What’s Wrong–and Dangerously So–With U.S. Strategic Policy in the Middle East

By Barry Rubin, GLORIA

I’ve just read two interesting articles by David Goldman (better known by his pen name, Spengler) and Lee Smith which have different themes but fit together very nicely and make some incredibly important points.

Spengler shows that current U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority consists of creating heavily armed local armies, then withdrawing with the dubious expectation that they will be moderate, democratic, and pro-American.

In Iraq, for example, the United States is building up both regular Iraqi forces and a Sunni militia to fight terrorists who are clients of Iran and Syria. Yet the outcome might well be a bloody Iraqi civil war between U.S.-subsidized and trained armies. Moreover, when Washington stops bribing those involved they might well turn against their creator.

Regarding the Palestinian Authority (PA), the forces trained by General Keith Dayton and his team are more likely to wage war on Israel than on Hamas some day. Already, Goldman points out, the Taliban is seizing American money and weapons being handed out in Afghanistan. I could add that the United States, on a far smaller scale, is arming a Lebanese army which is close to being in Hizballah’s pocket.

Goldman writes:

    “Having armed all sides of the conflict and kept them apart by the threat of arms, the United States now expects to depart leaving in place governments of national reconciliation that will persuade well-armed and well-organized militias to play by the rules. It is perhaps the silliest thing an imperial power ever has done. The British played at divide and conquer, whereas the Americans propose to divide and disappear.”

Lee Smith discusses a totally different aspect of the issue: the current U.S. concept of counterinsurgency. He points out that U.S. strategy in Iraq under both the Bush and Obama administrations might be setting up a future in which Iran wields dominant influence in that country:

    “The test of victory is simply whether or not you are capable of imposing terms on your adversaries; if you can’t, if rather they shape your strategic decisions–e.g., if they determine your security environment by funding, arming and training militias–then you have not won.”

Smith continues:

    “If Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Al-Qods force can heat things up now with U.S. troops present, what do you think they will do once we have gone?…Not only have we not won, we have rendered ourselves incapable of acting against the agent that is most desirous of ruining our position across the region. In short, we have deterred ourselves on behalf of our enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Indeed, there are three other points that can be added here. First, current U.S. strategy very much reminds me of Vietnamization, the plan that was supposed to win the Vietnam war. The U.S. approach was to turn the fighting over to local forces and withdraw. This was a short-run success. The fact that the local forces then collapsed and the other side won the war was redefined as something for which U.S. policy wasn’t responsible. A congressional funding cut-off played a role here, too.) Yet isn’t what we’re seeing today the old Richard Nixon strategy which could be summarized, to quote the formula of an antiwar senator earlier, as: Declare victory and bring the troops home.

It is funny how failed policies of the past are revived and given a change of name–often by the side that once opposed them–and then presented as bold new thinking.

That doesn’t mean I’m advocating keeping the troops there, especially when it comes to Afghanistan but also to Iraq. Not at all. The real problem is the failure to define the real enemy and do everything possible to foil it by other means, too. One of the most important ways to do so is to maintain credibility, toughness, and vigorous leadership of allies, all ideas very much out of fashion in official Washington.

The other two points are central to my soon-to-be published piece in Foreign Affairs (which I will make available on publication). That is, the main task for the United States today is a long, difficult battle that the United States will have to wage against the Iran-led alliance, and other revolutionary Islamist groups, throughout the region to contain or defeat them. (For a detailed discussion of what U.S. foreign policy should be understanding and doing, see HERE.)

Given the weakness and unreliability of most local U.S. allies–the Afghan government, internally divided Shia leadership in Iraq, PA and Fatah, faint-hearted and quick-to-appease Arab states–this struggle is going to be all the more difficult.

There is also a mountain-sized paradox in current U.S. policy which is so obvious it is remarkable virtually everyone is missing it:

On the one hand, the Obama Administration tends to appear fearful of angering, much less confronting, enemies. On the other hand, this same government insists it can contain Iran by making it fear America! At the same time, it insists local U.S. allies will stand up and take risks because they are so certain that the United States is strong and determined!

After having shown itself to be so non-scary, so opposed to intimidation and power politics, how is the Obama Administration going to make Iran tremble?

You don’t cease looking like a paper tiger by suddenly issuing a quavering growl that you have muscles of stainless steel.

Perhaps the Obama Administration might jump into a phone booth and emerge as a new and transformed leadership? But there’s no sign of this happening at all.*

Both Goldman and Smith show that the U.S. government is eager to claim victory in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Israel-Palestinian peace process. Yet the actions undertaken by that government will in fact make things worse.

