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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.1 (Winter 2016)
Cuddling Up With a Hornet’s Nest: America’s Nonsensical Middle Eastern Policies
Editor and Contributors
Iraq, Iran, Syria… the Saudis, the Kurds, the refugees… Assad, Erdogan, Putin… neither major party in the US can assemble this puzzle’s pieces with our nonsensical Middle Eastern policies.
Several conversations (usually via email) with friends, contributors, and well-wishers have emboldened me to draw together a rather skeletal series of observations and propositions regarding the current crisis (or crises—for one seems to engender another) in the Middle East. The Center, as a 501©3 organization, does not endorse candidates or political parties. It is certainly no one’s intent to violate that trust here, and you will not even find anything so presumptuous as a policy recommendation. Yet the sad irony is that no such advocacy would emerge if we indeed did follow a few sensibly, explicitly stated the realities to their logical conclusion, for no candidate of either major party (with one or two possible exceptions—it’s hard to tell) seems very interested in Middle Eastern realities.
That negligence is precisely why I have felt compelled to distill from various conversations the following chain of facts and modest comments. Maybe someone will notice… or maybe the desire to nourish certain perceptions among ill-informed voters is more important than recognizing real influences and consequences. ~ Editor
POINT OF DEPARTURE
On September 30, 2015, Rachel Marsden wrote the following paragraph in an article not dedicated to the Middle East—but whose encapsulated pedigree for the murderous, loathsome Islamic State was exceptionally clear:
Economics are at the root of all the current problems in the world, including Middle Eastern terrorism and the Islamic State. The Islamic State problem was seeded years ago, with the funding and training of Syrian mercenaries to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an effort by the West and by oil-revenue competitors Qatar and Saudi Arabia to upend the economic alliance of Syria, Russia and Iran. If economics hadn’t been a consideration, the Islamic State probably wouldn’t exist.
When we invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to remove its Sunni dictator and and his elite entourage from power, we ought to have foreseen that a steady band of Shiite influence from Iran to Syria would likely result. (At least two of the contributors to our joint piece distinctly recall having this concern while Saddam yet lived—and being derided for it.) Nevertheless, progressive visionaries in our State Department decided to ignore this high probability and bank, instead, on the emergence and subsequent enduring presence of a Western-style democracy in which thousand-year-old religious affiliations would hold no sway. For the folly of their naïvely utopian undertaking, our men and women in uniform and the innocent civilians of Iraq paid an immense cost. Specifically, we should have foreseen that Sunni factions would disrupt the new Iraqi government, and that our “ally” Saudi Arabia would be deeply complicit in these disruptions. Again, our policy-makers chose to ignore the writing on the wall.
It is disheartening to hear neo-conservative commentators—and even some whose conservative credentials are more substantial—persist in saying that we should never have drawn our troops out of Iraq, as if the dreamt-of secular democracy would have stood on her own legs in just a few more months. If Iraq had been admitted to the Union as our fifty-first state, we would have at least enjoyed some sort of justification for the indefinite placement of American troops there.
The ouster of Saddam—and of Mubarak, and of Gadaffi, and potentially of Bashar al-Assad—carried or carries the bellum pium et iustum label before the general public because they and/or their states were all represented as atrocious violaters of human rights: sponsors of terrorism, oppressors of dissidents, abusers of women, and religious bigots of bloodthirsty tendencies (including and surpassing the persecution of Christians). Yet Saudi Arabia has a clean scorecard in none of these areas, and indeed has logged worse infractions in many. In the wake of a direct and massively homicidal attack upon American citizens by a terrorist organization awash in Saudi money—Al Qaeda—and sporting a figurehead from the Saudi royal family—Osama bin Laden—our government did nothing to sever ties with that nation. The purity of our advertised motives in the Middle East has been hopelessly polluted by our interest in Saudi oil (said to be highly profitable for Republican chieftains) and our resistance to meeting by our oil needs through domestic production (a Democrat/environmentalist roadblock).
To this transparent hypocrisy must be added an observation concerning Israel’s relative comfort with neighboring Saudi Arabia (in sharp contrast to her constant worries over distant Iran). Iran, of course, funnels money to Hezbollah, had until recently an intimate connection with Hamas, and has publicly and repeatedly threatened to wipe the Jewish nation off the map. The Israelis certainly have legitimate cause for alarm. Here we point out only the extreme oddity of Al Qaeda’s sponsor-state being less of a menace to us as Americans than is the sponsor-state of Hezbollah: this is the apparent lesson of long-standing foreign policy. Now that the Saudis are also supporting ISIS, both by a trail of money extending well into the past (according to Ms. Marsden et al.) and by a persistent pattern of non-intervention (the Saudis decline even to accept refugees from ISIS atrocities), the default “conservative” position that we must oppose Iran, first and foremost, in deference to Israel seems something other than Jeffersonian.
