America Finally Steps Back

Things became clear last week – Iran, our enemy, has been fighting ISIS – those Sunni madmen – for us. They’re going at them in both Syria and in Iraq, and we can live with that. Someone has to do something to keep Iraq from disappearing. Otherwise, our eight years there would have been our worst foreign policy disaster ever. We’d have squandered five thousand of our troops, dead, and a hundred thousand wounded beyond repair, and one or two trillion dollars, and our international reputation, for nothing at all. Iran is fighting to save Iraq for us, although they don’t see it that way at all. Iraq is now thoroughly Shiite and thus their ally. The Sunni despot, Saddam Hussein, is gone. The Iraqi Sunnis are being disappeared. We disbanded the previous Iraqi army, so all the top Sunni generals who were tossed out on their ear, and resent that their nation went all Shiite, joined ISIS – making ISIS rather formidable. We need Iran’s help here. Once ISIS is gone we can get back to what might have been the original idea. We can work on getting the current Iraqi leader, Haider al-Abadi, the man we made sure replaced that Maliki fellow, to kiss and make up with the Sunnis there. Maliki wouldn’t do that. Haider al-Abadi might.

That’s for later. Iran is now using the many Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq to fight ISIS, because the regular Iraq Army is hopeless, even after all our training. Iran’s generals, invited in by Iraq, have been directing that effort, most recently to get ISIS out of Tikrit – but it didn’t go well there. Haider al-Abadi must have had a back-channel conversation with the folks in Tehran – one Shiite leader to another (they are close allies now) – and convinced the Iranians to stand down, to see if Iraq and the Americans could take care of the bad guys. Iraq isn’t part of Iran, not quite yet, and the Americans seemed to want to jump in once again. Let them. Take the weekend off. Let them fight the Sunni madmen in Tikrit – so the Iranian generals backed off and we’re bombing the crap out of ISIS in Tikrit now. We’re good at such things. And we have unlimited resources. Everybody’s happy, sort of, for now.

If only it were that simple. We’re also supporting the Sunni Saudis fighting the Iranian-backed Shiite madmen in Yemen. That’s a switch. We did make a few mistakes in Iraq, but like Iran, we’ve always been fighting those deadly Sunni madmen, first al-Qaeda and then Saddam Hussein – the Sunni despot that al-Qaeda hated, because he was too secular – and now ISIS. Those Sunni madmen have always been out to get us – but our long-time ally in the region has always been Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni nation with Sharia Law and all that. They do behead folks and stone others to death, and there women are not allowed to be seen in public without their husband or a male guardian from the family. Saudi Arabia is a nasty place, and then there’s that Wahhabi stuff. A lot of private Saudi donations have always funded al-Qaeda, and fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia – and Osama bin Laden was from a prominent Saudi family. Is Saudi Arabia out to get us too? No, but that relationship cannot be clarified easily, other than the obvious. They had the oil we wanted, and they wanted to sell it to us. We needed that oil. We’d buy it all and rule the world. In return, they’d get rich. Everything else could be overlooked. One must be practical about these things.

There are, however, limits to practicality. We want ISIS gone, but ISIS wants Assad in Syria gone, and so do we. People do notice:

NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel criticized the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward Iran on Friday, saying it seems “convoluted” and “incoherent” at best, given the fact that the U.S. seems to be contradicting itself in its support and opposition to Iran in a number of countries.

Engel explained how the U.S. is fighting both with and against Iran in Syria, which he said is “an incredibly convoluted dynamic.” He said that while the U.S. is negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, it is supporting the fight against Iran in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels recently forced out that country’s president and Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against them in retaliation.

“We’re fighting both with and against Iran in Syria, and fighting with Iran in Iraq,” Engel said. “There are many people who I’ve spoken to – many in the military, many policy analysts – who say that what we’re seeing here is an incoherent policy regarding not just Iran, but regarding the Middle East in general.”

There’s also this:

The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency on Sunday described President Obama’s Middle East policy as one of “willful ignorance,” saying the administration needs a clearer strategy for dealing with conflicts emerging across the region.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that recent developments in the Middle East are moving in a bad direction for the United States, with Iran “clearly on the march” to influence events in a “regional sectarian war.” …

“At the end of the day, we have just this incredible policy confusion – never mind what our strategy is to execute that policy,” Flynn said. “We have to stop what we’re doing and take a hard look at everything going on the Middle East because it’s not going in the right direction.”