Smith puts it very well:

    “We did we not win in Iraq because states like Syria and Iran did not pay a price for the acts of force they used to shape political effects to their own advantage; when we failed to do so we abandoned our Middle East policy to the mercy of our enemies, who, as we are repeatedly told, can ruin Iraq and Afghanistan whenever they decide to take off their gloves. We did not win because our leadership, abetted by Washington policy intellectuals, is more interested in political effects in Washington than strategic victories in the Middle East. Seen in this light, the only American victory in the region is a pyrrhic one, the bitter harvest of which we may well be reaping for many years to come.”

I’m not sure that the United States could have done better directly in Iraq itself than has happened in direct terms. But ignoring the daily involvement of Iran and Syria in sponsoring, arming, training, and financing terrorists to kill Americans is a disaster. Similarly, not holding Syria and Iran responsible for their policy in Lebanon while not developing a truly tough anti-Hamas policy are also setting up a sharp decline in American credibility combined with a boost for the revolutionary Islamist (and Iran-Syria) side.

All these points will be very clear in 20 or 30 years as people look back on these mistakes but are powerless to change them. It would be far better if they were understood and corrected right now.

*For those who don’t know, Superman disguised himself as the mild-mannered Clark Kent but when faced with a crisis he jumped into a phone booth and changed into his superhero clothes before going off to bash the villains. Unfortunately, there are no more phone booths in America, which has a certain symbolic significance in this context, doesn’t it?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

May 7, 2010 | 2 Comments »

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  1. If the UNITED STATES is so interested in establishing a Palestinian State along side Israel then I have the following proposition:

    NORTH AMERICA, CENTRAL AMERICA, SOUTH AMERICA IS ALL “AMERICA”.

    To solve the United States immigration/border crisis, why doesn’t the United States just add Mexico as the 51st or 52nd State and put the border south of Mexico. What they can do is replace the current Mexican government, with a Mexican American government abiding by the laws of the US Constitution with the US Military replacing the Mexican military and oust all the drug czars. Give the land and its resources to the Mexican peoples and tie the Mexican/American economies together. AS soon as we make Mexico a State of the United States, we can then do the same to the rest of the Central and South American States. We can immediately arrest and shoot Hugo Chavez and take over Venezuela to make it another state of the United States.

    The whole Western Hemisphere can then be called: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA or AMERICA, instead of North, Central and South America.

    And if you expect the Palestinian State to co-exist with Israel then America should do the first thing by practicing that which they demand of us, or else, just shut up about Israel having a two state solution with a terrorist state.

  2. Another Tack: Either way, you’re dead!

    We can avoid Iranian nukes by opting for the Auschwitz borders or we can avoid the Auschwitz borders but be bullied by Iranian nukes.

    Time to quit quibbling. No pedantic hairsplitting can mitigate the evidence: The Obama administration cynically links Iran to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The premise is simple and chilling. If Israel wants a last-minute, last-ditch, quasi-credible American move to keep Iran from obtaining nukes, it must pay the piper by making hefty concessions to the sham paraded as the Palestinian Authority. Boiled down to its bare essence, the White House diktat means that Israel can maybe extricate itself from existential Iranian threats by submitting itself to existential Iranian-proxy threats.

    Had Barack Obama ever read Shalom Aleichem’s autobiography he’d have encountered the author’s harrowing recollection of the story his grandfather told him about “the bird-Jew.” That was how the grandfather referred to Noah, a pious innkeeper who lived in constant dread of the gentile village squire. Trembling, Noah headed for the manor to renew his lease. His timing was off, because the courtyard was full of festive guests ready to go hunting.

    The squire, in a jovial mood, agreed to renew the lease if Noah would climb the stable roof and pretend to be a bird, so he could shoot him. Fearful of angering the nobleman, the worst consequence the Jew could imagine, Noah obsequiously did his bidding. He went up and, as ordered, bent forward, flung his arms sideways and assumed a birdlike pose. At that point the squire fired and Noah fell, as any slain bird would.

    Although realizing he was about to be put to death anyway, the bird-Jew played along with his executioner, still absurdly terrified of what might happen if he didn’t. Obama is the proverbial squire in our own tale, casting Israel as the latter-day bird-Jew.

    Obama’s endgame is to debilitate, demoralize and destabilize Israel. All he offers Israelis is a choice of how his inimical goal will be achieved. This may be via allowing Iran the weaponry with which to intimidate Israel or by shrinking Israel into the Auschwitz borders (as ultra-dove Abba Eban called the 1949 armistice lines into which Obama schemes to squeeze us).

    We can avoid Iranian nukes by opting for the Auschwitz borders or we can avoid the Auschwitz borders but be bullied by Iranian nukes. The unspoken signal from Washington is: Either way, you’re dead. Yet we are somehow supposed to refrain from saying so lest we upset Obama even more.

    Our steadfast striving not to incur more wrath makes just about as much sense as it did for the two Jews in the following variation on the bird-Jew theme. These Jews faced a firing squad. One of them cursed the executioner who offered him a blindfold. The other was horrified and exclaimed in trepidation: “Why are you making him angry? You’re going to get us killed!”