The desperate state of US policy in the Middle East became apparent once again with the ISIS rout of the Iraqi army at Ramadi. It was another setback for US-supported forces and the incompetent, sectarian government that directs them. But no policy reassessment is underway; to the contrary, the discussion in Washington seems to be narrowly concerned with military tactics and the next engagement with ISIS.
The Iraq war is just one element of the Obama administration’s strategic quagmire. The administration has no reliable Arab allies in the region, shifting alignments, and unwelcoming populations. Foreign-policy bureaucrats are fond of saying that “we don’t have a dog in that fight.” But in the Middle East conflicts, the US has too many dogs in too many fights, and sometimes the dogs are fighting each other. Meantime, the costs in blood and treasure mount in this endless series of wars.
Consider where the US stands on the conflicts now raging in the Middle East:
- In Syria, the US supports rebels seeking the overthrow of the Assad government. But the US also indirectly supports Assad by carrying out air strikes and covert operations against ISIS, which has its own reasons for wanting to eliminate Assad.
- In Iraq, the US, with bombs and advisers, supports the Shia-led government, militia, and (unofficially) Iran advisers who are fighting ISIS. Meantime, Sunnis and Shiites remain bitter enemies, and news of sectarian massacres, past and present, appears regularly. It seems a fair bet that if ISIS were defeated, civil war on a grand scale would resume in Iraq.
- In Iran, the US, while hoping to bring nuclear negotiations to a final agreement by late June, opposes Iran’s support of Hezbollah and other “terrorist” organizations that threaten Israel.
- In Yemen, the US supports the intervention of Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf States against the Houthi rebels, up to a point. While the Houthi evidently receive some weapons from Iran, the Saudis have used outlawed cluster bombs as they and their allies go about destroying entire neighborhoods and exacting terrible civilian casualties. Their objective, supported by the US, is to restore to power a former dictator who, while in power, had resisted popular attempts to introduce some semblance of democracy. (See Stephen Zunes’ article at http://fpif.org/how-the-u-s-contributed-to-yemens-crisis/.) But . . .
- Washington lately has been critical of the Saudis’ excessive use of force in Yemen, which is partly responsible for a humanitarian crisis. The US is also at odds with the Saudis and others over negotiating with Iran on nuclear weapons. So what is the American solution? More weapons, training, military equipment, and security commitments, as Obama just promised when representatives of the six Gulf Cooperation Council visited Washington. (This administration has showered GCC countries with weapons, Saudi Arabia most of all—a total of nearly $80 billion worth—since Obama took office, according to William Hartung, at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/14/obama-arms-fair-camp-david-weapons-sales-gcc/.)
- In Saudi Arabia, Washington has a new friend close to the seat of power, thanks to a shakeup of the ruling elite by King Salman that made Mohammed bin Nayef the crown prince. US officials like Bin Nayef because of his tough policy on terrorism, but he also has a well-earned reputation for favoring repression. As one observer puts it, “Bin Nayef . . . is seen as the leading force behind a massive crackdown on independent civil society activists and human rights activists inside the Kingdom, and as the architect of a regional strategy aimed at rolling back movements for more representative and more participatory governance throughout the Arab region” (huffingtonpost.com/neil-hicks/saudi-leadership-changes_b_7175164.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=WorldPost).
- In Afghanistan the US continues to underwrite a government of very limited capacity that will probably have to rely on US and international subsidization far into the future. Contrary to Obama’s promise to end the US combat role, direct US involvement against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters continues. “Training and advising” the Afghan military is the official cover for drone strikes and Special Forces raids (nytimes.com/2015/04/30/world/asia/more-aggressive-role-by-us-military-is-seen-in-afghanistan.html).
- And in Israel, the US supports a government that has been viscerally opposed to negotiating with Iran, is doing its best to undermine engaging Iran, and is determined not to reach a final settlement with Palestine that would provide for a separate Palestinian state, mutual security, and social justice.
It’s hard to find consistency in US policy beyond support of Israel’s security and counterterrorism. Building democracy and defending human rights certainly aren’t among US aims: Not one of the leaders or factions the US supports, including Netanyahu in Israel, consistently upholds democratic values or believes in human security. US priorities compel reliance on military means to achieve its objectives, including providing arms and advisers to whomever is willing to fight against enemies of the moment. But pouring weapons into the Middle East, and carrying out drone strikes cloaked in secrecy on behalf of authoritarian governments cannot possibly lead to better governance or improve the human condition. It’s a ruinous substitute for a humane strategy that can only add to the already horrendous toll of civilian casualties, internally displaced persons, and refugees (see www.nytimes.com/2015/04/14/world/middleeast/legal-advocacy-group-says-us-drone-program-sets-dangerous-example.html).
Critics of US policy on the right offer alternatives that are even more unworkable and are immoral: increasing military aid to rebel groups in Syria and bombing of ISIS units; deepening sanctions on Iran; staying longer in Afghanistan; maintaining Israel’s blank check. On the liberal side, the main alternative seems to rest on Congress passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would seek to limit US involvement in Middle East wars both in time span and geography. It’s a well-intentioned idea, but not only does it seem to be dead in the water (see the New York Times editorial at www.nytimes.com/2015/05/22/opinion/the-escalation-of-unauthorized-wars.html), it is misguided in the belief that AUMF will actually force US disengagement. The experience of the War Powers Resolution, various US interventions, and for that matter current policy shows that presidents have numerous ways to get around legal restrictions when it comes to war making. And Congress is typically complicit when it comes to enforcing those restrictions.
What US policy most needs now is a determined, consistent application of diplomacy in a search for peace through negotiations. Except for ISIS, whose unwavering commitment is to the wholesale slaughter of “infidels” and the establishment of a caliphate, Middle East conflicts can and must be resolved by political means: in Yemen, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. However unpalatable some opponents may be, talking is preferable to fighting. That means negotiating with Syria’s Assad, supporting UN-sponsored talks on Yemen’s civil war, brokering talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran (and looking to normalizing relations with Tehran), and insisting that Iraq’s Shia-dominated government either respect the legitimate rights of Sunnis and Kurds or forfeit continued US support.