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Mission Impossible in the Middle East

We all know from personal experience how difficult it is to burn the candle at both ends when we’re trying to satisfy two people who are at odds with one another.  Yet that is exactly what Washington is now trying to do with the Turks and the Saudis, two security partners in the war on ISIS, both with authoritarian governments.

Relations with Turkey now require that Washington placate a leader, Recep Tayyif Erdogan, who has just survived a military coup attempt and is now resuming a crackdown on political opponents.  Unfortunately for the US, those opponents include the Kurds, who are also (and very effectively) fighting ISIS.  By providing air support for the just-launched Turk offensive against ISIS positions in the border area with Syria, the US must somehow restrain the Kurds who are fighting in that same area.  Clearly, Turkish forces are just as determined to diminish the Kurds as they are to defeat ISIS, for Turkish leaders know that the Kurds’ quest for greater autonomy, if not outright independence, for all their people—in Syria, in Iraq, and in Turkey—is the Kurdish end game.  The US, in the Nixon-Kissinger era, has stifled that quest once before, and by every indication Washington remains opposed to Kurdish independence.

Meantime, the US is guilty of complicity with Saudi Arabia in the horrific civil war raging in Yemen.  US intelligence, bombs, and equipment are critical to the Saudis’ devastating air campaign that, according to a just-released report by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has killed at least 3,800 civilians, wounded over 6,700, forced a tenth of the population to flee their homes, and destroyed many nonmilitary structures such as hospitals and schools.  The US has long been a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, notwithstanding that regime’s protection and promotion of Wahhabism, an extremist form of Islam that fuels jihadist violence around the world.

Here is “crackpot realism” (in C. Wright Mills’ phrase) at its worst: the Obama administration, determined to buy back the Saudis’ affection after concluding a nuclear deal with Iran that they strongly oppose, abets relentless bombing of civilian targets in Yemen.  (The UNHCHR report cited above called for investigating possible war crimes there.)  As with Turkey, US leaders seem to feel compelled to apologize, look the other way, and pay something for doing the right thing—supporting the Kurds and engaging the Iranians.

In an editorial on “the exasperating complexity of Washington’s foreign policy” (whew!), the New York Times explains how the US is caught between placating Turkey, “an important NATO ally” and “a repository for allied nuclear weapons,” and maintaining good ties with the Kurds.  The editorial sides with Vice President Joe Biden who, in visiting Turkey, opted for trying to conciliate—he reportedly apologized for not arriving sooner—rather than saying “what most American officials really think.”  And what do these officials supposedly think?  That the Erdogan government deserves condemnation for using the coup attempt as a basis for further repression, and for arousing suspicion of that the US supported a coup.  The Times concludes that realism, meaning Turkey’s strategic importance, trumps (sorry) concerns about human rights and humane governance.

In Turkey and Saudi Arabia we have two grossly undemocratic regimes whose leaders have learned the fine art of manipulating US foreign policy priorities to serve their own interests and keep autocrats in power.  It’s an old story. US leaders, on the other hand, never seem to learn—or, if they are clear-eyed, seem unable and unwilling to break with the past.  These are embarrassing relationships that contradict professed American values and undermine international partnerships.  Worst of all, they are extremely costly to innocent people caught up in their countries’ war machines.  As the head of the UNHCHR said regarding Yemen, the international community has “a legal and moral duty to take urgent steps to alleviate the appalling levels of human despair.”

We might as well call US policy in these cases for what it is: appeasement.  And appeasement, which is what happens when you try to burn the candle at both ends, never works; the appeased party is never appeased.  We can expect the Turks to keep demanding the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gulen and containment of the Kurds; and we can expect the Saudis to keep demanding US assistance in their Yemen bombing campaign and deeper involvement in Syria in order to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.  Both will want increased “rent” from the US—money and weapons—in return for their support of US policy.  They know, just by looking at the shape of US politics, that nobody of consequence is going to say “no.”

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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