While the Middle East burns, policymakers can’t seem to agree on how to douse the fire. This discord was on full display Monday, at the Middle East Policy Council’s annual conference. Speakers included Kenneth Pollack, Paul Pillar, Amin Tarzi, and Ambassador Chas Freeman, with Thomas Mattair moderating. Pollack sought a more robust military presence in the region, while Freeman advocated for a hands-off approach. Pillar and Tarzi fell somewhere in between.
Pollack said America must reengage fully with the Middle East, diplomatically and militarily. From the beginning, Obama wrongly assumed that America had overinvested in the region. He believed that the US was in fact a major part of the problem and couldn’t affect the outcome of events in any case. These assumptions have proven demonstrably false over the last five years, he said. The Middle East today is, amazingly, in even worse shape than it was in 2006.
He noted a shift in Obama’s approach to the region in the last few years, beginning with the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State. Kerry’s attempt to revive the peace process signaled a more hands-on approach. The announcement of half a billion dollars in aid to the Syrian rebels was also a positive sign.
Moving forward, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is especially apropos. America could have reduced the costs we are now incurring had we intervened earlier. We should have provided more support for Syrian rebels at beginning of civil war. When the US gets involved earlier, we have more leverage when things go awry.
Pillar said that the Hippocratic principle of “first do no harm” should take precedence over Pollack’s “ounce of prevention.” “Bumper sticker” solutions will not address our problems in the region. America’s Middle East policy must be ad hoc.
We have an unfortunate Manichaean tendency to divide the world into “ally” and “enemy,” Pillar said. US policy should be more flexible than that. It should serve our interests without regard to labels. Concluding a nuclear deal with Iran is one occasion where we must deal in shades of grey. Iranian interests sometimes clash with ours, as in Syria. But other times they converge, as in Iraq.
Tarzi argued against Pillar’s “ad hoc” approach to the Middle East. We must have stable partners in the region, he said. We must also look at why Iran began seeking nuclear weapons in the first place. Khameinei realizes that possession of the bomb gets you a seat at the table with the big boys, while giving it up means you get the boot (Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi). Assad may have saved his regime by using chemical weapons on his people, setting a dangerous precedent. America cannot allow these precedents to stand.
Tarzi added that Iran would not attempt to strike Israel or the US, a belief that was echoed to him by a number of experts on a recent trip to Israel.
Freeman cautioned against confusing sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy. Obama said at West Point “Our military has no peer.” But he added, “Just because we have the best hammer doesn’t mean every problem is a nail.” Unmatched military prowess has not proven equal to many of the problems in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is hard to think of any US project in the Middle East not at or near a dead-end. American efforts at negotiating Middle East peace are not so much dead, said Freeman, as “so putrid as to not be fit for a wake.”
Our attempts at democracy building have failed spectacularly. In fact we have pulled down several budding democracies in their infancy, as was the case with Egypt. US counterterrorism programs are only fanning the flames of anti-Americanism. In Iraq we replaced secular dictatorship with a religious one, and gave birth to the jihadistan we see today.
We have repeatedly told leaders in Middle East that they must be “with us or against us,” Freeman said. They remain annoyingly unreliable in this regard. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is with us on Iran and Syria, against us in Iraq. Salafists are against us in Iraq, with us in Syria.
We cannot have a policy when people are so “damnably inconsistent.” The US should withdraw from the Middle East, he argued. We must stop protecting Israel, which would make better decisions if it weren’t shielded from the consequences of its actions by the US.
Assad miscalculated with the over-application of force early on, Freeman said. Protests quickly escalated into a civil war. However, the conflict was exacerbated by the flow of arms into the country. We should try to stop the flow of weapons into Syria, rather than attempting to find the “mythical Syrian moderates” who will rise up against Assad.
Pollack countered that it is possible to build a conventional army of non-jihadists in Syria who can oppose both ISIS and Assad. The purely diplomatic solution Freeman proposes is not possible without a shift in the balance of power on the ground.
The speakers did not see eye to eye on much. On one point, however, they did agree: the Middle East in flames, and America has yet to articulate a coherent policy towards the region. Until we do, it will continue to burn.
PS: Here is the video of the event: