Official and unofficial Washington is ablaze with a foreign policy furor unseen in this country since the height of the George W. Bush era eight years ago. Once again, it’s Iraq that has captured everyone’s attention. But this time around there are no American troops on the ground, nor are there legions of US journalists or thousands of independent contractors. Besides Baghdad’s immense US embassy, all that remains is the eerie silence of a nation “leading from behind”. It is the diplomatic equivalent of a complete and utter failure of strategy or imagination. An overreaction in an opposite direction from war. A policy of neglect which bears the stamp of another administration, the Barack Obama administration.
For six years now this bright, yet confused, American president has failed to come to grips with the labyrinth of a broken Middle East. After being warned on many occasions that a policy of withdrawal was unacceptable, Obama’s many critics have now been amply proven correct. Like his naive predecessor was told a nearly a decade ago, it’s like the corporate policy at the Pottery Barn (a major US ceramics chain store): “If you break it, you must fix it.” The war in Iraq broke the Middle East. Bush broke it, and it was Obama’s job to fix it. Bush left the scene with troops on the ground, and Obama failed to understand his most difficult task. Instead he played the game of a poll-watching electoral politician. The voters wanted an end to the carnage and expense, and Obama won two presidential elections giving them precisely what they wanted.
But the Middle East remains broken, and now it’s getting worse. The neglect of Syria has now spread full-flame into neighboring Iraq. The Sunni-Shiite contest for supremacy within Iraq and the entire region threatens to draw in other actors as well. Iran sits poised to back up the overtly sectarian al Maliki government in Baghdad. Once again Obama hesitates, and for good reason. The US simply doesn’t have a political plan of action that would make targeted air strikes (which it is now contemplating) effective. On the contrary, as I pointed out last Friday, any American action against the Sunni Jihadists will be immediately perceived as a tilt in favor of Iran. This will not be received warmly by any of America’s Middle East allies and therefore shouldn’t even be contemplated.
The Middle East cannot be compartmentalized. Syria and Iraq have now become the same war, and the US needs a singular regional policy to deal with them. The only actor that the US administration should have given its full support to was the Free Syrian Army. This should have been policy long ago. However, with an election to worry about, the politician Obama vetoed any concrete military action that could have aided the moderate secular forces. This worked only in favor of Assad, Iran and the Sunni extremists, neither of which deserves US attention let alone its support. Now with Assad riding high, the US appears poised to tilt toward al Maliki and Tehran. This will only work to inflame the Sunnis and enrage the Israelis. Of course, the administration could continue on its present course and do nothing. But leading from behind is no longer acceptable, especially if both Iran and Saudi Arabia take a more active role in the coming months and weeks in Iraq.
Then there is the whole question of the Iranian nuclear program. It has been Obama’s policy to separate this issue from the regional context. The assumption has been that the issue was far too important to be mixed up with the mess of regional war or a search for a balance of power. Obama hoped that this one issue could achieve for himself a successful legacy. But his neglect for the entirety of the region has now come home to roost. The very idea that a nuclear deal could now be separated out from a raging regional conflagration has become an absurdity. On the contrary Israel and the Sunni states fear that, in order to elicit Iran’s favor in preventing the spread of Sunni Jihadism in Iraq, Washington will bargain away part of its tough nuclear position. This would be a great mistake. In all likelihood, it would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons within a region already at war. I can’t think of anything more dangerous, and it certainly would be an Obama legacy killer.
If there is to be an intact Iraq and a Syria (that has now become an open question) both countries will require political solutions. This means that US policy needs to be aimed at non-sectarian democratic pluralism within revamped constitutional frameworks. President Obama stated as much for Iraq, but he needs to be equally as forceful toward Syria. Washington must understand that the civil war in Iraq has both a connection to Syria and a distinct al Maliki cause as well. The Sunni communities in both Syria and Iraq feel aggrieved, and rightly so. But the US needs to have some skin in the game. Air power could go a long way toward convincing Assad and the Iranians that resupply routes over Iraqi airspace have now become off-limits. The same is true for an indiscriminate bombing of Sunni area cities and towns. Meanwhile that same air power could be used against the most extreme elements of the Sunni Jihadist spearhead. In the final analysis, the Baghdad government and elements of the Syrian government and Bath Party will need to negotiate on an equal basis with both the Sunnis and the Kurds. US military policy must reflect and complement this renewed effort to achieve a political balance.
Of course the US shouldn’t institute this policy in a unilateral manner. The spread of the Syrian civil war into Iraq has become a grave danger for both China and Russia. The game has dramatically changed, and a regional solution for the Middle East will require global cooperation (if possible). The Obama administration needs to draft a blueprint that is fair to all parties concerned. Great-power partnership will be essential. But the US must make it clear to the members of the UN Security Council that their support for Assad will not be tolerated. Here Obama needs to be forceful. When it comes to an American no-fly zone, the US must express to its UN partners that, because of the severity of the Middle East quagmire and the necessity for superpower action, it would be willing to go it alone.
On the nuclear issue, I’ve long advocated a Middle East Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. Within the context of a non-hegemony Zone of Peace, a permanent regional balance could be achieved with a democratic Iraq as the key buffer state. It is essential that Iraq be independent of either Iran or Saudi Arabia. An equally powerful case could be made for Syria. The full force of the UN Security Council could act as the guarantor for such a project. With a complete emphasis on this zero-enrichment structure as the backdrop, the Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish dialogue could (hopefully) come to political fruition within Syria and Iraq. The same is true for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian negotiation within a more appropriate strategic paradigm. This would become necessary to meet the dramatically changing and radically new, non-nuclear Israeli geopolitical circumstances. If Israel is to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for peace, the peace must have a structure of permanence along with an appropriate level of conventional strategic depth. There can be no Israeli security within the 1967 armistice lines.
It’s now or never for the US. Either President Obama takes the bull by the horns, or the regional war will only intensify. This war can only lead in one of two directions — a long-lasting stalemate, or a breakout that (in all likelihood) will require an American military response anyway. Obama’s political caution has worked against American interests. The price of oil will remain dependent on a stable Middle east for a long time to come. The longer this president hesitates, the worse the situation will become. The worse the situation becomes, the higher the price of oil will be. By leading from behind, the US has found itself unable to fix the pottery that it broke. Unless Obama takes the lead, sooner rather than later, the war will drag in everyone in the Middle East, including Israel and Jordan. If that were to happen, what would the president do? He would find himself in a most difficult situation.
Between Iraq, the Gulf states, and Iran lies a broad chunk of the energy that fuels the world’s economy. Everyone must tread very carefully because the situation in the Middle East is precarious. No country can be called a regional power without its position being contested. That is precisely what is happening to Iran today. At the same time, it is not feasible for any country to become isolated from its neighbors. For far too long, nations have conspired against nations for this purpose. Today this policy is reaping what it has sown. Hegemony has become the disease of the Middle East. Not until the nations of the region are cured of this malady will the pull of war recede. Ironically, it is this desire for hegemony which could lead the area toward devolution and extreme fragmentation. We are all caught between Iraq and a hard place.