Is there a right direction? Kevin Drum offers this:

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni ally of the US that hates Iran. Iraq is a Shiite ally who’s cozy with Iran. The US itself is hostile toward Iran, but shares a common enemy in ISIS. Syria is a total mess with no clear good guys. And, yes, a good nuclear deal with Iran would be a bonus for the safety of the entire region.

That’s it. That’s the way the world is. The United States is not allied solely with Shiite or Sunni regimes and hasn’t been since at least 9/11. It’s confusing. It’s messy. And maybe President Obama hasn’t handled it as skillfully as he could have. But who could have done any better? There just aren’t any clean battle lines here, and the sooner everyone faces up to that, the better off we’ll be.

Ah, but there is a plan, and in the Washington Post, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan look into that:

President Obama has for years stuck to a strategy aimed at keeping the United States from getting pulled into a big regional war between Iran and America’s traditional Arab allies.

The net result was a tailored, country-by-country approach to the region’s turmoil that put a priority on nuclear negotiations with Iran and the fight against terrorism. Containing Iranian proxies took a back seat.

As chaos and sectarian bloodshed have spread, the White House is facing heavy pressure from its traditional Sunni Arab allies, Congress and some in the U.S. military to confront Iran more forcefully over its support for militant groups.

Such a pivot carries big risks for the White House, which doesn’t want to be drawn into a worsening conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that its policies didn’t start and that it cannot stop. “We’ve always had concerns about Iran’s destabilizing behavior and abetting some of the worst actors in the region,” said a senior administration official who was authorized to speak on the issue, but not be quoted by name. “We also have a realization of the precise limitations of how much we can impact that behavior.”

Things are as they are:

Even if the United States had confronted Iran more, it is not clear it would have produced a more stable Middle East. The violent chaos upending the region is the culmination of decades of poor governance, economic deprivation and brutal crackdowns by dictators desperate to cling to power.

Following the Arab Spring, the White House set objectives on a country-by-country basis that reflected the complicated mix of forces driving the unrest in each country, and U.S. core interests. It backed swift military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, but stopped short of doing the same with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

In impoverished, heavily armed Yemen, American policy focused on destroying an al-Qaeda affiliate, which posed the gravest threat to the United States. Relatively little attention was paid to the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the Yemeni government and forced the United States last week to pull out the last of its Special Operations troops and counterterrorism advisers.

Some praise the piecemeal approach as a modest, measured and pragmatic response to a crisis that will probably roil the region for decades to come.

There may be no other choice:

“The administration wants to be realistic about what the United States can actually achieve when the tectonic plates of the region are shifting so dramatically,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East analyst with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

He described the Obama approach as “ad hoc crisis management mode” at a time when no Middle Eastern nation “seems to have a realistic long-term vision and set of clear goals for what they want to see the region look like in five years.”

But that has “unnerved” our closest allies and “emboldened” Iran – out there to fill every possible power vacuum. That’s a plan?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat puts things this way:

Our military is fighting in a tacit alliance with Iranian proxies in Iraq, even as it assists in a campaign against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. We are formally committed to regime change in Syria, but we’re intervening against the regime’s Islamist enemies. Our strongest allies, officially, are still Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we’re busy alienating them by pushing for détente with Iran. And please don’t mention Libya or Al Qaeda – you’ll confuse everyone even more.

Still, he sees a plan:

This administration has been persistently surprised by Middle East developments, and its self-justifications alternate between the exasperated (why don’t you try it if you’re so smart?) and the delusional (as soon as we get the Iran deal, game changer, baby!).

But there is a strategic element in how the Obama White House ended up here. Haltingly but persistently, this administration has pursued a paradigm shift in how the United States relates to the Middle East, a shift from a Pax Americana model toward a strategy its supporters call “offshore balancing.”

Douthat sees the first big shift in our foreign policy since 1945 or so:

In a Pax Americana system, the United States enjoys a dominant position within a network of allies and clients; actors outside that network are considered rogues and threats, to be restrained and coerced by our overwhelming military might. Ideally, over time our clients become more prosperous and more democratic, the benefits of joining the network become obvious, and the military canopy both expands and becomes less necessary.

In an offshore balancing system, our clients are fewer, and our commitments are reduced. Regional powers bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, our military strategy is oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.