The atrocities committed by ISIS—the beheadings of non-combatant innocents, the crucifixion of women and children, the torture of captives that includes being burned alive, the intended extermination of other religions that pose no existential threat to Islam, the very deliberate annihilation of priceless and irrecoverable archaeological sites—might have precedent in the days of Genghis Khan, but finding any more recent parallel is impossible. If any such thing as a moral fact exists, then the active adherents of ISIS are wicked, inhuman degenerates whose eradication must override almost any imaginable foreign policy objective. Estimates of this diabolical army’s “boots on the ground” strength are often published as between forty and eighty thousand, though the true number may well be closer to twenty thousand. The force, in other words, is far from insuperable, or should be so for a coalition of contemporary Western states.
Even the most inflated estimates of ISIS’s strength must leave one wondering why hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men are seeking refuge all over the planet rather than volunteering to defend their homeland; and if ISIS is indeed disrupting travel and communication in something similar to the German blitz of France in 1939, then how are these hundreds of thousands able to move thousands of miles (in some cases) through enemy territory? The “refugee crisis” doesn’t pass the smell test in several respects, though innocent families are surely suffering on a much smaller, more local scale. Wholly unreported by the American mainstream media, furthermore, are such puzzling events as mass protests by Syrian refugees in England against the bombing of ISIS targets, and even such violent outbursts as a multiple knifing in a London subway whose perpetrator was screaming, “This is for Syria!”
The utter absence of clear thinking on the refugee issue —the opting, instead, for absurdly improbable conclusions, even on the part of Pope Frances—is not directly related to the present discussion, but it begs all of the same questions about how vital information is being collected and processed.
Here the imponderable folly of trying to remove Bashar al-Assad from power while resisting or “downgrading” ISIS thrusts itself into view. ISIS does not need downgrading: it needs destroying. The outcry against Assad’s police state approximates the denunciations of the Shah of Iran and Chile’s Pinochet which some of us can recall from our youth. Harassment of journalists, imprisonment without due process, beatings in dungeons, sometimes permanent disappearances of dissidents… brutality of this order is not to be taken lightly; yet to maintain that arresting a practitioner of such abuses is as pressing a moral imperative as stopping ISIS must insult any sane mind of decent sensibility. (And again, why, on these same grounds, are we not demanding the removal of the House of Saud from power?)
Our State Department has gone to extravagant lengths to placate Iran with a very generous treaty regarding her development of nuclear power. Perhaps the generosity was intended in part to enlist Iran’s aid against ISIS. Many commentators and representatives have decried the treaty in the strongest terms. (And parts of the agreement are indeed indefensible from any rational perspective. Why, for instance, would we consent to spy on Israel for the mullahs and otherwise compromise what the Israelis see as justified self-defensive measures? Israel has shown that she can protect herself. Let her do so. If we have largely ignored Saudi duplicity and connivance out of regard for the Jewish state’s preeminent concerns, why should we now trample those concerns underfoot?)
With Iran pressing ISIS from the east—as it would have done in self-interest, quite without the lure of any nuclear treaty—Syria must obviously press ISIS from the west for maximum effect. If we assist the active opponents of the Assad regime in waging their war of liberation, then we just as obviously impede Syria’s ability to move upon ISIS. This is true even if the anti-Assad forces are not, overtly or covertly, sympathetic to ISIS; yet we can by no means rest assured that ISIS would not fill the power vacuum after the toppling of Assad, just as the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt after the ouster of Mubarak.
To be parsing our cloudy participation in the war on ISIS, then, as a cotemporaneous war on the dictator Assad is to declare war on both the left hand and the right hand—something that only a corpse without a head would ever consider.
As the final weeks of 2015 elapsed, by the way, various anti-Assad Syrian factions were conferencing in Riyadh to resolve their differences: yet another indication of the sabotaging role Saudi Arabia has played and is playing in the war on ISIS. Perhaps related to these conferences, the Saudis noisily announced shortly before Christmas a new coalition to fight terrorism. The European press collaborated in the ongoing attempt to sell this coalition as an anti-ISIS strategy. Significantly, however, the Houthis rebelling in Yemen appear to be its primary target, and Iraq has refused to sign on.
