The Middle East is now suffering from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission

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Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes:  By now it is clear that US policy in Iraq and Syria is a disaster. In neither country has the situation been improved by the US military presence. In Iraq it empowers the same sectarian militias that forced alienated Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. In Syria it ignores, even accommodates, the regime whose brutality spawned the jihadi menace in the first place. In both its actions address symptoms rather than causes and alienate people without providing any commensurate security gains.

But would the situation improve if the United States were to withdraw? Ask the Yazidis of Iraq, whose tragedy would have been much larger had it not been for the timely US intervention; ask the Kurds of Syria, who would have been routed in Kobani had it not been for the sustained airstrikes that helped them repel an ISIS offensive. The Sunnis of Iraq might well ask who would protect them from the revanchist fury of the newly empowered sectarian militias, absent a US presence.

The issue then is not so much the fact of US military involvement as the nature of this involvement.

The United States bears responsibility for much of the current turmoil in the Levant. Had it not been for George W. Bush’s war and the fracturing of the Iraqi society, the region wouldn’t have turned into an incubator for jihadism. Had it not been for Barack Obama’s betrayal of the Syrian revolution — by making lofty promises and offering meager support; by following brave words with conspicuous inaction; and by demanding that Syrians submit their political aspirations to US security concerns — a quarter-million people would not have lost their lives, millions would not have been displaced, and thousands would not have drowned. The region suffers today from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission.

The United States could exit the Middle East and, in Sarah Palin’s immortal words, “let Allah sort it out.” But it would have condemned the region to perpetual war. Isolationism in the face of serious geopolitical challenges is not only an abdication of responsibility, but also a recipe for disaster. [Continue reading…]

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2 thoughts on “The Middle East is now suffering from neoconservative sins of commission and realist sins of omission

  1. hquain

    I’d like to suggest an empirical test for policy prescriptions: they (or something like them) must have worked in the past. The course of these discussions is first to assess blame, which falls on certain designated participants, and then to propose some fantasy maneuvers, which are mysteriously going to escape the flaws and complexities that have bedeviled previous actions and inactions.

    Even the current author, who shows an unusually clear sense of things, eventually falls into the (obligatory?) pattern at the end of his piece: “In Iraq, if the United States aims to evict ISIS without exacerbating sectarian tensions, it must end its exclusive reliance on Shiite forces and revive alliances with the Sunni tribes. In Syria it must end its ambivalent attitude toward the murderous Assad regime and provide meaningful support to the opposition.” Must, must — the verbal signature of the impossible.

  2. Paul Woodward

    Empiricism based on previous successes depends on being able to compare like with like. When people say, “look at what’s happened in Libya,” as though this demonstrates the predictable outcome of intervention, this is such a crude form of comparison, it’s like saying, “look at what happened to that person with a disease when he was given some medicine. There’s no point offering medicine this other person with a disease.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what many Americans do when constructing a homogeneous category of “Arab states” and another one called “military intervention.”

    It turned out that in military terms, the NATO intervention in Libya was remarkably successful. What followed was an exercise in wishful thinking — that having toppled Gaddafi, rival militias were going to set aside their differences and with negligible outside support focus on state building. Obama both led from behind and rushed for the exit.

    Haunted by the disaster in Iraq, the options in Libya were reduced to either an occupation or walking away and since no one imagined an occupation could end well, everyone just walked away. But there were other options and they derived not from looking at the past but instead at the unique situation then at hand: a major oil-producing country with no functioning government. The UN could and should have assumed control of Libyan oil revenues and then used that as leverage in the formation of a new government.

    In Iraq, when Idrees says the U.S. needs to revive alliances with the Sunni tribes, this is without question a policy prescription based on what worked in the past (with the Sunni Awakening). The fact that ISIS was able to regain control of Anbar province wasn’t the result of that policy failing — it was the result of Maliki reversing the policy and thereby widening the divide between Sunnis and Shia.

    To talk about what the U.S. “must” do in Iraq and Syria is, I expect, less an expression of resignation that these policies will never be adopted but more likely an assumption that during his last year in office, Obama is not going to be the one who initiates a change of course. As the saying goes, America can always be relied on to do the right thing — once it has exhausted all other possibilities.

    Anyone who looks at the region and now concludes that this has become such a mess, the U.S. can’t fix it — it can only make things worse — isn’t really thinking enough about what “worse” may end up looking like and how far reaching its effects may be.

    (BTW: I agree that in this season of campaign rhetoric, “must” is a term that invariably signals a hollow intention. Even so, if we were to avoid using every word that suffers from frequent abuse, we’d be left with almost no meaningful language to exchange.)

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