Where did we go wrong in ME?

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Chas Free­man Am­bas­sador Chas W. Free­man, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) is Se­nior Fel­low, Wat­son In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional & Pub­lic Af­fairs, Brown Univer­sity.

OUR es­trange­ment from the Mid­dle East de­rives from trends that are much deeper than the man­i­fest de­fi­cien­cies of ex­ec­u­tive and con­gres­sional lead­er­ship in Washington. Amer­i­cans and our part­ners in the Mid­dle East have de­vel­oped con­tra­dic­tory in­ter­ests and pri­or­i­ties. Where shared val­ues ex­isted at all, they have in­creas­ingly di­verged. There have been mas­sive changes in geo-eco­nom­ics, en­ergy mar­kets, power bal­ances, de­mo­graph­ics, re­li­gious ide­olo­gies, and at­ti­tudes to­ward Amer­ica (not just the US gov­ern­ment). Many of these changes were cat­alyzed by his­toric Amer­i­can pol­icy blun­ders.

Blun­der num­ber one was the fail­ure to trans­late our mil­i­tary tri­umph over Sad­dam’s Iraq in 1991 into a peace with Baghdad. No ef­fort was ever made to rec­on­cile Iraq to the terms of its de­feat. The vic­tors in­stead sought to im­pose elab­o­rate but pre­vi­ously undis­cussed terms by UN fiat in the form of the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 687 — “the mother of all res­o­lu­tions.” The mil­i­tary ba­sis for a re­newed bal­ance of power in the Gulf was there to be ex­ploited. The diplo­matic vi­sion was not. The Ge­orge H. W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion ended with­out ad­dress­ing the ques­tion of how to re­place war with peace in the Gulf. Wars don’t end un­til the mil­i­tar­ily hu­mil­i­ated ac­cept the po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences of their de­feat. Sad­dam gave lip ser­vice to UNSCR 687 but took it no more se­ri­ously than Ne­tanyahu and his pre­de­ces­sors have taken the var­i­ous Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions that di­rect Is­rael to per­mit Pales­tini­ans to re­turn to the homes from which it drove them or to with­draw from the Pales­tinian lands it has seized and set­tled.

Like Is­rael’s wars with the Arabs, Amer­ica’s war with Iraq went into re­mis­sion but never ended. In due course, it re­sumed. The US needs to get into the habit of de­vel­op­ing and im­ple­ment­ing war ter­mi­na­tion strate­gies. Blun­der num­ber two was the sud­den aban­don­ment in 1993 of the strat­egy of main­tain­ing peace in the Ara­bian Gulf through a bal­ance of power. With no prior no­tice or ex­pla­na­tion, the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion re­placed this long­stand­ing ap­proach with “dual con­tain­ment” of both Iraq and Iran. For decades, off­shore bal­anc­ing had per­mit­ted the US to sus­tain sta­bil­ity with­out sta­tion­ing forces other than a very small naval con­tin­gent in the Gulf. When the re­gional bal­ance of power was un­done by the Iran-Iraq War, Washington in­ter­vened to re­store it, em­pha­siz­ing that once Kuwait had been lib­er­ated and Iraq cut back down to size, US forces would depart.

By writ­ing off Iraq as a bal­ancer of Iran, dual con­tain­ment also paved the way for the 2003 Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment with regime re­moval in Baghdad. This rash ac­tion on the part of the US led to the de facto re­align­ment of Iraq with Iran, the desta­bi­liza­tion and par­ti­tion of Iraq, the desta­bi­liza­tion and par­ti­tion of Syria, the avalanche of refugees now threat­en­ing to un­hinge the EU, and the rise of Daesh. With Iraq hav­ing fallen into the Ira­nian sphere of in­flu­ence, there is no ap­par­ent way to re­turn to off­shore bal­anc­ing. The US needs to find an al­ter­na­tive to the per­ma­nent gar­rison­ing of the Gulf. Blun­der num­ber three was the un­think­ing trans­for­ma­tion in De­cem­ber 2001 of what had been a puni­tive ex­pe­di­tion in Afghanistan into a long-term paci­fi­ca­tion cam­paign that soon be­came a NATO op­er­a­tion.

The ob­jec­tives of the NATO cam­paign have never been clear but ap­pear to cen­ter on guar­an­tee­ing that there will be no Is­lamist gov­ern­ment in Kabul. The en­gage­ment of Euro­pean as well as Amer­i­can forces in this vague mis­sion has had the un­in­tended ef­fect of turn­ing the so-called “global war on ter­ror­ism” into what ap­pears to many Mus­lims to be a western global cru­sade against Is­lam and its fol­low­ers. Afghanistan re­mains de­cid­edly un­paci­fied and is be­com­ing more, not less Is­lamist. The US needs to find ways to re­store con­spic­u­ous co­op­er­a­tion with the world’s Mus­lims. Blun­der num­ber four was the aid to Iran im­plicit in the un­pro­voked in­va­sion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. This re­ar­ranged the re­gion to the se­vere strate­gic dis­ad­van­tage of tra­di­tional US strate­gic part­ners like Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia by help­ing to create an Ira­nian sphere of in­flu­ence that in­cludes much of Iraq, Syria, and Le­banon. It showed the US to be mil­i­tar­ily mighty but geopo­lit­i­cally naive and strate­gi­cally in­com­pe­tent. The US needs to deal with the re­al­ity and the chal­lenges to oth­ers in the re­gion of the Ira­nian sphere of in­flu­ence it helped create.

I could go on but I won’t. I’m sure I’ve made my point. Deal­ing with the Mid­dle East as we pre­fer to imag­ine it rather than as it is doesn’t work. The US needs to re­turn to fact-based anal­y­sis and re­al­ism in its for­eign pol­icy. — — Cour­tesy Arab News

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