Apparently connected to these meetings, and almost on the year’s final day, the Saudis and the Turks also publicized a new collaboration against terrorism. Again, despite the clearly diabolical inhumanity of ISIS, no specific object of this double-teaming was announced: it could as easily be Assad or Iran.
Meanwhile, our State Department does its best to ratchet up unproductive animosities by charging the Russians with bombing Assad’s enemies while claiming to attack ISIS. It is not clear why any informed, intelligent observer would fail to understand the obvious, perhaps substantial, overlap of these two groups. The year closed with State Department spokesmen naively (or archly) protesting that Russian bombs were destroying Syrian schools and hospitals, though we of all people on earth should know that such places are precisely where militant Islamists routinely locate weapons stashes and convene councils of war.
Some of this utter incoherence must be laid at the doorstep of certain Republican leaders in Congress as well as in the lap of a Democratic president who doesn’t bother (as Sheryl Atkisson has reported) to sit through briefings on foreign affairs when they chafe against his preconceived notions. As we declared at the outset, our purpose here is not to attempt an analysis of motives, political or otherwise, on the part of those who craft our schizophrenic foreign policies. A significant flavor in the anti-Assad stew, however, must surely be Erdogan’s Turkey. The prime minister of that NATO “ally” (another friend who relieves us of the need to seek enemies) detests Assad for—among other reasons—mistreating the Turkmen minority in Syria. Though the two appear to have been thick as thieves earlier on, a falling out occurred, in the wake of which Turkey’s leader provided much of the moral inspiration in convincing America’s chief executive that Assad must go. Yet Erdogan likes to mistreat his own nation’s Kurdish minority with bullying intimidation, it turns out; and his conduct during the ISIS crisis has therefore become reminiscent of the Saudis’. When at last he consented to enter the fray, his air force proceeded to bomb Kurdish targets under the pretext of taking the war to the invading Islamic fanatics; and the Kurds, in fact, were and are one of the more effective sources of resistance to ISIS. For that reason (and others), Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went so far as to demand the withdrawal of Turkish “support” from his nation’s disputed and troubled territory in early December of last year. Meanwhile, legal advocates for the Kurdish cause like Tahir Ecli continue to disappear or be mysteriously murdered in our NATO ally’s Western democracy.
(These are the same Kurds, remember, whose numbers were decimated when Bush I reneged on implicit promises to them and pulled our troops out to leave them all alone against Saddam’s wrath. One could certainly argue that we “owe” them.)
We can see why the current Turkish regime might not be devastated to see ISIS prosper, at least over the short haul–and there are rumors, as well, of Turkish profiteering off of the ISIS need for huge volumes of oil. Is there a reason why the Obama Administration likewise regards ISIS successes with relative calmness? Or is there perhaps no reason at all? (In the latter case, a whole new series of questions is raised.)
Enter Russia. Like us, the Russians run their economy on oil; and like us, they draw much of this resource from the Middle East—but from Iran and Syria rather than from Saudi Arabia. If they have no right to mingle in the region’s affairs, then we must have even less right; for the Russian nation, at least, shares a border of approximately a thousand miles with Iran, counting the Caspian Sea. Having declined to annex Iraq to the United States, we actually have not one inch of border anywhere in the region; and though many of our leaders have decided that protecting borders is morally benighted, the issue seems sufficiently up for debate in the world community that the Russians may be forgiven for reaching a different conclusion.
Curiously, those of our politicians who best understand the need for stable borders also seem to be the most afflicted by “Russophobia”. Their resentment of Russia’s intrusion into the war on ISIS (and a highly effective intrusion, it has been) always works its way back to Ukraine. Without saying so in plain English, they have espoused another Domino Theory. First Ukraine, then Crimea… then the Middle East, then Poland and the Baltic nations: Putin is attempting to resurrect a Soviet Union far grander than anything seen in the Cold War!
