Washington’s Middle East Policy Reaches New Heights of Incoherence

It’s hard to imagine that U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has helped make a shambles of the region over the past six decades, could get much worse. But developments during the past week demonstrate that it has the potential to do so. Hawks in both parties are shocked (shocked!) that Iraq shows unmistakable signs of coming apart along ethno-religious lines. But critics of the hawkish lobbying for U.S. military intervention in the period leading up to the invasion and occupation in 2003 warned that the move had major destabilizing implications, and that a fractured Iraq was a likely outcome. Early this year, I renewed those warnings, arguing that multiple developments indicated that Iraq was heading toward fragmentation.

As in the earlier case of Yugoslavia, the wonder is not that an artificial country like Iraq (cobbled together by British colonial officials from three disparate provinces of the old Ottoman Empire) is coming apart. The wonder is that it held together for so long.

Rather than accept an outcome contrary to the unrealistic wishes of U.S. policymakers, there is a surge of calls for Washington to “do something” to prevent Sunni militant insurgents from continuing their string of military victories over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-controlled government. Although the Obama administration has wisely ruled-out putting large numbers of U.S. boots on the ground, air strikes and a limited deplyment of troops apparently remain an option. That would be an ill-advised move, since it would risk again entangling the United States in Iraq’s bitter, convoluted political and religious rivalries.

But the strangest suggestion is that Washington should open talks with Tehran about coordinating efforts to stem the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That truly is a case of compulsive meddlers grasping at any possibility to try to save a bankrupt policy. After all, the U.S. government officially brands Iran as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and a high priority of Washington’s policy over the past two decades has been to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. 

Yet the Obama administration seems receptive to exploring military cooperation with Iran to stop ISIS, and at least a few hawkish types, most notably Senator Lindsey Graham, have embraced the idea. Graham noted that the United States backed Stalin against Hitler in World War II because we feared the former less than the latter. 

But Graham failed to note that Washington had not actively aided Hitler before making common cause with Stalin against him. The United States has aided the Sunni-dominated Syrian rebels against the government of Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s principal ally in the region. And Republican hawks advocated stepping-up support for the anti-Assad insurgency, including imposing a no-fly zone and launching cruise missile strikes against government targets. Graham’s ideological compatriot, Senator John McCain, even participated in an ill-conceived photo op with insurgent leaders during a visit to rebel-controlled territory, including one leader who turned out to be a notorious Islamic terrorist. Some of those Syrian rebels now help fill the ranks of ISIS.

Washington’s closest Middle East allies, including Saudi Arabia and its junior Gulf partners, have been bankrolling Sunni militants in both Syria and Iraq for years. Yet frustrated hawks, including two guests on Neil Cavuto’s June 16 Fox News show, now urge the United States to (somehow) induce those allies to take the lead in pursuing military action against ISIS.

To sum up: After overthrowing anti-Iranian Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and enabling a corrupt, pro-Iranian Shiite political leader (Maliki) to take power in Iraq, the United States proceeded to back a Sunni-dominated rebel movement in neighboring Syria that has now become part of an broader Islamist insurgency determined to oust the government we helped install in Baghdad. That insurgency is backed by a key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, and its junior partners, which are also supposedly U.S. allies. Meanwhile, Washington is considering creating a common front against the Sunni insurgency with Iran, the country that U.S. leaders of both political parties have condemned repeatedly as a state sponsor of terrorism and a would-be nuclear rogue state.

That contradictory mess would seem to constitute the perfect operational definition of an incoherent foreign policy.  It lacks even the most basic internal logic and consistency.