Obama and the Iraqi Gordian Knot

We all are acutely aware that Washington is in a serious jam because of the mounting threat to the Baghdad regime amidst signs of military and political unraveling.  The United States is reaping the whirlwind from its twelve years of reckless “War On Terror” in the Middle East.  The disastrous Iraqi invasion/intervention is the direct cause.  Strategically incoherent and disjointed American actions elsewhere are also essential parts of the story.  For there has been no systemic logic guiding policies from place to place, from issue to issue.  Yet the intersection and overlap of developments are the hallmark of the region’s politics.  In short, we have not been up to the task intellectually or diplomatically.  Moreover, our leaders have indulged their own parochial interests and the escapist mentality of the public by refusing to face squarely either the error of our ways or the contradictory nature of our objectives.

Today, we are confounded by unanticipated events that leave us uncomprehending and at a loss as what to do.  President Obama’s vague remarks issued daily only confirm the impression of disorientation.  The nub of the problem is that the United States has multiple enemies and faces multiple threats to its interests in the Middle East.  Each possible course of action for dealing with one of them has implications for the others.  Moreover, any policy remedy for problem ‘A’ is counter indicated for problem ‘B’ or ‘C.’  Those contradictions have become manifest.  Aid the Syrian opposition in order to unseat President Assad in Syria (problem ‘A’) and you cannot avoid strengthening radical jihadi groups (problem ‘B’) who are fighting Assad’s regime.  Even if aid is funneled to more secular or moderate Islamist elements, the outcome will be to the advantage of the radical jihadis (they may also seize the arms that you send).  Yet, acceding to a Syrian agreement that reserves a continuing place for the Assad forces would add to the status and prestige of its ally Iran (problem ‘C’).  That reorientation would have the further adverse effect of deepening the alienation of Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf principalities by strengthening their arch enemy, Iran, and its partners (Assad and Hezbullah).  To assuage the Saudis et al, Washington has reaffirmed its commitment to maintain a strong military presence in the Gulf.  But the Obama administration’s repeated declarations that the era of American wars in the Middle East is over (made partly with an eye on American public opinion) trails doubts as to the credibility of those stated commitments.

As to Iran, Washington is concentrating on hammering out a nuclear deal with Tehran that meets its stringent terms for denying the IRI a nuclear weapons potential now or in the future.  It assiduously has declined to put on the table other possible aspects of a wider political relationship with Iran – beyond a gradual lifting of economic sanctions and a deliberate normalization of diplomatic relations.  This bifurcation of the approach toward Iran has two sources.  One is a desire not to distress the House of Saud by feeding suspicions that Washington may abandon them for a new partner in the region.  The second is the entrenched conviction in the Obama administration that the current Iranian leadership will remain hostile to the United States.  That means that it should be treated warily as an unfriendly power if not an enemy.

Now there is the unraveling of Iraq.  The appearance of ISIS (an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia that now has broken with the original al-Qaeda leadership) as a powerful force in both Syria and Iraq has exacerbated uncertainty and aggravated threats.  Dedicated to spreading an ultra doctrine of anti-Western and anti-secular salafism, it is the embodiment of America’s foremost perceived threat: Islamic terrorism.  If Washington prioritizes that threat, and that enemy, every other interest should be subordinate to it.  Does that imply, though, joining forces with ISIS’ enemies in accord with the classic realist proposition that my enemy’s enemy is my friend (or ally)?  The shi’ite dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad does not pose a direct problem in this respect insofar as it is a creature of the American occupation and Washington is committed to defend it as the legitimate authority in Iraq.  However, Maliki is a tacit member of the political coalition that includes Iran, Assad in Syria, and Hezbullah.  His oppression of Iraq’s sunnis has cast him as one of the evil-doers in the minds of the salafist groups and as an opponent by the Saudis.  As the contests across the region take on darker and darker tones of an all-out sectarian war, the United States finds itself in a position whereby any expression of support for a given party is taken as a sign that it is choosing sides.  Consequently, coming to Maliki’s aid – and more surely seeking an accommodation with Assad in Syria costs the US among most Sunnis.  Military action directed at the ISIS, as is under consideration by the White House, would infuriate Sunni public opinion – especially in Iraq – and thereby raise the odds against some sort of modus vivendi being reached among the Iraqi sectarian factions.  Movement in that direction, though, is a stated precondition for the provision of military assistance.