Imaginary dominoes can foul real lines if thought during their fantastical tumble. There is no connection between Ukraine and the Russian alliance with Syria, other than the Russia pursuit of self-interest in a manner recognized and accepted by all sensible nations. Consider the unhappy Ukrainian conflict’s eruption in early 2014. The Euro-Ukrainians, Catholic and independent-minded and (we must admit in regret) vaguely tarred with one-time Nazi collaboration, hated Premier Yanukovich and the sweetheart deals that he had managed to swing with Mother Russia; the East Ukrainians, Orthodox and more hierarchical in worldview and often fond in their recollections of the Soviet Union, saw little advantage to fusion with the EU and its kinder, gentler version of the nanny state. A violent collision may have been inevitable; yet the deposing of Yanokovich as the streets of Kiev burned was indeed violent, without a vestige of due process or democratic legality. Putin became involved in the coup on behalf of his ethnic brethren as they were chased from legitimate power. The new government in Kiev had ample opportunity to make a few simple concessions, such as allowing Easterners to be schooled in their own language: their refusals were adamant and imperious.
That East Ukraine should therefore vote to secede and align itself with Russia hardly has the smell of Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest. The ensuing annexation of Crimea was hasty and left many observers and participants screaming foul, but it, too, was not without a credible appearance of legality and popular consent. Given the fervid animosity displayed by Western Ukrainians toward Russia for years, Putin may reasonably have supposed that national security required his obtaining reliable access to the Black Sea.
All of this must seem a long digression, and perhaps it ought to be; but alas, our policy-makers, to reiterate, do not have to be pushed very hard on the evils of Russian success against ISIS before they bring up Ukraine to explain their irritation. At least two very highly regarded and influential conservative radio talk-show hosts predicted the imminent invasion of Poland by the Russians—almost two years ago. (One of these mouthpieces eagerly reminds his listeners of any of his many prophcies that comes to pass; he has not been heard to recur to this one lately.) If the Russians do mount a series of new aggressions in the wake of the Turkish air force’s bringing down one of their jets on an ISIS bomb run, it will be because Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unable to stomach the resurrection of the Assad regime under the wing of Putin’s active intervention; and perhaps, furthermore (as Putin charged in the final weeks of 2015), because Erdogan’s son is implicated in running oil to the ISIS military machine.
(Just for the record, Turkey has violated Greek air space hundreds of times in the last few years as her leaders prosecuted an ongoing campaign of intimidation against cash-strapped, demilitarized Greece.)
As Patrick J. Buchanan has lately asked, would Erdogan have allowed a Russian plane to be brought down without Washington’s consent? Is the Obama Administration looking for a casus belli with Putin? Why would it be doing something so insane?
Some of our knights of conservative talk-radio refer to Putin as “ex-KGB” no less often than Homer calls Achilles swift-footed; and one of them carries the ad hominem attack to the point of treating his listeners to frequent, throaty “Boris Badenov” imitations (from the Bullwinkle cartoons of the Cold War era). Mr. Putin is certainly not what most would classify as a “choir boy”; but when our children’s peace hangs in the balance, we should take care to frame delicate international situations as soberly as possible. Caricature doesn’t help. Practically every ambitious, energetic male of Vladimir Putin’s generation flirted with the KGB in his school days, much as adolescent boys in Nazi Germany were raised to admire service to the Reich. The heroic agitator for freedom, Alexander Litvinenko (in whose murder Putin may or may not have been implicated), was also “ex-KGB”. Should Heinrich Böll have been stripped of his Nobel Prize because he wore the Nazi uniform as a young man?
And if Nazi and KGB tactics, past or present, qualify a national leader to be deeply mistrusted, then perhaps we should register some discomfort with a president who is actively using Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces for covert assassinations in almost a hundred nations around the world (cf. Jeremy Scahill’s documentary, Dirty Wars). As many as a thousand children may have died in drone strikes during the administrations of our last two presidents, though our military’s Orwellian definition of a combatant makes accurate tallies impossible to obtain.
This nation’s recent adventures in the Middle East have grown so ill focused that the present discussion has ended up straying into Russia—and the errancy is instructive. Our policy-makers appear to be pulled in one direction by the aftershock of an occurrence in an entirely different quarter. They seem to map their evolving responses to crises with all the coherence and predictability of a pinball’s descent. As American citizens, we, the joint authors of this piece, are deeply distressed by the absence of responsible objectives, foresightful policies, consistent positions, and resolute moral stances in our nation’s Middle Eastern presence throughout the twenty-first century. Perhaps our declared and repeated abstinence from policy recommendations, in that regard, was in bad faith—for we indeed recommend one thing: to have a policy.
The journal’s editor is easily discovered, but other names have been withheld from this piece primarily because it was a product of so many casual exchanges. A few contributors, however, generally feared workplace reprisal if they were to sign on, therefore insisting on anonymity.