As you have probably heard, Yemen has collapsed into chaos. The President we were backing had fled the country and Iran-backed Shia rebels appear to be establishing control. Saudi Arabia is intervening and it looks like Egypt may get involved as well.
All this is a sign of Obama’s failed foreign policy according to … holy crap … Vox?:
The White House has been widely mocked for patting itself on the back for its Yemen strategy at a moment when swaths of the country are controlled by Shia Houthi rebels allied with deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and when Saudi and Egyptian forces are threatening to invade and turn this into a regional war. But it’s no coincidence that the White House has been praising its “Yemen model” right up until the moment of the country’s near-total collapse. (And that chaos, by the way, is great news for the al-Qaeda affiliate that is based in southern Yemen.)
The Obama administration’s approach to Yemen has all along exemplified some of its worst foreign policy instincts in the Middle East: treating drone strikes and armed proxies as the solution for everything, finding short-term solutions to long-term problems, and refusing to deal seriously with the underlying issues that keep creating crises in the region.
But this model failed in Yemen — just as it has failed, and will continue to fail, in the rest of the Middle East.
I have long been bothered by Obama’s — and more precisely Kerry’s — approach to the Middle East. This puts into one sentence a growing litany of complaints. The question Obama has never answered on any foreign policy question is this: what is our overarching goal? What is our strategy for achieving this goal? What the Sam hell are we doing?
We’ve dabbled in Libya, we’ve toyed with Syria, we’ve trifled with Iraq. We’ve launched thousands of drone strikes. But it’s not clear what any of this is in aide of, other than putting out whatever is on fire at the moment (or given Kerry’s skill, pouring oil on whatever is on fire at the moment). As a direct result, we have extremist elements on the march in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and Nigeria. And the long-simmering cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is starting to heat up.
The last twenty years have been the most peaceful in human history. But that piece didn’t just happen. It was made and it was principally made by the United States. Under Ronald Reagan, we defeated the Soviet Union, which brought an end to most of the world’s civil wars. Under Bush and Clinton, we managed the aftermath of that war to minimize regional and ethnic conflicts. Bush II, for all his bungling, at least had a strategy of trying to crush radical Islam. What is Obama’s strategy? What is the Obama Doctrine? There isn’t one.
A few weeks ago, Rich brought up a point about Iran’s nuclear program. He pointed that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, there are good reasons to believe that Saudi Arabia and Egypt might acquire nuclear weapons as well. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has made it clear for years that they can acquire nukes from Pakistan or North Korea whenever they feel like it.
It was the conflict in Yemen that brought this into focus for me. The problem with Middle East is that it isn’t like Europe or South American or even Africa. The political dynamics, as P.J. O’Rourke pointed out in Give War a Chance on eve of the first Gulf War, have long been … complex:
Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and so forth are hardly nations as we understand the term. They are quarrels with borders.
Until 1918 the Arabian peninsula was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, so called because it had the same amount of intelligence and energy as a footstool. When the Turks backed the wrong horse in World War I, the French and English divvied up the region in a manner both completely self-serving and unbelievably haphazard, like monkeys at a salad bar. The huge, senseless notch in Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia, for instance, is known as “Winston’s Hiccup” because the then head of the British Colonial Office, Winston Churchill, is supposed to have drawn this line on a map after a very long lunch.
The British were fans of one Hussein ibn Ali, the Grand Sherif of Mecca, who led the Arab revolt against the Turks that Lawrence of Arabia claimed to be such an important part of. The British wanted to make members of Hussein’s Hashemite family kings of what-all and which-ever. They crowned Hussein himself King of the Hejaz, the Red Sea coast of the Arabian peninsula. They put his son Faisal on the throne of Syria. But the French threw a fit, so the Brits moved Faisal to Iraq. And Faisal’s brother Abdullah — grandfather of the King Hussein we’ve got these days — was given the booby prize of Transjordan, an area previously known as “to-hell-and-gone-out-in-the-desert” when it was called anything at all.
In the 1920s, Ibn Saud — the man who put the “Saudi” in Saudi Arabia — chased Hussein ibn Ali out of the Hejaz. This is why the Jordanians hate the Saudis.