And we accept that? We may have to accept that:

Since the Cold War, and especially since 1991, the Pax Americana idea has predominated in our foreign policy thinking. But in the Middle East, there has been no real evolution toward democracy among our network of allies; instead, their persistent corruption has fed terrorism and contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise.

Hence the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decision to try to start afresh, by transforming a rogue state into a regional model, a foundation for a new American-led order that would be less morally compromised than the old.

That order did not, of course, emerge. Instead, it took all-the-king’s horses and all of David Petraeus’s men just to hold Iraq together; a different bad actor, Iran, ended up empowered; and the old problem of repression led to the Arab Spring and the civil wars that followed.

We may have no choice here:

Sticking to the Pax Americana model after these developments would have required keeping American troops in Iraq for decades. It might have forced us to choose between bombing Iran and extending a Cold War-style nuclear umbrella over most of the Arab world. And there still would have been no easy answers about how to deal with corrupt allies, or with the zealots who move in when they fall.

So it’s understandable that the Obama White House has sought a different role. Our withdrawal from Iraq and light-footprint approach to counterterrorism, our strange dance with Bashar al-Assad, our limited intervention against ISIS – they all aim at a more “offshore” approach to the Middle East’s problems. Likewise, the long-sought détente with Iran, which assumes that once the nuclear issue is resolved, Tehran can gradually join Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv in a multipolar order.

Douthat thinks that might work, but won’t work:

First, offshore balancing offers the most benefits when your entanglements are truly minimal, but it’s very hard for a hegemon to simply sidle offstage, shedding expectations and leaving allies in the lurch. And when you’re still effectively involved everywhere, trying to tip the balance of power this way and that with occasional airstrikes, it’s easy to end up in a contradictory, six-degrees-of-enmity scenario, with no clear goal in mind.

Second, multipolar environments are often more unstable and violent, period, than unipolar ones. So offshoring American power and hoping that Iran, Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel will find some kind of balance on their own will probably increase the risk of arms races, cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war. The conflicts we have now are ugly enough, but absent the restraint still imposed by American military dominance, it’s easy to imagine something worse.

We are getting something worse:

Alarmed by the potential for civil war in Yemen, Arab leaders agreed Sunday to the creation of a joint military force that would attempt to bring some stability to the region and serve as a counterweight to the influence of Iran.

The heads of the Arab League countries said the unit would be made up of volunteers and could be called up if a member state were facing a security or safety threat.

Fahad Nazer, a political analyst in Washington who specializes in Saudi Arabia, said the creation of the force is “a defining moment for the Saudis, and it might be a defining moment for the region in general.”

The agreement was made on the second day of the Arab summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where the crisis in Yemen was high on the agenda.

They’re serious:

The creation of the unified force, announced by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, has long been an ambition of the 22-member Arab League, but one that had proved unattainable.

“The Arab leaders have decided to agree to the principle of a joint Arab military force,” Sisi said.

A “high-level” team would be created to look at the structure of the force, he said.

Citing Egyptian military and security officials, the Associated Press reported that the proposed force would comprise 40,000 elite troops and have its headquarters in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, or Saudi capital, Riyadh.

Douthat says that the Obama administration has pursued a paradigm shift of sorts, and this is the complimentary one:

Nazer, who works for JTG Inc., an intelligence and analysis company based in Vienna, Va., said the force’s creation reflected a “paradigm shift” for the Saudis, who haven’t typically taken such an assertive role.

“It’s about the need for the Arab region as a whole to be more assertive and take control of their future and not keep forever dependent on the West and the U.S. to secure their security,” he said.

“The Saudis have never had this kind of hands-on military approach that they’ve already demonstrated over the past few days,” said Nazer, who formerly worked for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Douthat also mentioned cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war, and this may be it:

Medical sources in Hudaydah said the airstrikes that targeted the airport there had damaged some nearby houses and injured 30 people, mostly women and children. Some were in critical condition.

Saudi tanks were also seen mobilizing toward the Yemeni border, heightening fear that a ground invasion could be imminent.

Should we be in on it? They’re having themselves a war to determine the fate of the Middle East and they didn’t invite us, and they certainly didn’t ask us to lead it. How are we supposed to feel about that? The New American Century will never happen now, not that that ever would have happened, and this is just odd:

Israel’s fighter jets have taken part in the Thursday Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen, sources in Sanaa disclosed on Friday.

