January 5, 2017 9:27AM

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s “Leadership” in Syria

In December, Russia, Turkey, and Iran began high-level talks to work toward a political settlement of the brutal civil war in Syria. Much to the chagrin of Washington officials and commentators, these countries have deliberately excluded the U.S. from the negotiations.

One broad sketch of their approach to a settlement, according to some reports, is to first achieve a cease-fire on the ground, as best they can, and then negotiate a division of Syria into three separate regions in which Assad’s Damascus-based Allawite sect would share power in a federal structure. Assad himself would step down at the end of his current term. The plan is in its infancy, subject to change, and would of course require agreement from the regime and opposition forces, before ultimately seeking buy in from the Gulf states, the U.S., and the European Union.

There is no indication that this latest push is going to be any more successful than previous diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war. Nationalism is a powerful force and, as recent history suggests, plans to simply divide war-torn states into federated systems get tossed into the trash bin pretty quickly, as happened with Iraq and with Bosnia and Herzegovina. That said, the players have clear interests at stake. Russia has real leverage with the Syrian regime and has now staked its prestige on mitigating the conflict on favorable terms. Turkey borders Syria and has not only borne the brunt of the spillover effects with regard to refugees and militancy, but also has a strong national interest in preventing the Kurds from carving out territory along the border so as to keep a lid on its own Kurdish separatist movement. And Syria is Iran’s only Shiite ally in the region and has proven a strategic asset for Iran on several fronts, not least in its proximity to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. When the stakes are high for the negotiating parties, they tend to take care in constructing a settlement.

While I’m hopeful for a peaceful settlement, I wouldn’t put good money on the prospects for success in these negotiations. But they at least demonstrate that the United States does not necessarily need to take the lead in trying to solve every problem in the world. Other countries with clearer interests at stake and more local knowledge than America can do the heavy lifting. And perhaps do it much more effectively.

Much of the handwringing in Washington over Russia’s leadership in the negotiations centers on a fear that America might be demoted in its status as the indispensable nation if a geopolitical competitor like Russia successfully negotiates a resolution to one of the world’s worst conflicts while the U.S. sits it out. This concern is misplaced for at least two reasons. First, status and prestige are overrated assets in international politics. They can play an important role at certain times, but they pale in comparison to more material security and economic interests. Rooting against the success of peace talks just because we don’t want Russia to regain a modicum of the great power status it once had betrays a rather unbecoming lack of self-esteem that is wholly unfair to the millions of Syrians that would benefit from even a brief hiatus in daily violence and besiegement.

Secondly, one wonders what benefits the U.S. has derived from all its leadership (such as it is) in the greater Middle East. I’m inclined to agree with Andrew Bacevich that the sum of our dominant role in the region since the 1980s has been mostly failure. As he writes, through our “naivety, short-sightedness, and hubris, we have actually made things worse — at very considerable cost to ourselves and to others.” If our record of embarrassingly stalemated diplomacy, costly failed wars, troublesome allies, and elective military envelopment in the Middle East is anything to go by, Americans shouldn’t be overly covetous of Russia’s latest attempt to steal our thunder in Syria – a conflict, I might add, which our “leadership” to date has mostly made worse

November 9, 2016 11:22AM

President Trump and the Iran Nuclear Deal; Or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the Bomb

During the Republican primary season, most candidates railed against the Iranian nuclear deal promising to rip it up. Indeed, Donald Trump, our new President-elect, described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPoA) as "one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen." With Trump’s unexpected success in yesterday’s election, the future of the Iran deal—one of the major diplomatic successes of Barack Obama’s presidency—has become murky.

Over the last year, Trump’s campaign was impressively inconsistent on the question of the Iran deal. Various Trump surrogates—including Rudy Giuliani in his speech at the Republican National Convention—suggested that Trump would "rip up" the deal on day one in office. Trump himself strongly criticized the deal, promising in a speech to AIPAC in March that dismantling the deal would be his number one priority. Yet later statements focused instead on the idea that he would "fix" the deal, by going back to the negotiating table with Tehran, a line later adopted by many of his campaign advisors.

