“Kickin’ the Can” — A Foreign Policy?

The Republican-led Congress has taken over. Now the Obama administration’s policies on Iran, Syria, ISIS and the Hamas-Abbas unilateral diplomatic mission have finally come under strict review. But it’s the Iran file in its entirety which demands the greatest clarification. So far Obama has shown an unwavering red line with regard to Hamas-Abbas — unilateralism at the UN is unacceptable. But the administration’s red lines on Syria and Iran have wavered again recently, and Washington’s best and most enduring ally in the region, Israel, has been hardly mollified by the administration’s continued confusion and ambiguity. Can Jerusalem really expect a good nuclear deal with Iran? Or is “managed irresolution” on the Iran nuclear program the real Obama foreign-policy choice?

And what about the rest of the Levant — is an American rapprochement with Tehran even possible given the revolutionary nature of the regime? And where does such thinking (rapprochement) leave Assad’s Syria, ISIS and the future of Iraq? Does the Obama administration have an endgame for any of this? In other words, even if a good nuclear deal could be attained (a very big if), how would such an outcome alter Tehran’s “resistance front” with Assad, Hezbollah, Yemen, Hamas-Abbas, or even Baghdad for that matter?

Obama has seen his “war on terror” as merely a police action. The difficulty of regime change and nation building has meant that the situation in Libya was never followed up after an air campaign. On the other hand, the revolution in Syria always risked greater Russian involvement and potential escalation (and still does). But as Obama’s inaction and hesitancy have grown, the vacuum left behind in the Levant and Libya has only grown worse. At the core of the problem in the Levant is the alteration in the regional balance of power left behind by the unseating of Sunni power in Iraq. Obama withdrew from Iraq before securing the necessary democratic framework to empower all of the political communities within the nation-state. This was a grave mistake because it engendered an historic embitterment within the Sunni Arab world and beyond. What started out as a peaceful, non-violent demonstration against a brutal dictatorship morphed into an all- Syrian proxy war between regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But it didn’t end there. As Obama withdrew from Iraq without leaving even a residual force, Assad of Syria was emboldened by American hesitancy and confusion. One of the greatest war criminals since Nazi Germany, Assad has unleashed his reign of terror upon the Syrian people, and the US has done exactly zero to stop him. And because of this American inaction, the Syrian war has now morphed once again. With the advent of global jihadists entering into the new ISIS Caliphate, Syria’s borders have merged with Iraq’s and the struggle has now become a pan-Muslim proxy war between Sunni and Shia. Meanwhile, Obama’s responses continue to be timid and irresolute. With the rise of ISIS, the president has been forced to reconsider the nature of his remote-controlled drone-centered “war on terror”. But the choice of an air campaign against ISIS alone has only further inflamed the Sunni world. What about Assad and Iran?

And what about Iran? After the Iran interim deal, the administration pledged that after six months Iran would not be allowed to stall the talks further into a state of immobility. Barack Obama’s exact words in November 2013 were: “If Iran doesn’t fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the [sanctions] relief and turn on the pressure”. Now the administration has given them until July 2015 to agree to terms. How far down the road are they going to kick the can? So much for tight superpower red lines. And even on Assad, the Obama line has now shifted. What was once a firm “Assad must go” has been altered in recent days by Secretary of State John Kerry to something less clear: “It is time for President Assad, and the Assad regime, to put their people first”. The secretary was responding favorably to a Russian proposal for indeterminate talks to be held in Moscow between Assad and the opposition. What a bunch of incredible discredited credulity — is this America’s new policy in Syria? Who thinks this stuff up? The Secretary of State is, in essence, asking for the capitulation (to Assad) of the democratic Syrian opposition in order to defeat ISIS! Now that’s chutzpah!

It’s time for the Obama administration to face facts. It has no Middle East policy, and “kickin’ the can down the road” (until when?) is a stance unacceptable to a Republican Congress and vast swaths of the Democratic Party. Furthermore, US indecision on a policy towards Syria only strengthens ISIS. The US cannot defeat ISIS without the Sunnis on board. And there is no way Obama could ever even dream of shifting his red line on ISIS. For Israel, an American rapprochement with Iran is as absurd as an American rapprochement with ISIS. Bottom line: Obama needs his present Middle East allies, and any thought of an Iranian rapprochement or a nuclear deal outside a total regional context would be worse than counterproductive. It would eventually lead to an intensification of the war and probably involve the Jewish state. Iran has invaded the Levant, and their presence is equally unacceptable to all of America’s Sunni allies, and Israel as well.

In order to defeat ISIS, the Sunnis must be rallied to a policy that empowers their community in both Syria and Iraq. In order for Israel to even think about a peace treaty with the Arab world and the Palestinians, the stability of the regional context must be envisioned for decades upon decades into the future. So what should be done about Syria? First of all, nothing is possible without Russian and Chinese cooperation. This could certainly mean their active involvement in Syria. They’re both now involved in the Iran nuclear negotiations through the P5+1. But the nuclear file will never be complete without a regional context. That means, at the least, a NATO-Russian summit to discuss the future of Europe and a UN Security Council summit to discuss the future of Syria and Iraq. In other words, in order for peace to reign, the superpowers must decide on what comes after both Assad and ISIS in Syria, and on how to restructure the security architecture of Europe.

There is no getting around the active involvement of Russia and China. Syria will require at least a hundred thousand foreign troops to be reestablished along democratic lines. And the protection of the Shia and Alawi minorities will certainly require Russian participation. This level of US-Russian cooperation will not be possible without a dramatic rethink with regard to Europe and the Ukraine. Unless the US wants to go it alone and reoccupy much of Iraq and Syria (a prospect no one entertains), nothing can be accomplished with regard to the pacification of the Sunni community. And “boots on the ground” will be required to defeat both ISIS and Assad. They will also be required to secure the security arrangements for a post-Assad national political reconciliation. But by simply “kickin’ the can down the road” — or the delusional thinking that revolutionary Iran would partner up with President Obama to further Sunni, Israeli and American objectives — is not a foreign policy. In order to stabilize the territory north and to the east of Israel, it will require a Grand Bargain inclusive of the P5+1 negotiations and the political futures of the countries of the Levant. It is time for Washington to start thinking outside the box.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).