The Jordanians should hate the Iraqis, too, because the military government that Saddam Hussein now runs killed every available member of the Iraqi branch of the Hashemite family in 1958. But Jordan and Iraq are too busy hating Syria for Syria’s attempt to achieve Arab hegemony by allying with Iran, invading Lebanon and trying to gain control of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The PLO, meanwhile, nearly toppled King Hussein in 1970, whereupon the king, with Iraqi support, exterminated thousands of Palestinians. Thus the Palestinians should hate the Jordanians and vice versa, but since sixty-five percent of Jordanians are Palestinians, it’s easier for everybody to hate Israel.
With the exceptions of Israel and Iran, the nations of the Middle East don’t really represent nationalities or ethnicities, the way they do elsewhere. They represent various strongmen who came to power in the different regions. Iraq, in particular, was a strange combination of Sunni, Shia and Kurd that was only kept together by the iron fist of its brutal leader. This arrangement was complicated by the Cold War, which saw the Soviets arming half the countries in the region and us arming the other half (on occasion) as well as the presence of Israel, which the Arab states would occasionally all align against.
So when we talk about the Middle East in terms of Saudis and Iraqis and Yemenis, we’re kind of talking in make believe. Because these faux nationalities are not the natural division of the Middle East. And the fall of Saddam and the chaos in Syria and Yemen has triggered a realignment of powers to the more natural division: between Sunni and Shia, with Iran leading one side and Saudi Arabia leading the other.
This cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is flaring up in proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen the same way our Cold War flared into proxy conflicts in Vietnam and Korea. In Yemen, Iranian-backed rebels are fighting against Saudi forces. In Syria and Iraq, Sunni radicals are fighting against Iranian Quds forces. If you want, you can throw in Israel as a third side in the emerging cold war with its nuclear deterrent having weakened the Islamic states’ will to attack it and therefore strengthening their will to attack each other.
So what does this mean for the United States? How should proceed? What should be our strategy? Obama doesn’t have an answer other than occasionally drone someone. I’m not sure I do either but I have some thoughts:
First, I think we should abandon the idea that we’re going to bring a lasting peace and constitutional democracy to the region. Maybe that will happen … eventually. But it will only happen when the people of the region want it, not when it’s forced on them. Trying to “build democracy” just results in us playing whack-a-mole against some dictatorial factions while supporting others.
Our foreign policy must be allied with our interests the region. And our interests are:
1) Maintain the free flow of oil.
2) Protect Israel.
3) Prevent terrorism.
These are our goals and there is no shame in persuing these goals. It would be very nobel of us to try to broker a lasting peace in the Middle East. It’s also nearly impossible. So we have to do what every nation has to do: protect our interests.
So how do we achieve those goals?
Maintain a Balance:
It is tempting to throw in our lot with Saudi Arabia and against Iran but this would be a mistake. Neither side in the blossoming Sunni-Shia conflict can gain the upper hand. If one does, it will be very bad news for Israel, which will suddenly face a powerful, unified and likely nuclear-armed opponent. It could also mean a regional superpower with control of the Gulf and its oil, with the ability to cause economic chaos at the drop of a hat (and thus, as OPEC has sometimes done, try to strangle our support of Israel).
That means supporting the Saudis when we must, despite their support for some extremist elements and their own extremism. But it also means that we must …
Improve Our Relationship with Iran:
The one good thing about the nuclear talks with Iran is that they are thawing our relationship with that country. This gives us a better ability to fight Sunni extremists and, in particular, to prevent Iraq from being consumed by Sunni radicals. It also gives us a lever, potentially, to reign in Iran’s aggression in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
There’s another reason we should be open to detente with Iran: Russia. Take a look at the map.
Russia has a good relationship with Iran and would dearly love to make this alliance closer. Their closeness to Iran boxes in Georgia, gives them more control of the Caspian Sea and an ally with warm-water ports. An Iran allied with Russia is a much scarier and more destabilizing force than an Iran on its own. And it threatens to give Russia yet another advantage in their emerging conflict with the West.