“This is for the first time that the Zionists are conducting a joint operation in coalition with Arabs,” Secretary General of Yemen’s Al-Haq Political Party Hassan Zayd wrote on his Facebook page.

He noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had issued direct orders for the Israeli air force to send fighter jets to the Saudi-led air raid on Yemen.

We sold those fancy fighter jets to both the Saudis and Israel – the exact same planes – so we’ll do fine and stand back:

US President Barack Obama authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to the military operations, National Security Council Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said late Wednesday night.

She added that while US forces were not taking direct military action in Yemen, Washington was establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support.

It’s their war. Let them fight it. Can any president who effectively says that avoid impeachment? And can we go back and get Vietnam right, and win this time? But the Saudis, and their Arab League, and Israel, might get their own Vietnam:

Rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi angrily accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel of launching a “criminal, unjust, brutal and sinful” campaign aimed at invading and occupying Yemen.

“Yemenis won’t accept such humiliation,” he said in a televised speech Thursday night, calling the Saudis “stupid” and “evil.”

The Houthis, who have taken over much of the country, mobilized thousands of supporters to protest the air strikes, with one speaker lashing out at the Saudi-led coalition and warning that Yemen “will be the tomb” of the aggressors.

It’s odd to hear that sort of thing directed to someone other than the United States, and it’s oddly refreshing. Be outraged that there has been a paradigm shift and the United States has stepped back from all this, or be relieved, but we have stepped back. We actually may have had no choice. One must be practical about these things.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to America Finally Steps Back

  1. Rick says:

    While I don’t really have the time to chase this down, I did, as someone who spent most of his life in TV journalism, including some of it at NBC News in New York, want to delve a little into this:

    NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel criticized the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward Iran on Friday, saying it seems “convoluted” and “incoherent” at best…

    The point is, when I worked at NBC back in the late 1960s, correspondents were allowed to have opinions, but were required to keep them to themselves. I’m thinking maybe with the creation of its “progressive” (“Lean Forward”) cable arm, MSNBC, the network has loosened up the rules somewhat? Or maybe it’s a case of that old confusion of all those civilians who can’t quite always distinguish the difference between analysis and opinion.

    That is, maybe Engel didn’t really present his own opinion, maybe he just referenced somebody else’s in his piece. Or possibly it was a case of the confusion that arises from hearing “bad news” and blaming it on the messenger. For example, when the sports announcer gives the final score of the game, is he “criticizing” the losing team by mentioning that they lost?

    I don’t really know, since I can’t air the video. For some reason, my Adobe Flash is on the fritz and I don’t have time right now to work on it.

    I also thought I’d try to dig deeper into Ross Douthat’s analysis — particularly calling into question his seemingly claiming that rogue players can “be restrained and coerced by our overwhelming military might”, since our military might doesn’t seem to restrain or coerce anybody anymore — but researching it was going to take too long for me to establish that he even thinks that. Pinning down with any precision what is going on inside Ross Douthat’s head is always such a challenge.

    But as for the idea that “We are formally committed to regime change in Syria”, I can, and will, argue that maybe the one thing Obama shouldn’t be doing anymore is formally committing to regime change anywhere, since doing so (remembering both Libya and Egypt, and now Syria) always seems to get us into more trouble than we bargained for. Yes, there has been a great temptation to make friends with whatever rebel group might be poised to take over in these places, but maybe that’s a temptation that we’d have been wiser to just resist.

    In fact, maybe returning to at least some of those Kissingeresque Realpolitic policies of bygone days wouldn’t be such a bad idea, since, while we may have gotten into trouble now and then for being seen as having too close of a working relationship with certain established governments, especially dictatorships, we always got into even more trouble when we took sides, for or against them, in their internal struggles.

    Maybe instead of defending allies against insurgents (like we did in Vietnam), or orchestrating coups against our imagined “enemies” (like we did in Iran), we should just announce to everybody that we’d be open to considering working with anybody who runs any country, no matter what, maybe even if they get there by violent revolution.

    I’m only offering this thought up because all this saying so-and-so leader “has got to go” is the only thing I can think of that Obama has been doing that, to me, creates unquestionably little benefit and much mischief.

    But despite what all these other guys say about Obama and his policies, the question is not just “Who could have done any better?”, it is, more to the point, “…and what exactly is it they would have done?”

    Rick

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