National Security & Defense

Mideast Morass

Pro-government Syrian forces near Mahin, November 14, 2015. (Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty)

The apparent desire of most Americans and of the majority of the Congress just to wash their hands of the Middle East and come home is understandable, but this approach is not feasible. That region is almost back to the chaos of Biblical times and America has played a large if entirely unintended role in the process. Since those times, Rome, then the Eastern Roman and Byzantine empires, then the Turks, and then the French and the British governed the region and redrew its borders. Now we are almost back to squabbling tribes, some grouped uneasily in dysfunctional and strife-torn nations. The region is a circular firing squad, between the ancient and re-emerging surrounding influences of the Turks, Persians (Iran), and Egyptians, while the Russians loom as Tatars once did, and the Saudis lead the bloc of Gulf petro-states. Apart from China and India, which also have a relatively known history of political organization and rivalry amid serious attempts at civilization, it is the oldest region in the world. The entire region is composed of leaders and spokesmen purporting to hold a long view, though their actions are usually self-destructively short-sighted.

From the perspective of the locals, the United States is a bird of passage that has only intermittently been a presence there for 60 years and has rarely pursued a coherent policy in the region. The hapless floundering of the Obama administration has some precedents; a 65-year-old informed resident of the Middle East has seen the United States author an inexplicable sequence of events. President Truman joined Stalin in recognizing the State of Israel, despite threats to resign from General George C. Marshall (secretary of state), and James Forrestal (secretary of defense). President Eisenhower helped to restore the shah, welcomed the retirement of the British and French imperial influence in the region, but first promised and then withdrew support for the ambitious Egyptian project of the Aswan High Dam, which helped to precipitate the Suez Crisis of 1956. Nasser, who had been something of an American protégé, seized the Suez Canal. After ineffectual American proposals of “internationalization,” the Americans were left out of the loop as Britain and France pre-positioned forces in Cyprus, incited an Israeli attack on Egypt, and then purported to invade Egypt as peacekeepers, requiring both sides to move back from the Suez Canal, which the Anglo-French would reoccupy. It was one of the most insane schemes that has ever been hatched by either country, but Eisenhower overreacted, and not only deserted three of America’s closest allies but attacked the British currency to force a humiliating stand-down by the British and the French. Though it was an absurd undertaking, they would certainly have militarily defeated the Egyptians, as Israel already had in the Sinai. Yet Nasser regarded the United States as an antagonist indistinguishable from the attacking countries. Instead of being grateful to the Americans, he sponsored a substantial Russian intervention in the region and whipped up anti-Americanism in the Arab world.

President Nixon and Henry Kissinger encouraged Nasser’s successor as Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, to evict the Russians, and President Carter presided at the Camp David deliberations between Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin that led to the reopening of the Suez Canal after twelve years, and a durable resolution of Egyptian-Israeli differences. Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, was destabilized by George W. Bush’s campaign for democracy, and was overthrown in 2011. Obama welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood to power, though it had been the 900-pound gorilla in the room in the Middle East for 85 years. It won the election but violated its undertakings to maintain the new constitution and was overthrown by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013. The West dodged the biggest bullet in the region (the passage of the largest Arab country into the hands of Muslim extremists would have been a horrifying disaster), but this did not prevent Barack Obama and even Republican senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain from admonishing Sisi to treat the Brotherhood gently, or the U.S. from imposing an arms embargo on Egypt for two years, until that country started buying advanced weapons from Russia.

Obama has abjectly apologized for the wise resurrection of the shah by Eisenhower and Winston Churchill. After the shah had been a solid ally of America for 25 years, President Carter helped evict him in favor of the mad and pathologically anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini, who made Iran the world’s greatest terrorism-supporting state. Now Obama has effectively facilitated Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, even though Khomeini’s equally loopy successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, claims that the Islamic State — which the U.S. is assisting Iran in fighting in Iraq — is, in fact, a U.S.-sponsored and -directed organization. The same U.S. faith in democracy, even where a democratic consultation would produce a victory of anti-democratic forces, caused the elevation of Hamas in Gaza, driving the Palestine Liberation Organization to greater extremes, and led to the dangerous rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where it is, like Hamas, a Shiite-based terror organization with a civil arm (and both are funded by theocratic Iran).

Obama stomped out of Iraq after a dispute over jurisdiction in legal cases involving American servicemen with the Iranian puppet regime that Bush and Obama allowed to govern in Baghdad when they could have supported democratically more popular alternatives, as Obama could have done and failed to do in Iran. The Baghdad regime abruptly collapsed under the entirely unforeseen pressure of ISIS. About 50,000 Sunni Muslim militants, distressed at the loss of Sunni influence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, formed a cohesive and disciplined unit and routed the Baghdad army, some of whose members buried their uniforms in the sand to try to avoid execution when captured, rather than fight, as Americans had trained them to do. The Kurds have effectively seceded from Iraq, and the Sunni 20 percent of that country’s population is being contested by ISIS and Iran. As Henry Kissinger wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, in the Middle East, an enemy of an enemy remains an enemy.