The Sunni tribes of Anbar and Diyala have struggled with their own challenge of prioritizing multiple threats.  Since 2003, they have fought three enemies in overlapping phases: the occupying American forces, al-Qaeda militants, and the oppressive Shi’ite government in Baghdad.  Their “preferred enemy” was the United States between 2003 and 2006-07.  At the time of the shawah movement from 2007–2010 when they entered into a tacit coalition with the United States (facilitated by heavy cash payments) to counter the al-Qaeda militants’ encroachment on their tribal authority, and most recently the Maliki regime that reneged on premises to continue the arrangement and instead  systematically sought to reduce the Sunnis to second class status.  Today, they largely have abandoned the government – either entering into tactical alliances with ISIS or remaining neutral.

Then there is Iran.  Circumstances have produced a convergence of the primary American interest (suppressing the violent jihadists) and the primary Iranian interest (securing their theocracy against threats from a coalition of Sunni forces).  Revolutionary Guard officers already have visited Baghdad to talk about contingency plans  for the provision of direct military existence to the Maliki government – although there is no evidence to support rumors of elite Iranian units (Quds battalions) crossing the border to stem the ISIS offensive.  Objectively speaking, conditions point to some form of tacit collaboration between Tehran and Washington – politically and perhaps militarily on the ground in Iraq.  However, that suggests a diplomatic relationship which not only does not exist but which Washington has to date refused to contemplate even in the abstract.  Of course, the Iranian leadership confronts the same contradictions as it contemplates the ominous situation in Iraq.  It, too, must prioritize interests and make painful trade-offs in a situation where it perceives multiple enemies and multiple threats.*

The same could be said for the House of Saud.  They invested heavily in the Islamist opposition to Assad.  They funded and supplied al-Nasr among other groups.   That behavior conforms to a long-standing policy of promoting Islamic fundamentalism so as to secure its legitimation from any Islamist elements that might seek to undermine their legitimacy – in Saudi Arabia and in the Islamic world.  No enemies on the fundamentalist end of the Islamist continuum.  They persevered in that strategy even when Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda emerged as a mortal threat from the Saudi backed mujahedeen in Afghanistan.  The malignant mutation in Syria and now Iraq endangers them.  Yet they have no surrogate in the game this time to represent their interests.  The US? Maliki? Assad? The Iranians?  Life is tough all over.

Recently, there have been slight signs that the Saudi leadership has recoiled from its over-commitment in Syria and, indeed, is giving some thought to exploring a modus vivendi with Tehran.  Logically, that could represent a “third way” between the confrontation stance it has followed (and urged on Washington) and waiting in dread to see whether a possible US-Iran partial reconciliation might impend.  Such an agonizing strategic reappraisal is even harder for the Saudis than for American leaders.

One can argue that objective circumstances have pointed to this line of thinking as serving the best interests of all parties for some years now. Washington itself could have reached this conclusion and invested far more intellectual and diplomatic energy in encouraging the Saudis to reconceptualize their strategic perspective accordingly.  Rather, we have concentrated on gestures to assuage Saudi fears.  One reason, of course, is that our urging a modus vivendi depended on our own readiness also to pursue a more cordial relationship with the IRI which domestic political circumstances and impoverished strategic thinking in the Obama administration militated against. In addition, we never seem to have understood how powerful the sectarian/historical dimension of the Saudi led Sunni vs Persian led Shi’ite sectarian rivalry is in reinforcing the power competition. By siding with the Saudis et al on the latter, we were encouraging indirectly the former. Iraq redux insofar as the basics of the Islamic world are concerned.

