We seem to have no way of dealing with an imploding Middle East.
ISIS, a vicious, but powerful and effective new actor has grabbed huge swaths of Syria and Iraq and declared a new “Caliphate” (although no one, them nor us, really understands what that means).
Two traditional allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at odds over Israel’s onslaught on Gaza but support Jihadist rebels in Syria and appear unwilling to take on ISIS, which they helped create.
The American public will not tolerate another military intervention, but the media and Republican politicians demand President Barack Obama go back to war while making it clear he will not have their support if he does. Obama has lost his voice; he cannot persuade the American public that he is trying to do what it appears to want.
Welcome to the end of the 20th Century, the bipolar world and America imitating Imperial Rome. Don’t think, however, that we have entered the 21st Century.
The dates may read the 21st but we have really reverted to the geopolitical reality, the multipolar world, of the 19th! The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the most powerful single country on the planet.
Our politicians, pundits and media, in an orgy of arrogance and overweening pride, told us that we could now rule the planet and we believed them. We lucked out for a time because good fortune gave us a superbly-skilled president. George Bush the Elder understood that we were living a delusion; we could not willy-nilly, impose our will on the world.
In Iraq he gave us a textbook example on how America should use its power without overreaching. Neither of his successors, Bill Clinton and George Bush the Younger, really understood.
In time, reality would have bitten. The Middle East status quo of oppressive pro-U.S. dictatorships and an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict (both of which we had worked assiduously to maintain) was overripe for an explosion.
The Younger Bush’s lunatic adventure in Iraq simply advanced the timetable. Combined with amazingly shortsighted economic policies and bitterly polarized politics, the Iraq War left the United States with a broken economy, a broken Army, and a population determined never to intervene abroad again.
Popular revolution swept the Arab world four years ago. Although repressive governments have reemerged they face a new reality: the Arab people no longer fear them. By crushing protestors who sought only a better life, our old “friends” drove their people into the arms of the jihadists.
Egypt’s new rulers have but a short time to satisfy the demand for a better life that overthrew Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. The nonagenarian regime in Saudi Arabia remains in denial believing it can crush the jihadist forces it helped create. Even al-Qaeda has become passe.
President Obama appears woefully ill-equipped to deal with the challenge. His inner circle concentrates on domestic politics and missed the global transformation. They know only that the populace elected and reelected a President who promised to end foreign entanglements.
Even the GOP opposition knows full well that being tied to re-engagement in the Middle East would be disastrous for its own electoral prospects but want to help the President to commit political suicide.
To make matters worse, Obama allowed Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to humiliate him, further eroding our country’s credibility among the Arab people. American and European leaders do not understand that the jihadists have won the allegiance of the best and brightest young Arabs, in part because the supposedly pro-democratic West turned against them. T
The ISIS forces that routed the Iraqi Army derive their effectiveness from the fact that they probably have a higher percentage of college graduates than comparable U.S. Army units.
If we are to mitigate the unfolding disaster in the Middle East, we must make painful decisions. The U.S. must objectively decide which policy objectives take priority. Do we remain constant to American principles and support political freedom, including in Palestine, or do we double down on our support for Israel and repressive dictatorships?
How does either course of action help us fight ISIS, deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and ensure the flow of Middle East oil? Both objectives work and both require dealing with painful consequences.
In the multi-polar world of the 19th Century, Great Britain successfully manipulated the world on the principle that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
In the multi-polar world, you hold your nose and ally yourself with the Devil on an as-needed basis. To make that work for us, however, American politicians and the media must reconcile themselves to the fact that politics do stop at the water’s edge and foreign policy does not provide fodder for selfish political advantage.
If we want to destroy ISIS, we need a regional ally powerful enough to put thousands of “boots on the ground.” We don’t have enough U.S. ground troops to do the job and we should not send them even if we did. Turkey, if it can decide whether it supports or opposes ISIS, and Iran would be the obvious candidates.
If we decide to support democracy in the region, we must engage with democratically-elected parties such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Our loathing of communism prevented us from engaging Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, who had much more popular support than the corrupt South Vietnamese dictatorship we called an “ally.” We cannot allow our domestic politics to inhibit forming pragmatic alliances.
We have tough challenges ahead of us. Failing to realize that the world has changed can lead to disaster.