President Obama isn’t the only prominent American lacking a strategy to defeat ISIS fanatics in the Middle East. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is at least as out to lunch, only he doesn’t seem to know it. And his term doesn’t run out in 2017.
In his latest piece, Friedman once again demonstrated that, for all he knows about the Middle East, he knows little of importance when it comes to U.S. policy. Two especially inane and related arguments (that’s a charitable term) stand out.
First comes Friedman’s claim that “To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged.” If Americans should have learned any lesson from decades of bitter experience in the region, however, it is that there is absolutely no “addressing the context.” And even if it’s genuinely possible to achieve this goal over some time span, there’s certainly no chance of success in the time left to prevent ISIS from consolidating its hold over huge swathes of Iraq and Syria, and creating a terrorist state that could provide bases, sanctuary, and a launchpad for strikes against the United States just like the Taliban gave Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
The main reason for pessimism is less the inherent limits on outside powers’ transformative capabilities (which should never be forgotten), but the depth of the Middle East’s dysfunction. Political, social, and economic failure on the scale present there, lasting for so many decades, will for decades more defy the wishes even of whatever minimally cohesive governments might emerge. If the needed transformation takes place — an immense “if” — it will happen at the organic level of culture and society, and therefore glacially.
Weirdly, in this very column, Friedman himself cogently explains why. The Middle East, he writes, is “beset by [so] many civil wars at once,” being waged in so many different dimensions, that “there is no center, only sides.” It is a region in which “kinship and sectarian loyalties overwhelm any sense of shared citizenship.” Largely as a result, “our allies are not fully allies: While the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti governments are pro-American, wealthy Sunni individuals, mosques and charities in these countries are huge sources of funds, and fighters, for ISIS.”
Which leads us to the second big problem with Friedman’s column. Despite the above obstacles, he insists that U.S. military moves against ISIS be conditioned on the establishment of a region-wide coalition comprised of “everybody who has a stake in stability.” In addition, he endorses the Obama policy of further hinging U.S. action on the creation of a national unity government in Iraq. A better formula or rationale for continuing American inaction is hard to imagine.
The beginning of Middle East wisdom for U.S. policymakers, for the short- and medium-term, is recognizing that the region is too deeply diseased on too many levels to count on reform’s stabilizing effects, and that its countries are too fatally flawed to form any type of cooperative fighting force worthy of the name whatever dictators are in charge at any given moment.
Therefore, America’s only viable anti-ISIS option for the time being is to put constant pressure on the Islamic State – mainly by air but also via special forces and other relatively small-scale ground units – to keep it continually off balance. The kernel of this approach started being suggested a few years ago in Afghanistan, when it became simultaneously clear that Al Qaeda had been seriously degraded, but that nation-building had all but failed.
This 2010 article from Foreign Affairs was a key example. Its proposals for various decentralized governing arrangements for Afghanistan were still way too ambitious, but it made the crucial point that specific internal political outcomes in that nation were far less important to the United States than preventing the Taliban’s return to power, and therefore that these political outcomes were not necessarily related to success on the latter front. And the article’s appearance in that journal clearly signaled that the U.S. foreign policy establishment had grown entirely comfortable with such thinking.
Longer term, the imperative is marginalizing the Middle East in American life, through a combination of a much tighter border security regime as the nation’s main defense against terrorism, and greatly expanded energy production aimed at greatly reducing the Middle East’s position in the global supply picture.
That is, America’s Middle East strategy should focus like the proverbial laser beam on truly essential U.S. interests, and understand that the U.S. government will always have far more control over events in the United States than over events in lands half-way around the world. These maxims are so common-sensical that the only remaining questions concern not whether Washington will accept them, but how long it will take before their superiority is acknowledged, how much more money will be wasted, and how much more American blood will be needlessly spilled.