But this alliance is not ordained. It is possible we could peel Iran away from Russia. Despite the rhetoric of the leadership, there is some sympathy for the US within Iran: on 9/11, while Palestinians danced in the streets, Iranians held a vigil to the fallen.
Realigning Iran would not happen in a day. Or a year. Or maybe a decade. It would take time and a lot of work to recreate the kind of tentative sometimes cooperation we have with Saudi Arabia. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And I do think it’s vital that we try. Because a region dominated by Saudi Arabia is not a very good idea.
More important than building a relationship with Iran, however, is not making our current relationship worse. Bombing the country, as seemingly every neocon wants to do, will mean we have taken a side in the Sunni-Shia conflict and push Iran further into Russia’s camp. It will damage our ability to talk both sides down if the Cold War threatens to become a hot war. And it will most likely hasten Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, with Russia and China’s giddy help.
(The Bolton editorial I link to is a piece of work. Not once does he consider the potential consequences of bombing Iran. This is not a video game; this is the world.)
Defeat the most extremist elements:
This is why we’re fighting with Iran against ISIS and against Iran in Yemen. This is also the best way of keeping a potential nuke out of the hands of a terrorist. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have shown some appreciation of the whirlwind that has been unleashed in the ISIS and the Houthi rebels. If we can get the Iranians to neutralize the former and the Saudis to neutralize the latter, that’s good. But it’s a very dangerous game. It requires someone with light years more skill than Obama and Kerry to play it. And it may, unfortunately, require a much more direct involvement from us than random drone strikes.
Keep nuclear weapons off the table as a long as practicable:
We’ve discussed this before. I don’t think we can prevent nuclear proliferation in the region. But we can put it off for a long time. One thing we could do is help with deterrence. Improved launch detection and missile defense systems (perhaps in the form of Arleigh Burke destroyers stationed in the Gulf) would go a long way toward assuaging fears of a nuclear conflict.
Keep Israel out of it:
This means persuading Israel not to bomb Iran. It also means maintaining the pressure on them to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians. As PJ noted above, hating Israel is the one thing everyone in the region can agree on. The last thing we need is another reason for people to hate Israel.
We should also try to keep ourselves out of the conflict unless it is absolutely necessary. And no, drone strikes are not us “keeping out of it”. A drone strike doesn’t come with less political consequence than a bomb. But we may not be able to disengage from the region entirely.
The tricky part is that these objectives frequently come into conflict with each other. We need to delay Iran’s nuclear program as long as possible, even if it antagonizes them. But this can be done without bombing Iran and causing a major crisis. For example, I’ve noted before that Israel and the United States have engaged in covert actions to slow Iran’s nuclear program. This has possibly included the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and cyberwarfare. It’s not a permanent solution. But it is better than igniting a hot war.
And, in the end, we may have not have a choice. In the end, despite our best efforts, Iran may cement is alliance with Russia and acquire a nuclear weapon. In the end, some country may fall to radical Islamic elements. We need to plan for such contingencies.
You’ll notice that Obama is, in his bumbling incompetent way, pursuing something like this strategy. But that appears to an accidental result of a series of short-term foreign policy decisions. And the side effect of this lack of an overall strategy is an increasing rift with Israel, a drone war that angers people while accomplishing nothing and ham-fisted negotiations with Iran that are antagonizing all the parties involved. Russia’s and Iran’s hands are getting stronger and ours is getting weaker.
And that’s really the point. The world is set to explode into multiple conflicts. I’ve only focused on one region, but there’s also China vs. Japan, India vs. Pakistan, Russia vs. everyone who’s not Russia to say nothing of the various conflicts throughout Africa. It’s going to take someone very skilled to navigate these waters and maintain the delicate Pax Americana that has been built since the fall of Communism. It’s going to take a lot of patience to undo the damage that Obama has done. I’m not even sure it can be done. But I do know this is going to be a critical test of this President and the next one. We need to be asking these questions of the 2016 Presidential candidates. And we need to be getting answers, not applause lines about how awesome Israel is or we’ll do whatever it takes. So far, I have yet to see anyone, of either party, who impresses me on this subject.