know, also awkward, but Iran  is the major supporter of the Iraqi Shia who must be counted on to fight ISIS, since we don’t want to put our own boots on the ground (well, not more than a thousand or…?).   Prime Minister David Cameron, for one,  has suggested talks with Iran and other Mid-East nations to develop  cooperation to fight ISIS.

While at least some cooperation with the likes of  Assad’s government and Iran seems in the cards, there is also reassessments being made of  our allies-for-the-most-part like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.   These countries (or at least wealthy citizens in them) have been the chief donors to ISIS in its battle vs. Assad.   Now that ISIS has spread like a wildfire, these donors may have had a change of heart, though I can’t gauge that and Taylor doesn’t try.

However, he does give  a good example of how the success of ISIS has made some former backers cringe. Turkey is an enemy of the Assad regime and “had shown a remarkable tolerance for Islamic State fighters until very recently, allowing fighters to use Turkish towns as way stations for arms and supplies. Turkey is now working with the United States and European governments to crack down on Islamist fighters.”

Clear as mud?  Well, read the Taylor article and I think it will be a bit clearer.



The Syrian Dilemma: Congress Debates the Best Worst Option

As indicated in my previous post, I expected American missiles to have smashed parts of Syria by now,  but the President wisely back peddled and drew Congress into the mix.   The idea light might have popped on when the British Parliament voted against British involvement.  Given their traditional staunchest ally role, if we can’t even get them to back us……?

English: Middle East

English: Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Or perhaps it was the poll suggesting only  28% of us or so think his proposed action seems a good idea.

Or maybe Obama recalled his rhetoric before his first election which was spiced with talk of government transparency, which hasn’t been the case, and of opening debate in Congress to our use of force in the world, which has not been the case, either.

Our nation has carried on an essentially hidden war using drones against terrorists in lightly populated, primitive areas around the world,  so it gets little attention.   It seems to be working and most of us are happy to watch so-called reality TV than focus on unpleasant realities like drones killing mostly bad guys with some unfortunate not guilty ones collateralized,  just happy to hope the government is doing it in the right way, an usual trusting of our government.

Anyway, if you think about this, it is nice to see a President come to Congress and actually ask their permission to attack someone.   Congress are the ones supposedly in the position to declare war, but administrations since WW II have worked around them by claiming presidential power for military engagements deemed necessary to national defense.

The skeptics will all criticize Obama for not being clear enough about our objectives,   Allow me to help.  Our general objective is to somehow remove Assad without having forces even more dangerous to us and the region take control of the government.  So, we will use this “red line” as an excuse to degrade his forces, but not topple him too quickly.   We fear chaos more than him.  Instead, we will continue to try to slowly weaken him and bolster elements of the rebels that seem less dangerous than he is and the other rebels vying for control.

As to exactly how this will play out, nobody has a clue.

From what I have heard so far, Congressional leaders seem united in backing some form of retaliation, so the question is whether enough “followers” will fall into line.  My guess is they will.  American prestige is on the line.  Obama has put it there with statements about the “red line” and that Assad must go.  I am an Obama fan, but I agree with conservative columnist George Will when he writes:

If a fourth military intervention (in the Muslim world) is coming, it will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.

But I would defend the president in this way.   Unlike Russia, America has a set of democratic values that come into play in our foreign policy.   I would say they have usually taken a back seat to our desire for regional stability, especially in the oil rich Middle East, but the tension exists and has become accentuated since the launching of what was called the Arab spring, but now seems more like a burgeoning Muslim chaos.

The point is the era of despots has been collapsing in the Middle East and democracy isn’t a cure all for poverty and lack of  justice, especially when democracy is more a vision than something that has been practiced before the revolution, practiced for years as was the case with us.   In short, there is no quick and easy transition from despotism to democracy, but don’t expect the needed patience from people throughout the Middle East who, having discarded despots, conceive of freedom as suddenly promoting a better life.

We are all still getting accustomed to an Arab spring that has given way to more chaos than democracy and there are no simple answers to this dilemma.