Sunday, June 7, 2015

Limits of US power in the Middle East

Tectonic shifts that America cannot control

By Brian Whitaker


"There are historic, tectonic changes going on that will take a generation or generations to play out," Philip Gordon, a former Middle East adviser to President Obama, writes in an article for Politico.
Amid turmoil in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq, the inevitable American tendency, Gordon says, is to attribute all these negative developments to US policy choices: "What most of the current critiques have in common are an assumption that US policy is the most relevant variable in explaining what is going on – it's not." 
It's an assumption that we find on the American right, even among those who supported President Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, on the left among those who have yet to catch up with reality, but also in the Middle East itself where it's a much more attractive proposition to blame the US than to look for culprits closer to home.
To explain why the Middle East is falling apart, Gordon highlights four "interrelated trends" – adding that "the United States is not primarily responsible for any of them and can do little to reverse their course":
1. The collapse of state authority and erosion of borders established after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.
2. The Sunni-Shia split.
3. The Sunni-Sunni split – "a growing ideological battle between the region’s Sunni regimes and the Sunni version of political Islam".
4. Collapsing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Gordon then turns to what the US should – or can – do about it and sounds a warning note:
"In Iraq, the US intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. 
"In Libya, the US intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. 
"In Syria, the US neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster. 
"This record is worth keeping in mind as we contemplate proposed solutions."
Recognising that disorder in the Middle East disorder is likely to persist "for years and decades to come", Gordon continues:
"We [the US] can’t make that reality go away, but we can preserve our core interests, try to contain and limit the damage, avoid missteps that would lead to unintended consequences and harbor our precious human, military and financial resources for strength at home and other great challenges abroad. A focus on core US interests is not a perfect solution for the Middle East –but it is better than all the alternatives."
The "core US interests" identified by Gordon are these:
1. Deterring regional war and protecting our allies. "We cannot stop civil wars, but we can still prevent inter-state war –and have largely done so successfully for decades."
2. Keep sea lanes open "to preserve commercial freedom". Only the United States has the power to do this, Gordon says, "and it should do so out of self-interest and collective interest as well". In this context he singles out the Strait of Hormuz, though presumably the same applies to Bab al-Mandab, adjacent to Yemen, and the Suez Canal.
3. Preventing nuclear proliferation. "As bad as things are in the region, they would be unimaginably worse if multiple countries, or even one (Iran) had nuclear weapons." (Gordon seems to have forgotten that one country in the region – Israel – already has nuclear weapons.)
4. Preventing a terrorist safe haven. "We cannot kill or capture every terrorist in the Middle East. But we can and must prevent the creation of a terrorist safe haven from which terrorists could plot and execute mass-destruction attacks against the United States and its allies." 
5. Avoiding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "While we can do little immediately to bring about a two-state solution, we should at least try to preserve its prospects for when conditions might be ripe."
Gordon's article is obviously meant to be read in the context of American domestic politics where Republicans accuse Obama of being weak and lacking resolve, while others favour total isolationism. Basically, he is arguing for a middle course which, he concedes, "will never sound as compelling a promise to 'transform' or 'remake' the Middle East".
This is the only sensible way forward but there are nevertheless several problems with Gordon's analysis and focus. 
For a start, he places too much emphasis on geo-political developments and not enough on the region's socio-political developments, which leads him to assert that "no one in their right mind would suggest the outcomes in the Middle East today are anything but negative". This overlooks the popular aspirations that triggered the Arab Spring – aspirations which may have been suppressed for the time being but in many parts of the region continue to bubble under the surface. It ignores the way Arab society, despite the efforts of religious fanatics, is slowly but steadily changing; it ignores the region's youth bulge and the rise of the internet generation.
To discount that in policy-making is unnecessarily perverse, since it's one important sign of hope for the Middle East's future.
Although the national borders created by western powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire have become a factor in the region's troubles, Gordon also over-emphasises their importance and – bizarrely – claims that "Arab publics finally rose up in protest against this artificial division" during the Arab Spring.
By rolling together "the collapse of state authority and erosion of borders" as a single issue, Gordon places too much blame on flawed national boundaries and not enough on the leaders within them. The main problem was the emergence of regimes which, though they clung to power for a long time, were ultimately unsustainable and incapable of delivering the kind of accountable and transparent government that the Arab Spring protesters demanded.
Looking at the overall picture today, and discounting post-revolution Tunisia, there are scarcely any Arab countries with systems of government that look sustainable in the long term. Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan may conceivably evolve into fully-fledged constitutional monarchies but elsewhere it's difficult to see change coming about without some kind of major upheaval.
This background is important, because it relates to the first and most problematic of the core American interests identified by Gordon: "Deterring regional war and protecting our allies." The problem here is how to define "ally". In today's Middle East it's an unhelpful term because it minimises differences between the US and "friendly" Arab regimes which ought not to be down-played. The US may feel a need to work with them as a partner on some issues but that shouldn't disguise the fact that in other areas these same partners are actually making matters worse. This applies particularly to the way most of them foment religious intolerance for their own political purposes. 
Gordon also seems to have some rather odd ideas about "deterring regional war". Apparently the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen can be included in that because the bombing "is best seen not as a plan to bring peace to Yemen but simply to put down a marker to Iran".
Viewing the current turmoil as part of a long-term process (as Gordon rightly does) requires some similarly long-term thinking by policy makers. From that perspective, the US needs to consider which of its Middle East partners – and, indeed, its enemies – are likely to be swept away during the next 20-30 years, and adjust its policies accordingly.
In his article, Gordon warns three times against policies that may have unintended consequences. He should listen to his own advice when talking about American relations with Arab "allies".
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 7 June 2015  

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