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American actions in the greater Middle East over the past decade pose a unique challenge to the analyst. Understanding the thinking that goes into a particular policy decision or the calculations that lie behind a diplomatic strategy is always hard in Washington where the process normally is prolix and the cast of characters exceeds that of a Russian novel. Still, we presume that a certain logic is at work – whether or not the outside observer agrees with its aims or premises. That reasonable surmise is of doubtful validity when it comes to the Obama administration. Under the President’s predecessor, concealment and duplicity were routine. But the Bush people did know want they wanted and thought they had figured out how to get it. Today, ends are obscure, means ad hoc and the ends-means connections indecipherable.
So it has been in Afghanistan where we don’t even know what the White House judges our interests to be or what constitutes a satisfactory outcome. So, too, in Egypt where the official attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood government fluctuated like the Dow Jones average until December when Washington decided to throw its full support to the Brothers, in the wake of Mr. Mursi’s mediation in Gaza. Now we have locked him in a smothering embrace no matter what – even as the “what” involves many unsavory actions pointing to the imposition of an Islamic state on a fractured society. (Where 62% of the population disapproves of U.S. actions – 17% approve). In Mali, we were treated to the odd syncopation of the-sky-is-falling cries of alarm over the Islamist insurgents’ advances across the Sahel with a blank refusal as much as to lend a hand to the French when they stepped in to sort things out. On Palestine, periodic rhetorical pledges from the White House to re-launch the “peace process” from its deep slumber in the interest of regional stability are quickly aborted by moves in the opposite direction. The White House already has admitted that on this week’s visit Obama will not press for a new beginning since the Israelis are not “ready” for one.
On democracy promotion, the supposed cornerstone for a reborn Middle East, we apply the principle on a purely pragmatic basis – making selective decisions where and when to apply it. ‘Yes’ in Syria, Libya, Tunisia; ‘sort of’ in Egypt; ‘no’ in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine. This attitude may make realpolitik sense. But our simultaneous insistence that we are the fountainhead of political virtue across the regime makes us look like hypocrites and undermines our credibility. Iraq, of course, is a tragic tale of its our despite out continuing to insist officially that the verdict as TBA. (There, 60% – versus 20% – disapprove of the U.S.) As for any strategic design among these disparate policies in this critical region, searching for one is as fruitful as hunting for the Ark of the Covenant in the pile of Kim Kardashian’s baby shower presents. It does not exist.
All of these pieces in the puzzle that is the United States’ position in the Middle East pale, though, when placed alongside our latest initiatives in regard to Syria. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it has begun to take measures aimed at getting on top of the problem. Did that mean a decision finally had been made to provide arms to the insurgents whose cause against the Assad regime we back? No – we’re not ready for that. For to do so could intensify the combat and – worse – lead to weapons like antitank and anti-aircraft weapons falling into the hands of our enemies. So we are told. Those enemies include some of the jihadist groups, especially al-Nusra, who are spearheading the fight, or al-Qaida or other could-be terrorists. Instead, Washington is straining to contain the spillover effects on Iraq. There, the revival of the sectarian conflict between the Shi’ite controlled government of Prime Minister Maliki and increasingly disaffected Sunnis threatens to tear the country apart. Those Sunnis show signs of entering into a mutual assistance partnership with fellow Sunnis in Syria who are the opposition. Mr. Maliki supports Assad’s government dominated by Alawites (a Shi’ite offshoot). Baghdad has been trans-shipping aid from Iran (our enemy number 1, or number 2 if you count al-Qaida) to Assad. The new wrinkle is that battered elements of the Syrian army who sought refuge in Iraq are being killed by Iraq’s local Sunni rebels.
Complicated? For sure. Washington’s response? Dice the situation into small pieces and deal with each separately – even if we thereby work at cross-purposes with ourselves. Hence, the CIA plans a fresh round of training for Maliki’s secret police and counter-terrorism units so that they might more effectively suppress the Sunni rebels in Iraq – that is, the people who have been attacking Assad’s forces (the enemy in Syria) to help the Sunni insurgency there (our friends in Syria – for the most part). In addition, we are going to expand training of Jordan’s special forces (Sunni) so as to contain the radical Islamists operating in Syria – despite the awkward fact that al-Nusra et. al. have no connection to Jordan. We also want those special forces to seize Assad’s chemical weapons if and when his government collapses –beating the “bad” Syrian Sunnis to them. To cap this dissonance, the CIA is collecting information on Islamist radicals in Syria – al-Nusra + – it may target for lethal drone strikes. “Surgical” drone strikes in the midst of urban warfare with no mistaken identities or collateral damage – of course.
Make sense? To someone in the White House it does – presumably. As for us mere mortals not privy to the Higher Wisdom who must rely on logic alone….well….
This story about the CIA’s comeback in Iraq is vintage Obama in the Middle East. That is to say: too clever by half – as the Brits say; more hopeful than thoughtful; enamored of secret ops; and one dimensional in its perspective. The underlying notion that the U.S. can manipulate the singularly complex, multi-player game in Syria by maneuvers around the margins orchestrated at a distance from Washington is pure fantasy. The further notion that we can weaken al-Nusra via Iraq and Jordan has no foundation in local realities. The Jordanian focused link between Assad’s chemical weapons and al-Nusra, cited in the same dispatch, evinces how superficial and hodge-podge Washington’s latest strategic brainstorm is.
As to the alleged value of CIA training of Iraq’s crack anti-terrorism forces, it should be taken with several pounds of salt. After all, we’ve been training these people for a decade already, starting with the legendary David Petraeus himself – and the recent rise in al-Qaida activity is sobering. Moreover, what do our grand strategists in D.C. think the long-term effect will be on our position in post-Assad Syria (and elsewhere in the Sunni world) when we join hands figuratively with Iran in bolstering Shia efforts to weaken the most effective insurgent force among the opposition – even as we drag our feet in getting effective assistance to any of the Sunni insurgents?
There is one further, major point to bear in mind. By failing to give priority to bringing the Syrian civil war to an end as quickly as possible, and instead playing these clever games whose net effect (if any) will be to prolong it, we are undermining our own key interests. For one thing seems pretty sure: the longer it goes on, the greater will be the relative strength of al- Nusra and other radical Islamist elements among the insurgents.
Comfort and reassurance? Didn’t someone say recently that “with faith anything is possible?”
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.