We should be cautious about ascribing too much to the American role in inflecting Saudi attitudes – if in fact a meaningful shift has occurred, which we certainly don’t know for sure.  Yes, the Saudi have suffered a prolonged bout of nerves over the past three years.  That makes them sensitive to the atmospherics.  In truth, though, nothing of consequence has changed in American policy over this period.  We never were ready to bomb Iran back to the Neolithic Age because the Saudis ran out of valium; and we never were inclined to lower markedly either our assessment of interest or risk in the region.  That “pivot” business was just sloganeering as every knowledgeable observer knew from the moment it was broached by the White House/State public relations machines.

Faced with this paradoxical dilemma, the United States has one advantage compared to the regional players.  It has far greater latitude in defining and weighing its stakes.  There are no vital American interests at stake – most certainly not the country’s security and regime stability.  Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been grounded on an expansive conception of national interest.  In the post-Cold War era, it has been an integral, important part of a grand strategy that aimed at the fostering of a sort of benign hegemony.  That is to say, a set of institutions and arrangements that embraced most of the world, protected against any rogue forces by overwhelming American military force (as expressed in “full spectrum dominance.”)  In the Middle East, our goals expanded correspondingly: isolate and contain both Iraq and Iran, secure Israel by weaving a web of mutually interested conservative regimes that included Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and – later – Fatah’s tame Palestinian Authority itself.  Turkey was a tacit member.

In the wake of 9/11, goals became more audacious: suppress radical jihadist Islam everywhere, crush Saddam’s Iraq, promote democracy (except in the Gulf states) with a liberated Iraq serving as the pole of attraction, coerce of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and encourage the forces of globalization to do their benign work.  Of course, the plan was full of contradictions from Day One.  Its keystone, a remade Iraq, was pure fancy whose pursuit has produced catastrophic waves of instability.  Yet, despite tactical defeats and manifestly noncompliant local players, Washington under two successive presidents has refused to revise its strategy’s underlying premise.  Above all, the practical objectives of securing Israel and maintaining access to the region’s energy resources, were overlaid with grander ambitions.  The War On Terror itself quickly was transformed from an intelligence cum police operation into an all-embracing program to remake the Islamic world so as to reduce future threats of that kind to zero.  A national culture that had little tolerance for uncertainty had difficulty abiding anything less.  A native optimism elided the obvious obstacles.  And a political leadership whose hallmarks were evasion of both the world’s hard truths and honesty at home shed inhibition about reaching for the impossible.

A sober recognition of the limitations on the extent to which the United States can influence the outcomes of internal politics should be a central element in our foreign policy thinking. The overwhelming evidence of the past twelve years highlights the heavy penalties that the United States pays by acting on the sanguine belief that it is within our power to shape the affairs of other societies.

Now the web of illusion has been shredded.  So the prime requisite for the grueling task of figuring out the least costly and least dangerous ways to cope with current realities is to admit the fatal flaws of past thinking and, thereby, to clear the ground for a modest strategic construction that conforms to a realistic assessment of American interests based on a sober appreciation of regional realities.  To move forward with deliberation, America’s political class first should take an unsparing look backwards and then look in the mirror.  This self exorcism is long overdue.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

*In Washington’s perspective, the absolute security priority in the Middle East is eliminating any risk of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Reports indicate that the prevailing line of thinking within the White House is that the United States must achieve what amounts to a hermetically sealed containment vessel around all Iranian facilities that could play any role, now or in the foreseeable future, in a weapons program.  That includes all projects dealing with systems that conceivably could carry a nuclear arm even if designed for conventional explosives.  In thereby tightening the screws, Obama may well be sounding the death knell for these negotiations and foreclosing a possible reconfiguration of security arrangements in the Gulf.

That is why it is imperative that President Obama shake off his typical diffidence and seize control of the issue directly. He must resist the pressure to take an unbending stance, and he must do so by forcefully arguing the case for an accord that serves American interests along with Iranian ones – and that thereby serves the cause of stability in a highly flammable Middle East. Unless he does so, he likely will find himself back in the box where he placed himself before the Rouhani initiative opened a diplomatic path out of it. For were the talks to fail, he would be hoisted on the petard of his own rhetoric that has painted the Iranians in vivid colors as an ominous threat while keeping ostentatiously on the table the military option.  That is the position he had been pushed into by his long deference to advisers, Israel and the Congressional hawks for whom co-existence with the IRI is not a goal.



Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.