Now we know what happens when a dilettante tries to solve intricate problems in the Middle East by “leading from behind”: the problems get worse. Much worse.
Consider the horror show unfolding across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Our hapless Secretary of State flounders through yet another round of meaningless negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, hoping to achieve something to divert attention from the train wreck of an unravelling administration. Blinded by the quest for political cover, neither he nor the president he serves seem to notice that the region is burning down around them.
We are witnessing another lesson in the great truth of human behavior: power abhors a vacuum. The festival of carnage in the Fertile Crescent is in large part due to the incompetence, weakness and vacillation of this administration’s foreign policy. Barack Obama evidently meant what he said when he expressed his preference for a United States which was neither exceptional nor a leader, and we are now paying the price of his doctrine of diminishment and retreat.
Inability to achieve a status of forces agreement in Iraq was the first element in the debacle. Although we had years to achieve this important treaty, it is now clear that the current Administration had neither faith in its underlying strategic importance nor commitment enough to pursue it. Consequences included U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq and a subsequent resurgence of Sunni resistance to the Tehran-leaning Maliki government. Fighting in Fallujah, Ramadi and across Anbar province is only one symptom of what will come.
Indecision and perfidy on Syria’s civil war also spread unhelpful messages. To the Russians and Iranians, refusal to enforce a clearly-stated threat was a signal that the United States was ceding the Levant to them; we were not prepared to put our military might where the president’s mouth was. To Damascus, Obama’s hot-potato reaction to his own “red line” was a green light to butchery of those opposing the bloody-handed regime of Bashir Assad. Armed by Moscow, aided by Tehran and Hezbollah’s Shi’ite army, Assad was quick to start the slaughter.
Our Hamlet-like unwillingness to become involved was a self-fulfilling prophecy for Syrian rebels. The Obama Administration feared the secular Syrian resistance was not strong enough to force change in Damascus so it refused to supply useful armaments, particularly anti-air assets; the resistance is now being crushed by Assad’s air force and Hezbollah allies. We also refused to supply arms over concern they would fall into the hands of “Islamic extremists,” enhancing their power. But said extremists had other suppliers, so they rapidly supplante secular military opposition to Damascus. Our dithering brought about the very things we sought to avoid.
U.S. Middle East policy is challenging due to the absence of familiar types and common experiences; political leadership there is not well-endowed with Jeffersonian Democrats or an appreciation for Montesquieu. Consequently, we are best served by Kissingerian Realpolitik, not Carteresque wishful thinking; American presidents who navigated this maze successfully set ideological prejudice aside, admitted ignorance and listened carefully to their experts. None of these behaviors are present in today’s White House so we should expect that, absent real involvement from us, more mayhem will follow.
What is currently unfolding in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is a trans-national, sectarian civil war, pitting Sunni Muslims against Shi’ites, Alawites and — at least in Syria — an increasing number of secularists concerned with the growing influence of Sunni fundamentalism. This conflict promises to dramatically restructure the post-World War One map as various Muslim groups carve out new confessionally-based entities; Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will probably vanish in all but name at the end.
The process is likely to be long and bloody — remember, Lebanon’s religious civil war lasted 13 years, ending only with the exhaustion of all sides. Iran and Russia will be the overall winners, the former exercising de facto control from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Our prestige will suffer another blow. This entire strategic region will be destabilized and roiled by continuous, insoluble conflicts that will make the Israeli-Palestinian problem that so bedevils John Kerry look like a child’s puzzle.
We will have only ourselves to blame for ensuing dangers. President Obama had opportunities to forestall these developments but dismissed them, largely to satisfy domestic constituencies and his own peculiar vision. And we approved, returning him to office because the other guy was not as glib or cool. Remember that, as the body count grows and the flames spread: we wanted a leader who thought it a good idea to discard the fire extinguishers as the conflagration approached.
Remember, to avoid repeating the mistake.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.