Unfortunately, though this might indicate that Trump’s stance was more rhetoric than reality, he is likely to face strong pressure from the GOP-dominated congress to upend the deal. The pressure is liable to come from inside his administration too: not only did Mike Pence, Trump’s VP pick, take a hard line on the Iran deal in debates, but several of Trump’s potential advisors have similarly argued that the deal should be destroyed. It’s hard to imagine an administration featuring Bob Corker, John Bolton or Michael Flynn taking a conciliatory approach to Iran on any issue.

So can Trump actually end the Iran deal? Perhaps more effectively than many have assumed, though it would be politically and diplomatically costly. In order to end the deal, the United States would have to assert to the UN Security Council that Iran is violating the agreement. Though such a violation would technically be confirmed by an external party like the IAEA, the fact is that the "snapback" provision of sanctions relief found in the JCPoA allows the United States to exercise its veto power, forcing the reintroduction of UN sanctions.

The United States cannot force the European Union to reintroduce all its sanctions, which include some of the harshest measures on Iran’s oil and banking sectors. Nor can it apply sanctions retroactively; companies cannot be punished for deals made since sanctions were lifted (like the Total oil and gas deal). But if he wanted to, President Trump could issue executive orders reinstating or creating new sanctions on Iranian individuals or companies. He could also direct the Treasury to apply those sanctions extraterritorially, preventing European or Asian companies which do business with Tehran from accessing the U.S. financial system.

Yet the choice to end the Iranian nuclear deal would be extremely costly for the United States. It would alienate key allies in Europe and elsewhere, discouraging them from participation in future U.S. diplomatic endeavors. A better deal is pretty much impossible to achieve, thus we would substantially increase the likelihood that Iran will return to nuclear development, bringing them closer to the bomb, and the United States closer to military conflict. And it would be a black eye for the United States, implying that we cannot be trusted to abide by international agreements which we negotiate.

It’s certainly possible for President-elect Trump to dismantle the JCPoA. But as with all questions about Trump’s foreign policy, it remains unclear whether he will choose to do so or not. If he does, the repercussions for U.S. foreign policy would be unpleasant. Tearing up the Iran deal may look good to the Republican base, but it’s the diplomatic equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot: it achieves no foreign policy goals, runs the risk of destabilizing the Middle East still further, and does grave harm to America’s diplomatic reputation.

April 7, 2016 11:59AM

Andrew Bacevich Discusses America’s War for the Greater Middle East

U.S. foreign policy in the Greater Middle East has been a costly and counterproductive train wreck. But the elites who are responsible can’t see what is plainly apparent to the rest of us. Why is this?

Historian Andrew Bacevich has a few ideas. He’ll be at Cato next week to discuss his latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and he previewed the book this past weekend at Politico Magazine.

Bacevich focuses on two key questions, and offers one big answer:

Why has the world’s mightiest military achieved so little even while absorbing very considerable losses and inflicting even greater damage on the subjects of America’s supposed beneficence? Second, why in the face of such unsatisfactory outcomes has the United States refused to chart a different course? In short, why can’t we win? And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?

The answer to these questions starts with questioning the premise. The tendency to see the region and Islamic world primarily as a problem that will yield to an American military solution is, in fact, precisely the problem. To an unseemly and ultimately self-destructive degree, we have endorsed the misguided militarization of U.S. foreign policy. As a consequence, we have allowed our country to be pulled into the impossible task of trying to “shape” the region through martial means.

We should dwell in particular on this idea of “shaping” the region, and the rest of the planet, generally.

The concept appears prominently in an early draft of the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance of 1992. “The new international environment has...been shaped by the victory of the United States and its coalition allies over Iraqi aggression.” That was both “the first post-cold-war conflict” and “a defining event in U.S. global leadership,” going forward.

Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz, who helped supervise the drafting of the DPG, believed that the application of U.S. military power would deal with the “sources of regional instability in ways that promote international law, limit international violence, and encourage the spread of democratic government and open economic systems.” 

But Wolfowitz and other leaders of the foreign policy establishment vastly exaggerated the U.S. military's capacity for shaping the global order. The Middle East has proved particularly resistant to U.S. “shaping.” Instead, the presence of U.S. forces has engendered considerable resistance. This often manifests itself in the form of violence against our military personnel in the region, as with the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, or the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. But it also comes in the form of acts of terrorism against Americans and U.S. interests, including the attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and, of course, right here at home on 9/11.

Foreign policy elites may have wanted to reshape the Middle East, and then the world, but our responses to the threat of Islamist terrorism emanating from the region have mostly shaped us.

