Obama’s Middle East Mess and How to Clean It Up

Obama’s Middle East Mess and How to Clean It Up


This has to be a singular moment in the Obama administration’s evolving policies in the Middle East. Hold it all up to the light and ask yourself: American foreign policy may be right or wrong in any given case, but is this degree of incoherence more or less unprecedented in Foggy Bottom’s annals?

Here’s the layout—as of today, we had better add:

In Syria, we remain committed to removing the Assad regime in Damascus, which is Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam, but we’re supporting the fight against Assad’s enemies, who are militantly Sunni—except, that is, when we’re supporting said enemies if they’re classified “moderate,” whatever this may mean in the context. In effect we’re aligned with Iran, which is Shiite. Everyone understands this but no one can talk about it. 

Related: Saudi Sunnis and Iran’s Shiites—Why the U.S. Can’t Back Both

Two weeks ago, just to keep things crystal clear, Secretary of State Kerry acknowledged something else a few commentators understood long ago: “In the end,” Kerry said, “we have to negotiate with Assad." That would be the same Assad Washington has denounced for years and wants to dislodge. 

In Iraq, it’s a 180—except when it’s not. We’re providing air support to Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State, which is Sunni. We’re training the Iraqi army, but given its evident uselessness, we’re dependent on Iran’s leadership of the militias. Yet, when the U.S. began bombing Tikrit last week, three militia groups withdrew in protest. They have since ended the boycott, although the U.S. refuses to fight alongside these militias because Iranians lead them. Air strikes in support of who and what is the new question.

In Yemen, where the U.S.-backed government recently fell to Houthi militias, the Pentagon now supports a Saudi air campaign against the Shiite Houthis. Here Washington opposes Iran, which backs the Houthis, and allies with the Saudis, whom the U.S. has alienated in its pursuit of a nuclear deal with the Iranians.

Related: Here’s Why Obama Panders to Iran, Throws Israel Under the Bus​

Israel: The Obama administration is at the very brink of cutting said nuclear deal with Iran, which has put the U.S. critically at odds with Israel, its traditional ally in the Middle East. A settlement with Iran and smooth ties with Israel were destined to self-cancel, at least while Benjamin Netanyahu is the latter’s prime minister. But the rift now is unprecedented in the history of the relationship, and Obama’s policy people show no sign they are equipped to refashion ties constructively. 

Got all this? 

The think tank set and various administration spokespeople are busily explaining this mess as just the way things are supposed to go. The term of preference, at least for now, seems to be “offshore balancing.” As with “pivot to Asia” and “reset with Russia,” I read this as dressed-up State Department-speak intended to give near-chaos among policy planners the appearance of resolute purpose.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, now at the Brookings Institution and formerly at State, is honest enough to call it all a puzzle. “But whether that puzzle reflects the lack of a coherent policy on the administration side or whether that puzzle simply reflects the complexity of the power struggles on the ground in the region—well, both are probably true,” Wittes told The New York Times last week.

That’s too much credit by half. We’re in Orwell country now. What Obama’s people call “policy” designates a critical vacuum thereof. What’s tagged as “strategy” means something closer to “winging it.”

Related: Boehner, Heading to Israel, Slams Obama’s Treatment of Netanyahu

“I think in many ways what we’re seeing is a rerun of the Iran/Iraq war,” an astute friend wrote in an e-mail note over the weekend, “and that this time Iran (and the Shiites in Iraq) will win.”

It isn’t all that’s going on in the Middle East, but it summarizes a lot of it. And the U.S. has no more business in this conflagration—at least not on the military side—than it did in the war Baghdad and Tehran waged back in the 1980s.

This isn’t to say Washington has no further options. As things have aligned, and in no wise by design, it now has a rare moment of opportunity open to it. The primary factor in this is the nuclear accord now in the final stages of negotiation in Lausanne. The deadline for a framework deal is Tuesday. 

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has navigated among the concerns of the six nations on the other side of the table—the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—for many months. “We are ready to draft,” he said Saturday. 

Step 1: Get this deal done. Most immediately this means overcoming the lingering objections of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has been oddly recalcitrant almost from the start. As to Congress, the mess it made with the Netanyahu speech and then the letter to Tehran is so embarrassing as to reduce its clout in objecting to the White House’s plans.

Related: Factbox--Saudi Arabia’s Coalition Against Yemen’s Houthis

Step 2: Drop the pretense that a nuclear agreement can stand in isolation, without any wider détente. That may soothe those opposing the deal, but it can’t possibly hold. Acknowledging the wider implications will open the way to a reformulation of U.S. policy across the Middle East—something Washington desperately needs to do.

Step 3: Advance toward the relationship of cautious cooperation with Iran that is now so logically right that it is already halfway out of the box. Obama’s gingerly halfway measures are self-evidently a failure; the imperative is to acknowledge a future that looks different from the past. In for a penny, in for a pound is the ruling adage.  

Step 4: Look back on a dozen years of uninterrupted wars in the region, recognize a military-centered strategy as a bust, and start anew. As urged previously in this space, the most effective action the U.S. can now take would be to initiate a hugely ambitious Middle East Marshall Plan that transcends the very animosities now tangling Washington in a web so dense it binds us tighter with every move we make.

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