From the Sublime to the Profane: American Blunders in the Middle East

In remarks by ambassador (ret.) Charles W Freeman, author of America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East published on on June 13, 2016, he talks about the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and how “so much has gone wrong that it is hard to be either brief or optimistic.”
Ambassador Freeman goes through what america keeps getting wrong in the Middle East in eight blunders.

Blunder #1: 1991 The failure to translate military triumph over Saddam into a peace with Baghdad, the US translated UN resolution 687 into a military vision of imposing new balance of power but no diplomatic plan for peace.

Blunder #2: 1993-2003 The abandonment of long standing minimal intervention Persian gulf policy of balance of power with a more direct and expensive “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran. This led eventually to the destabilization of Iraq and Syria and the rise of ISIS.

Blunder #3: 2001 The unthoughtful expansion of mission in Afghanistan from limited expedition into a long term pacification campaign to prevent an Islamist government in Kabul, the direct and expanded involvement produced Islamist backlash.

Blunder #4: 2002 The introduction of drone warfare into Afghanistan. The high casualties and robotic nature of drone attacks led to the spread of backlash into many more countries.

Blunder #5: 2003 The implicit aid to Iran in invading Iraq which helped expand Iran’s regional sphere of influence, devalued the US military power and set off a sectarian struggle whose disastrous consequences are plain to see by all but its policy makers.

Blunder #6: Current, The focus on religion as the cause of protest when it is only the means of expressing deep rooted political grievances.

Blunder #7: 1973 The policy of maintaining Israeli qualitative military edge over its neighbors, leads naturally to “the so-called “peace process” would always be stillborn.” The US direct military guarantee leads to political confidence since (the argument behind any political argument is war!).

Blunder #8: Current, political decisions based on ideology and stereotyping rather than verified information.

Ambassador Freeman then compares between the U.S. early strategy in Afghanistan and the Russian present policy in Syria. Both used modest proportion of military resources to tip existing balance of power and achieved stable victories with allies in control, but the US expanded its mission to exclude Taliban. Most Taliban are Pashtun, who constitute the largest ethnicity in Afghanistan. The initial stable victory of the US and its allies turned into instability and the backlash to strength for Taliban.

The remarks so far seem to me like correct diagnosis to a complex world problem, they leave no doubt as to who made the political calculation and who called the shots. Ambassador Freeman was very perceptive when he remarked that the “blunders have been compounded by the consistent substitution of military tactics for strategy”. Strategies are long term goals, tactics are short term military campaigns “that aim at no defined political end state (and) are violence for the sake of violence that demonstrably create more problems than they solve. As a cyberneticist, I am tempted to find a common thread that goes deeper than this remark.

No outsider can blame a leader for selecting short term gains over long term strategies, specially in a democracy where the election cycle is 4-5 years. However, when the leader is the president of the only superpower in the world the contrast takes a special meaning. The choice poses the question: Is the policy in the narrow interest of the U.S. or supporting the wide collective interest of world order? There is no wrong answer here but the continuation of narrow interest policy is an abandonment of superpower status, notwithstanding the large margin of U.S. defense spending over the rest of the world.

The long term wide option may not describe a policy of open handed generosity as the presumptive republican presidential nominee would like to illustrate; Trump wants to ask U.S. allies to pay protection money to the U.S. In reality, asking for protection money is an abandonment of leadership because the client states will have the choice of paying different states, which may be closer and more focused on the needs of the clients.

The policy contrast is not based only on scope; wide vs. narrow. The contrast is of the response to perceived instabilities and how to deal with them. Dealing with world flash points and instabilities poses an important question: Should the instabilities be dealt with locally or globally? The question is important because it relates directly to cost; who pays for stabilizing a situation, the U.S. or some regional beneficiaries?

The common thread I saw in all the blunders is a clear U.S. preference of wanting to go it alone in the beginning, and when the costs show up and mount, to look for allies to dump the losing venture on. The option of creating a self regulating system does not seem to be considered; the practice of opposition exclusion was followed in Afghanistan with Taliban and in Iraq with the Baathists. The argument to justify the exclusions is well known and rely on the position of the U.S. allies but ignores to account for the wishes of the principal actor, it is as if the U.S. is being led by very minor partners, really led, guided and made to bat for aspiring dictators. The cost of direct intervention seems to be ignored until the train leaves the station; in 2003 Russia and France proposed to let the U.N. run the elections in Iraq, this would have reduced outside intervention, created confidence and started a reliable self regulating political system. Yet, the U.S. refused the Russo-French overture.

All the blunders and remarks rang true and sublime in my mind, so where is the profane? I started feeling uneasy when I read the recommendation of Ambassador Freeman regarding sharing influence; particularly his call to Saudi Arabia to cooperate with Arab Shiites who see themselves different from conservative Iranians. Apart from practical attitudes, the Saudis are not known for Arab nationalism, an appeal based on Arabism will seem so artificial. President Obama had visited Saudi Arabia recently and invited the Saudis to “Share Influence” with Iran instead of confrontation, the media reported cool reception to the president. My unease was also because the President and Ambassador Freeman were preaching change to local attitudes when all the remarks point to U.S. policy as the cause. It is understandable that the Ambassador in his role as an adviser to the administration would limit his advise to actionable steps near the end of President Obama’s mandate, yet to bring an advice for Saudi action in the context of U.S. blunders seems odd to me. However, odd is not profane so the question remains.

Inviting the Saudis to share influence over the Middle East creates a piercing question: How to share, or based on what principle? Iran is a theocracy, Saudi Arabia is built on an alliance with Salafi Wahabism, the obvious answer is: Share according to your sect. This principle when proposed by the secular U.S. is shameful. It seems like a blaring demonstration of the U.S. being led by less principled allies, the U.S. is batting for sectarianism and compounding the mistake of turning Iraq into a sectarian state by expanding the experience to the whole region.

It is profane for the U.S. to adopt sectarian divisions in Afghanistan and the Middle East when all governments in recent history were secular.

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