So here is this week’s brainteaser about the endearing world of American foreign policy in the Middle East. What should we make of the juxtaposition of three dimensions of U.S. policy on display today: the U.S. president’s sensible statement that the real threat to Arab states, including those in the Gulf, comes as much from their internal political and socioeconomic stresses as from external sources such as Iran; the defense secretary’s acknowledgment thatAl-Qaeda is expanding its areas of control in Yemen in the midst of the current domestic and regional wars there; and American support for the war effort in Yemen that seems to promote the first two problems?
Any objective computer – or honest human being – would say that these three phenomena are contradictory and unsustainable as policies. That is because the war in Yemen will quickly increase ideological and sectarian tensions inside Arab states and between some Arab and Iranian leaders; it will also allow extreme ideological and terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS to keep expanding in the conducive environment created by the war in Yemen and the U.S. government’s active support for it. That in turn will fuel the cycle of new tensions and violence within Gulf and Middle Eastern counties, and probably across the world.
This is not a dilemma for the U.S. alone, because virtually all Arab countries face the same quandary that has been dramatically showcased by the war in Yemen. This is simply that top-heavy, nonparticipatory governance systems across the Arab world that rely heavily on indigenous and Western security controls to maintain domestic order have expanded waves of mismanagement, corruption and disparities that foster deep-rooted and wide discontent. These in turn have translated into small groups of radical militants that attack local and foreign targets.
When this pattern persists for half a century, as it has across the Arab region, it also leads to other troubling phenomena that Yemen also showcases: domestic state fragmentation, polarization and militarization, more active foreign military interventions, and intra-Arab military attacks and proxy wars to try and contain the spiral of insecurity, warfare and occasional state collapse.
You would think that decade after decade of seeing this happen across our region, local and foreign powers alike would conclude at some point that using the world’s most sophisticated weapons to attack the world’s most destitute societies will only exacerbate this cycle, rather than resolve it. Yet America’s top officials this week seem comfortable with continuing this approach, even though in the same breath they acknowledge its dangerous consequences in domestic and regional Arab terms.
This kind of foreign policy behavior is immature and aimless. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to fix such a destructive and failed approach to Arab realities without unleashing total chaos and mass state fragmentation and collapse in critical parts of the region. The same objective computer or honest human being we could consult on this might also say, though, that total chaos and mass state fragmentation and collapse across critical parts of the region are exactly what we have been experiencing in the past few years (in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and some corners of other lands, including Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria, Bahrain and Sudan).
The new U.S. secretary of defense, Ash Carter, being the learnedHarvard Kennedy School professor that he once was, noted correctly Wednesday that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken advantage of the unfolding chaos across much of Yemen to gain territory and expand its base of operations as it engages in battles with several factions in the country. He added, “We are observing AQAP participating in that kind of fighting.”
So far, so good. But then he noted that the U.S. was resupplying Saudi forces in Yemen with weapons, while also providing them with intelligence, with the aim of restoring Yemen’s last president, Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi, and re-establishing order and a credible power-sharing arrangement in the country. Here is where it got dicey. Carter said the U.S. wanted the violence to end: “The U.S. is supporting the effort to get a political solution there that stops the violence at the same time that we’re contributing to the Saudi effort to protect its own security.”
Of course, security for Saudi Arabia and any state is a legitimate and priority goal. I hope the new U.S. defense secretary will ask his Harvard students, as well as the first 100 people in the Cambridge phone directory, to examine a critical policy question: Is expanding America’s legacy of fighting nonstop wars from Afghanistan to Libya for the past quarter-century, while Arab domestic conditions stagnate and AQAP and ISIS continue to grow and flourish, the most efficient way to enhance any Arab country’s security?