Even Wolfowitz appreciated the danger of terrorist blowback. In making the case for war with Iraq in 2003, he admitted that resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device,” and he predicted that the removal of U.S. troops from the kingdom would have positive effects throughout the region. “Just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door” to a more peaceful Middle East, Wolfowitz told interviewer Sam Tannenhaus in the spring of 2003.

Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can't imagine anyone here wanting to . . . be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

But that was 13 years ago. And, of course, U.S. troops did stay in Iraq for nearly nine years. Bacevich discusses the shifting rationales with his typical flair. Some foreign policy elites now think that U.S. troops never should have left Iraq, and a few want them to go back in (plus Syria, just for good measure). The interventionists appear just as committed to trying to shape the Middle East as they were before we spent trillions of dollars, suffered and/or caused tens of thousands of deaths, and bequeathed to the people of Iraq, and the wider region, chaos, civil war, and despair.

I discuss Bacevich’s article and book in a recent post at The National Interest blog The Skeptics. And if you’d like to hear more from Prof. Bacevich, be sure to sign up to attend next week’s discussion to be held at Cato on Wednesday, April 13th, at Noon. For more details, and to register, visit here

December 30, 2015 9:59AM

Middle East Christians Are Victims of Republican Party Policies

Christians in America remain free to celebrate Christmas, but not tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of believers abroad. Murder by groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram topped pervasive persecution and discrimination in many nations.

On Christmas Eve, senator and presidential contender Marco Rubio penned an article decrying the lack of “attention paid to the plight of these Christian communities in peril.” He criticized the Obama administration and called for action.

Undoubtedly, Rubio’s concern is genuine. However, the GOP’s policies have hurt and will continue to hurt Christians around the world.

No single action was as injurious to Middle Eastern Christians as the invasion of Iraq. American intervention triggered a sectarian conflict which displaced hundreds of thousands of Christians, spawned a new al-Qaeda organization which morphed into the Islamic State, and tolerated ruthless Shia rule which encouraged Baathists and Sunnis to support ISIL. Absent George W. Bush’s Iraq folly, backed by Rubio and most of his competitors, the Islamic State wouldn’t exist.

Most of the usual GOP suspects, starting with Rubio, also backed the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in the Libyan civil war. This misbegotten policy left two competing governments and multiple armed militias in its wake. Worse still, it left a vacuum partly filled by the Islamic State, which publicly murdered Egyptian Copts who were working in Libya.

Syria is engulfed by a hideous civil war. Bashar al-Assad is a secular dictator who uses fear of potential religious persecution for his political benefit. But Christians and other religious minorities have good reason to be terrified about Syria après Assad. After all, many of them fled Iraq where they’ve seen the ending of the movie: it isn’t pretty.

Should Rubio & Co. succeed in ousting Assad, the likely fate of Christians is grim. The State Department noted: In Syria “ISIL required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution in territory it controls, and systematically destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious sites.”

On a recent trip to Jordan and Lebanon, I met with several Christian aid workers active in Syria. Most complained about U.S. policy targeting Assad. One said simply, “You Americans don’t know what you are doing.”

Washington’s reflexive support of ruthless Islamic regimes throughout the Middle East--endorsed by Rubio and the rest of the GOP presidential gaggle--is almost as bad. For instance, despite complaining about foreign blasphemy laws, Rubio declared that the U.S. must “reinforce our alliances.” Some of his Republican competitors are even more insistent.

Yet Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state, without a single operating church (or synagogue or temple) for non-Muslims. The State Department wrote, “the government harassed, detained, arrested, and occasionally deported some foreign residents who participated in private non-Muslim religious activities.”

Coptic Christians remain victims of persecution, discrimination, and violence in Egypt, even after the military ouster of the Muslim-dominated government of Mohamed Morsi.

I wrote in Forbes, “Americans should remember the plight of Middle East Christians. At the same time, voters should remember that Republican support for promiscuous military intervention and Islamic dictators did much to bring down disaster upon Middle Eastern Christians.”

Unfortunately, doing more of the same in the Mideast, as Rubio proposed, would only yield the same result. He should put helping persecuted Christians before promoting misbegotten neoconservative crusades.

March 26, 2015 11:48AM

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

September 15, 2014 3:21PM

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

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As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

September 12, 2013 11:39AM

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.