US Policy in the Middle East — Can we be Realistic?

Has Obama’s Middle East policy failed?  The death of four Americans in Libya, the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, chaos in Syria, and Iran’s continued commitment to nuclear enrichment has led some to argue that Obama has brought the US to a new low point in the region.

Really?  Actually, there have been problems in US policy, but not the ones named above.  Let’s go down the list.

(1) Four Americans died in Libya because an out-of-control extremist militia seeking to displace foreigners in Libya mounted a major attack.  The response by the Libyan people and the Libyan government was an outpouring of condemnation and support for a continued US presence.  This was a tragic loss of life, and perhaps greater precautions could have helped (but perhaps not; the attack was well planned).  Yet the response in Libya shows how US policies helped win a nation that was once ruled by a madman over to the side of pro-Western policies.  Indeed, the extremists struck precisely because extreme Islamists had done so poorly in elections and were in danger of becoming irrelevant in Libya.  In other words, the attack was due to the success of America’s overall policies, as the country where we were most directly involved was also the country where Islamist extremists were most marginalized.

Libya is still in danger of turmoil — the dismissal of the new prime minister (who was seeking to over-reach and pack his cabinet with little known personal favorites and loyalists) may create a leadership vacuum or new crisis that jihadists will try to exploit. The U.S. needs to stay deeply involved in supporting moderate elements in Libyan politics and offering diplomatic and technical assistance — but that is inevitably going to be risky in a country emerging from civil war.  If no American deaths occurred on the ground in Libya, but the country was taken over by Islamist militias because the US did not take the risk of staying involved on the ground, would that be better?  The tragedy should not obscure the success of the overall policy, nor the risks that need to be run to keep that policy on track.

(2) The increasing power of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt is not so much a failure of Obama’s policy, as the result of the failed policy of Presidents Clinton and Bush who continued to support Middle East autocrats even as it was clear the latters’ grip was slipping and their popularity sharply eroding.  Egyptians had a fair and open election, the results of which the Egyptian Army tried to steal by pre-emptively limiting the powers of elected civilian leaders.  The Brotherhood, who won the election, grapped those powers back and sent military leaders to their barracks.  Is that a failure?   Egypt’s new constitution will soon be unveiled, and there is still hope that it will preserve an open society with fair competition.  We shall see; but so far the spread of democracy in the Middle East is still alive, as is a popular and legitimate government in Egypt that has kept the peace and treaty with Israel, and that has been the goal of US policy for a very long time.

(3) Chaos in Syria is a major regional problem.  But that is hardly the US’s fault.  Bashar al-Assad has been one of Iran’s most zealous friends and Israel’s most implacable enemies.  That the Assad regime is now on the ropes and fighting for its life is a policy failure?  But some say the US should do more.  Israel has been adamant that Syrian rebels not be given sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, fearing they would fall into the hands of Islamist and anti-Israel radicals who are currently joining the fight against Bashar al-Assad.  Should we over-rule our Israeli allies and put them at risk?  My personal view is that the US does have to do more, including giving anti-tank weapons to the rebels and declaring a limited no-fly zone (say within 10 miles of the Turkish border) and shooting at or shooting down any Syrian craft entering that zone.  Is that risky?  Of course — but there is no course of action in the region that does not entail tremendous risk.  Right now, my view is that the greatest risk is of the Syrian opposition, feeling abandoned by the West, throwing in its lot with Jihadist fighters willing to die to overcome Assad’s regime, and then those Jihadists exerting influence in the new regime, linking up with Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, and putting Syria’s chemical and sophistical conventional arsenals in the hands of militant anti-Western and anti-Israeli groups.  To avoid that risk, I would advocate taking the risk of increasing Western aid to Syria’s opposition, including supplying heavier weapons (rocket-propelled grenades, armored personnel carriers, anti-tank weapons), enforcing a limited no-fly zone, and vigorous medical, humanitarian and communications assistance.  However, the Obama administration so far has decided on a more limited course of action.  I think that is an error, but it is not yet a policy failure.

(4) Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a threat to security for Israel, the region, and the U.S.  So how best to stop it?  The U.S. and Israel have used a combination of cyber-sabotage, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and the most severe economic sanctions ever visited on a country in peace-time.  Those measures have already dramatically slowed Iran’s progress on nuclear enrichment.  Is Iran six months from having the capacity to create a bomb?  That was said two years ago, and one year ago.  The effects of U.S. and Israeli actions has been to keep Iran away from having the capacity to make a bomb, and they are still distant from having the high-enriched uranium or the trigger/weapon in which to place such still-distant high-enriched uranium. Moreover, the sanctions have now led to a crushing collapse of Iran’s currency, with the rial plunging by 70% and hyper-inflation raging.  Such inflation may be the best way to undermine the regime of the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards.   So Obama’s policies are working, and short of starting a pre-emptive war a la Bush’s invasion of Iraq, there is not much more that anyone can ask Israel or the U.S. to do.

Obviously, the Middle East is not peaceful or stable.  That is the price to be paid (as we saw in Iraq) for decades of support for brittle, unpopular dictatorships that sytmied liberal oppositions and forced radicals to build strength and bide time underground.  When those dictatorships weakened or collapsed, the result was rebellion, revolution, civil war, and the rise of popular Islamist parties.  It may be attractive to think that somehow a more vigorous US military policy would change those results into something more attractive.  But that is utopian, idealist, even delusional thinking, rather than a realistic assessment.

The Bush plan to invade Iraq in 2003 was undertaken first to pre-empt Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of non-existent nuclear weapons, and second in the belief that vigorous US military action in the region would create greater stability, undermine Iran, and make Israel safer.    The result of following that delusional policy was exactly the opposite of what we sought; instead it produced a massive sectarian war in Iraq, huge gains in regional influence for Iran, and greater pressures on Israel.  Have we learned nothing from that experience?

The evidence from U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya is that measures carefully tailored and limited to meet specific objectives can succeed (as with the first Gulf War, which stopped at the liberation of Kuwait, and with support for the rebels in Libya).  However, wild plans to use massive force to transform the region into something that looks like the U.S. are bound to fail.  Appraisals of US policy need to have a realistic baseline as to what is possible, and not hold policies up to the standard of creating a utopian dream.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts, U.S. Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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