I’m pretty sure that Henry Kissinger doesn’t view his latest op-ed column as an explanation of why the United States needs to refocus its Middle East strategy on the goal of strategic withdrawal. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what it is.
To his credit, the former Secretary of State acknowledges that U.S. policy is “on the verge of losing the ability to shape events” in the region. And the last quarter or so of his article presents what at first glance looks like a six-point plan for restoring American influence. The trouble is, it doesn’t add up to much of a strategy. To be sure, he does argue clearly for making ISIS’ defeat Washington’s top priority – to the point of of both dropping the aim of ousting Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad and even acquiescing in a Russian military role in the anti-terrorist campaign.
Kissinger’s arguments about Russia are especially interesting, diametrically opposed both to the prevailing Republican and conservative outrage over Vladimir Putin’s intervention, and also to the Obama administration’s weaker protests. In fact, Kissinger portrays Moscow’s involvement as mainly defensive (to prevent Islamic radicals from creating a base from which they could foment unrest among the large Muslim populations of Russia’s southern regions). Therefore, he contends that allowing the Russians to play a role in defeating ISIS is better than leaving the field open for “Iranian jihadist or imperial forces” to claim major credit for victory – and therefore will help contain Iran’s future influence.
The former Secretary also endorses President Obama’s policy of supplementing his Iran nuclear weapons agreement with “assurances” to help protect the region’s Sunni states, like Saudi Arabia, resist Tehran’s designs. But he also appears to agree with Mr. Obama that it’s worth trying to persuade the Iranians to stop destabilizing the region.
After that, though, the Kissinger approach gets pretty fuzzy: “The reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty”? “The sovereign states of the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt and Jordan, should play a principal role in that evolution”? “After the resolution of its constitutional crisis, Turkey could contribute creatively to such a process”? What on earth do those statement mean?
Ditto for “A federal structure could then be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions. If the Alawite regions become part of a Syrian federal system, a context will exist for the role of Mr. Assad, which reduces the risks of genocide or chaos leading to terrorist triumph.” Especially given Kissinger’s own (correct) judgment that a central challenge facing current U.S. Middle East policy is that “two rigid and apocalyptic blocs are confronting each other….”
In fact, the “Kissinger plan” dissolves into gauziness precisely because, as he makes so clear, that Sunni-Shiite conflict barely begins to describe the complexity and intractability of the region’s dysfunction. As he writes, the Middle East order that prevailed since 1973 “in shambles,” and four local states having literally fallen apart (Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen). Therefore, what’s left of the Sunni world (which includes America’s dubious allies, notably Saudi Arabia, “risks engulfment by four concurrent sources: Shiite-governed Iran and its legacy of Persian imperialism; ideologically and religiously radical movements striving to overthrow prevalent political structures; conflicts within each state between ethnic and religious groups arbitrarily assembled after World War I into (now collapsing) states; and domestic pressures stemming from detrimental political, social and economic domestic policies.”
More important, “The U.S. is now opposed to, or at odds in some way or another with, all parties in the region: with Egypt on human rights; with Saudi Arabia over Yemen; with each of the Syrian parties over different objectives. The U.S. proclaims the determination to remove Mr. Assad but has been unwilling to generate effective leverage—political or military—to achieve that aim. Nor has the U.S. put forward an alternative political structure to replace Mr. Assad should his departure somehow be realized.”
If he really is an archetypical realist, Kissinger should recognize that not all international problems are fated to be solved peacefully, and that geography has given the United States the priceless gift of distance from this hopeless mess. As I’ve repeatedly explained, because terrorist attacks remain all too possible, and because Middle East tumult continually endangers access to its energy supplies, America is not yet in a position simply to walk away. But as I’ve also repeatedly explained, the United States is eminently capable of addressing these issues predominantly through domestic policies like securing its borders better and stepping on the energy production revolution gas.
Henry Kissinger has all but accepted that the United States cannot become safe from Middle East dangers by manipulating the region’s players and societies. Indeed, moreover, his article, intriguingly, is titled, “A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse.” Is he still hoping against hope that the regional diplomatic circle can be squared? Or do those first three words constitute his real message?