The U.S. having been generally hostile to the Assad regime, father and son, in Syria, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were warming up to Assad (Mrs. Clinton famously called him a “reformer”) when his country blew up, whereupon Obama feebly said he “should go,” but did nothing to force such an outcome, as Russia and Iran poured in assistance to sustain him. The U.S. became a bit player in Syria, between the Assad Alawite (Shiite) faction championed by Russia and Iran, and ISIS, by supporting a beleaguered third faction of supposed secular moderates, who are under regular attack from Russia as well as ISIS. The U.S. supports Iran against ISIS in Iraq, but opposes Iran and ISIS in Syria, and officially cooperates with Egypt and Saudi Arabia in both shattered countries.

Turkey, a member of NATO, is now in the hands of a quasi-Islamist regime, has switched its preferences in the Arab–Israeli dispute, and has been supporting ISIS against Assad in Syria. Turkey objects to the presence of the Russians in that country, but has recently taken on board that ISIS is an unacceptable partner. The Syrian civil war has generated 6 million refugees, about a third of whom have fled the country, including most of the country’s longstanding Christian population. The numbers of people driven from their homes in the inferno of Iraq is about two-thirds as great.

In Libya, where Qaddafi was a distasteful and erratic ruler, he had abandoned his nuclear program and had ceased any practical animosity to the West, but was driven from office and executed with the assistance of the British and the French, after philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy made an emotional intervention with French president Nicolas Sarkozy from Benghazi on behalf of a military redemption of French honor by assisting the anti-Qaddafi forces. (Their relations were complicated in the French manner, as Lévy’s son-in-law, philosophy professor Rafael Enthoven, had sired a child with Sarkozy’s wife, Carla Bruni.) In Yemen, the U.S. took against longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh and helped force him out, to the chief benefit of the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis. The Saudis have intervened to support a competing faction, and Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years, and was opposed by the Houthis, has returned and is now supporting the Houthis.

In summary: In Iraq, the pro-Western royal family was massacred in 1958 and replaced by an anti-Western secular dictator, followed by a somewhat pro-Western dictator. The temporary pro-Western attitude of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein led to his invasion of Kuwait, the U.S.-led expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, and twelve years later the second American invasion of Iraq, the execution of Saddam, the democratization of Iraq, and the hasty decamping of the U.S. Sixty percent of Iraqis effectively became quasi-Iranians, 20 percent (Kurds) seceded, and the rest is being fought over by Iran and ISIS.

In Iran, the pro-Western shah of Iran was brought back from exile by Eisenhower in 1953, then partially ousted by Carter in 1979, and then replaced by a rabidly anti-American theocracy. American policy has thus caused the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of a virulently hostile Iran, a stronger and more malignantly aggressive force in the region than it has been since before the arrival there of Alexander the Great (fourth century, B.C.). 

Syria, always hostile, is now a bloodbath, where the U.S. has a so-far losing ticket between a Russo-Iranian alliance behind Assad and the onslaught of ISIS.

Yemen and Libya, long stable secular despotisms, are now hopeless slaughtering grounds like Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, formerly a staunch Western ally, is playing footsie with the aggressive Arabs and Iranians, squabbling with the Russians, and making common cause with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and ISIS against Assad. If there were any leadership in NATO, Turkey would be expelled from it, but since NATO doesn’t really represent anything at the moment, that might not achieve much, even if there were some leadership there — apart from the French, who have been inspiring. ISIS staged terrorist attacks in Paris, and France is trying to round up a common front against ISIS on the ground in Syria and Iraq: Russia is enthused after ISIS shot down a Russian airliner over Egypt; Britain and Germany will render some assistance; and Obama and Kerry, as is their habit, are waffling. Thus, NATO is informally fragmented and its traditional allies are so exasperated by American inconstancy that the Triple Entente of a century ago — France, Russia, and Great Britain — is threatening to come determinedly, if modestly, back to life.

It is understandable that Americans don’t want any more involvement in the quagmire of the Middle East but it is not as simple as that.

Egypt has gone from ally to enemy to ally, and was estranged and is now confused, following the miraculous defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian government, like the Saudis, cannot rely on America. A prominent Saudi diplomat recently told an American friend that he had always assumed the Americans would abandon the moderate Arabs, but thought they could be relied upon to support Israel. “I never thought they would put Israel over the side too.”

Israel is a success story, except that relations between Israel and the U.S. are poor and the Obama administration blames Israel almost exclusively for the failure to solve the Palestinian issue, although the Palestinians have not honored any of what they undertook in the Oslo Accords of 1994 and do not accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Obama seems determined to set up a Palestinian state, but if he does, it will not be a solution and will not bring peace. Israel is helping to stabilize Jordan, and Lebanon is hanging on with great internal tensions; and there are huge numbers of desperate refugees in and around most of these countries. American opinion seems not to want to admit any refugees, although the United States has done as much as any country to create the refugee problem, and despite President Obama’s commendably generous impulses (though this may be an adjunct to his approach to the Hispanic-immigration issue).

It is understandable that Americans don’t want any more involvement in the quagmire of the Middle East but it is not as simple as that. No one can discern any consistent American self-interest in its long-term Middle Eastern policy. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger — and, up to a point, George H. W. Bush and James Baker — seem to have been the only American policymakers who really knew what they were doing there since Jefferson (who shot up the North African pirates and negotiated a free-trade agreement with Morocco). There is now an unprecedented danger in the Middle East of nuclear weapons’ getting into the hands of outright terrorists. There is certainly a legitimate U.S. national interest in the Middle East, and it has to be defined and protected, not just abandoned.


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