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Obama's Three Hard Choices in the Middle East

By Charles Naas (source: LobeLog)

The first steps in righting US policy and actions in the Middle East are recognition and acceptance of what we have wrought and what we can or cannot do to alter the current political realities. Clarity is required above all.

The first Gulf war in 1990 led by President H.W. Bush made strategic and economic sense. Saddam Hussein apparently aimed to exert decisive control over Arab oil production and policy and was perfectly prepared to destroy fellow Arab states in the Persian Gulf as he started to do in Kuwait. The president was able to pull together one of the most effective military and politically diverse alliances imaginable. The participants shared the cause, and his long-time friendship with regional leaders and personal integrity were essential in drawing together such a mixed alliance. Although he left some anti-Hussein Iraqi elements in the lurch, he promptly got out and brought the troops home. He maintained his basic aims of inflicting serious loss on Iraqi forces and driving them back to Iraq. He firmly resisted the urging of many to fight on to Baghdad and try to overthrow Saddam.

The second Gulf war was politically an abomination-organized on fallacious (to be polite) reasoning, hubris, and ignorance of the history, feelings, and policies of the peoples of the region. The decision received little support from the area’s leaders and lit the flame of Arab sectarianism that had been simmering since the Iranian revolution. Iran had suffered hugely in its eight-year war with Iraq and was determined to see a formation of a Shi’a government in Iraq. Iranian-organized Iraqi militia prominently opposed US and Sunni forces. We have deplored and resented the actions of these militias, but it would be a step toward clarity of thinking to ask whether Iran or the US has the most to gain or lose from developments in Iraq? Which one has a long border with Iraq? Which country was leading an active policy of economic sanctions and keeping Iran in a sort of purgatory?

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) caught our intelligence agencies and think tanks off guard and we have been playing catch-up but without fresh thinking. We had been quite comfortable with the very informal alliance of Israel and the Arab monarchies. The latter had resigned themselves to accepting the facts of Israel’s survival for the present and turned to their own fears of Iran and issues of domestic unrest that by and large they have handled with force against religious and ethnic minorities. We sold the most modern arms to Arab states and they kept-with the one exception-the petroleum flowing. This bargain aided our arms industry above all.

The US can offer little to resolve the sectarian divisions that are 14 centuries old. We have no role in the struggle within Islam over Quranic or Hadith interpretations and which of the four main legal systems is appropriate. It is up to the Sunni leadership and that of the several Shi’a strains of Islam to find the paths of mutual respect and acceptance. But these issues may never be resolved, at least not in our lifetime. We simply must learn to live with these differences as best we can except when the results are the creation of many terrorist factions that may pose a limited threat to us.

Obama’s Gambit

President Obama from the very beginning of his first term made clear that he believed that planned withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan were in our long-term interests. This judgment has had the natural result that regional countries pay less attention to our policies and turn more and more to their own concerns. Yet they turn to us for the continuation of aid and political backing that they now consider their due. The administration-in particular the National Security Council-has reacted feebly to the major changes that have altered the politics and in due course the maps of the area when the Sykes-Pico decisions are buried for good or ill. Except for the marathon negotiations with Iran and Secretary Kerry’s travels we hear little about the possible recommendations or activities of the State Department.

Does the Policy Planning Staff still exist? Relations with the NSC, State, and the various intelligence agencies seem moribund. Are we thinking about what the map of the area may look like in a decade or more and how the United Nations can help get us through the crisis?

Particularly worrisome is that the so-called allies of yore have ill served us-or themselves- and are refusing to recognize the threat to their very existence posed by IS and others such as al-Nusra. There is no evidence that the NSC or Policy Planning Staff have been encouraged to think outside the box in dealing with our allies. Did anyone suggest that when the Israeli ambassador plotted with the Speaker of the House to invite Netanyahu to lecture us and embarrass the president that the ambassador be declared persona non grata and that a high official declare at the same time that we are committed to Israeli security but not that of the Likud. Israel contemptuously ignores us vis a vis settlements and Gaza. Turn-about is fair play and would have been dramatic evidence of increasing irritation and of a new sheriff in town.

