Afghanistan, Donald Trump, energy, Iran, ISIS, Middle East, national interests, Obama, oil, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Persian Gulf, Putin, Russia, Shah of Iran, Soviet Union, Syria, terrorism, Vietnam
During the Cold War, American leaders got into two bad habits that often wound up costing the country dearly. First, the Soviet Union, or some of its surrogates (like Cuban military advisors), or some local forces calling themselves Communists would show up or emerge in a place that rigorous thinking made clear had no important strategic or economic value to the United States. And all of a sudden, Washington would act like the fate of this place would make or break that of Western civilization. Second, a major setback would be incurred in a region of genuine importance, and since no viable countermeasures were available, the United States would simply assume that things would turn out OK eventually.
Worrisomely, variations of both bad habits are evident in the foreign policy world’s reactions to Russia’s recent burst of military intervention in the Syrian civil war. They demonstrate that if Washington’s response – either under President Obama or whoever succeeds him – winds up enhancing American security and prosperity, U.S. leaders will have to focus like the proverbial laser beam on American interests.
Vietnam of course was the prime example of the first pattern. As most surely remember, it showed the disasters that can result from massive conflicts not remotely justified by the tangible stakes. Iran and Afghanistan were great, though more obscure, examples of the second. After the pro-Western Shah was thrown off his throne in Tehran in 1979, and after Soviet forces plunged into Afghanistan later that year to try keeping their stooges in power, all manner of rationalizations for U.S. inaction popped up – even though America and the world desperately needed the Persian Gulf’s oil. Even though the worst case never unfolded and the flow of crude has continued pretty much uninterrupted, America’s ongoing exposure to the region’s turmoil indicates that hope isn’t an acceptable foundation for policy.
Russia’s entry is certainly a new factor not only in the Syrian conflict but into the entire Middle East/Persian Gulf equation. And it’s one I didn’t expect. But even though it greatly increases the chance of some kind of dangerous mishap involving U.S. and Russian forces operating in an uncoordinated manner in a relatively confined theater of action, Moscow’s move doesn’t change the fundamental situation, which consists of three main components.
First, the Middle East, because of its energy resources and its potential as a platform for terrorist strikes against the United States, remains a vital concern for Americans. Second, as a result, and equally important, Washington can’t afford to depend on optimistic predictions about the so-called foreseeable future. And third, Putin’s venture has no bearing on the inability of the United States – whether acting alone or multilaterally – to turn Syria or the Middle East into a substantially more stable, less dangerous region from America’s standpoint.
In other words, President Obama is wrong to be confident that whatever energy or terrorism threats will eventually fade because Vladimir Putin will get bogged down militarily, or because Russia’s economy can’t sustain prolonged military ventures, or because Moscow will ultimately turn the Sunni Muslim world against him. Other dovish voices are wrong to oppose a stronger U.S. response simply because past interventions have flopped and arguably worsened the region’s instability, and to suggest that standing aloof per se will somehow produce better results.
Donald Trump is wrong as well to assume that simply because Russian leaders also oppose Islamic terrorism that Washington should simply count on their military conveniently doing the dirty and dangerous work of defeating ISIS – and bogging themselves down in the Middle East. And both Democratic and Republican hawks are wrong to believe that the Russian gambit strengthens their case for deeper U.S. armed involvement in Syria and the region as a whole, whether to create no-fly zones to protect civilian populations or to start sending American troops into the fray whether in “advisory” or more active roles.
Therefore, the best American approach to the Middle East post-Putin remains exactly the same as it was pre-Putin – transitioning from a strategy of countering threats emanating from the region by trying to transform it into something better, to one of dealing with these threats through domestic policy measures like accelerating efforts to marginalize the Gulf in the national and global energy pictures, and preventing terrorist attacks by securing America’s borders.
As I’ve written, because the second goal in particular remains far from achievement, the United States can’t simply pick up militarily from the Middle East and go home. But its operations need to be linked tightly to the transition strategy, which means air and some ground activity (e.g., special forces) to keep ISIS and similar groups off balance enough to prevent them from consolidating control over areas large enough to become training centers for overseas attacks. These operations, however, need not and should not continue for one additional minute once the U.S. government has reliable systems in place for keeping terrorists away from its frontiers.
Defeating ISIS may actually entail actively cooperating with the Russian military until the mission is accomplished, and in fact the greater the burden on Russian forces, the better for Americans. But realizing longer term benefits from such efforts – either for relations between Washington and Moscow, or for the Middle East – is as unrealistic as expecting American shows of force to drive the Russians out.
And it’s as unnecessary. The root problem posed for the United States by the Middle East stems not from the specific activity or designs of hostile or potentially hostile local or outside forces, but from the fact that this terminally dysfunctional, and thus easily exploitable region matters to America at all. Washington’s top priority still should be ending this importance, and becoming indifferent to the Middle East’s future no matter how it evolves or who’s (supposedly) in control.