A New Middle East Alignment

Why did we promise the Saudis intelligence information to abet their bombing in Yemen? It was clear to all that the bombing arose from a misplaced Saudi belief that they were engaged in a struggle with an important Iranian proxy. The result is chaos in yet another Islamic country, widespread civilian losses, the destruction of unique and cherished infrastructure, and the unleashing of al-Qaeda in Yemen. We should have made clear to the Saudis and Emirates that IS and al-Qaeda-Yemen are their and our principle enemies and that their continued provision of money and recruits to extremist groups is unacceptable.

Turkey is a special case. The usually pragmatic Turkish leaders have been infected with a bad case of Ottomanism and the glories of the empire centuries ago and is helping IS further strengthen itself via open borders. Practically all new recruits from the US, Europe, and Asia get to IS-controlled territory via Turkey. It’s time to let Erdogan know that the NATO partners expect cooperation against the common scourge or that we shall urgently restudy our ties with his country.

It is time to stop kidding ourselves that the overthrow of Assad will be a significant development. More likely is the continuation of a bloody struggle between the various factions that control some bits of territory in that country. The current turmoil in Syria will in due course reconcile itself, and a no-Assad Syria may be no improvement to our geopolitical needs. Forget the training and arming of the so-called Syrian “moderates.” The UN effort to bring about a modicum of national understanding, although unsuccessful so far, is worth continuing. The possible waste of some diplomats’ time is an acceptable cost.

Iran may be of help in Iraq and Syria. There is a similarity of immediate interests, if we can escape from the so-far successful campaign to belabor Iran about its alleged involvement in terrorism and terrible human rights policy. We continue to deplore its government’s actions and past history, especially with the Iranian-created militia in Iraq. We continue to deeply resent the hostage-taking. They in turn still resent the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh, the assassinations of their nuclear scientists, severe economic sanctions, and cyber warfare directed against their nuclear facilities. It is crucial that we let previous quarrels lie dormant and concentrate on current threats to the interests of both.

In sum, it is time to face a new Middle East alignment as painful as that might be and stop dithering. The fight against IS will likely require at some point substantial ground forces along with ramped-up air power. The US faces roughly three strategic choices, each with variations.

Three Difficult Choices

We can continue the current military program of aid and training to Iraqi forces, with adjustments now and then like the president’s recent decision to send 450 more trainers. A variation to this choice is to place spotters for our aircraft up front with Iraqi units and to add Special Forces with these Iraqi formations. Iraqi troops have so far proven unable to expel IS from key Iraqi cities and territory. Even with success, we and they would still need to consider the IS positions in Syria and the other religious and historical factors tearing the region apart.

Or we could ignore the popular national weariness with Middle East conflict and the very complex nature of the chaos. With the support of a hawkish Congress, we could send several American divisions back into the cauldron to try again to find the magic answer to regional stability that has eluded us so far.

Finally, the regional states have been playing a game of chicken with us about who will fight this civil war of religious sectarianism for them. So far we have accepted, in part only, their apparent belief that the president will not be able to bear the sight of IS successes and not send major US forces. It may be the time to accept the old advice, to fish or cut bait and to stress with them that their future is more directly impacted than our’s and that full participation, including their ground forces, is expected. Otherwise, we shall start again the process the President enunciated years ago on US withdrawal.

Is the present NSC ready to look beyond the domestic travail of new proposals that push the envelope of current truisms and think creatively about how best to use our assets to safeguard our interests? Is the NSC structure as presently constituted able to do this? I am not optimistic. How many staff members have had extensive experience on the ground in the Middle East?

The administration now seems tired and rightly so with the great divisions of opinion on how the country’s domestic and foreign policies can best serve our nation. I too am sorely divided. I am dubious about the present administration’s ability to cope with our foreign challenges but fear what the next administration might look like. Its long learning process might contribute to a further deterioration in the security environment in the Middle East.

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About the Author

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.


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