I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.
In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.
The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.
But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).
Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.
Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.
Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.
Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.
The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.
No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.
So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.
Military colleagues (same ones who produced this fine piece) recently asked some good questions. I replied:
- How could DoD and DoS be better postured to address regional and world conflicts to ensure a whole of government approach to identify and synchronize lines of effort in both planning and execution?
While intellectually DoD and DoS are more in agreement on a whole of government approach than any other time I can remember in the past 20 years, there is a gigantic imbalance in the capacities and cultures of the two institutions. State persists with a “sink or swim” culture fundamentally opposed to planning, which is still honored more in the breach than the observance. It also lacks appropriate personnel and resources. That is about to get worse, not better, due to budget cuts.
Ideally, State Department officers should train with military units with which they might deploy in the future. That would vastly increase mutual esteem and communication. But it is mostly impossible today. The best that can be hoped for is some commonality in the training materials for both, though State is likely to be doing precious little training for stabilization operations in the next few years. I fear we are back to where we were 20 years ago: our military instrument is far more potent than our civilian instruments, and there is a yawning gap between them.
2. What does a successfully concluded campaign against ISIS look like? Considering costs, reputation, and balance of influence, how should the U.S./Coalition define success? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it causes the balance of power in the region to shift towards Iran, Assad, or Russia?
Success in Syria should be defined in terms of sustainable peace and security. That won’t be possible under Assad or with the Russians and Iranians playing the roles they play today in propping up a minority dictator and repressing the majority Sunni population. So long as Assad is there, Syrians will be fighting him. The longer it lasts, the more those Syrians will be extremist.
After a successful campaign against ISIS, Syrians in different parts of the country should be able to govern themselves, repress terrorist activity with forces that do not oppress or attack the rest of the population, begin to return economic activity to prewar levels, and return to their homes or resettle freely without fear of persecution. We are a very long way from that, even in the most stable parts of the country (some Kurdish-controlled areas and parts of the south).
3. Does U.S. foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting U.S. interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the U.S. consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and U.S. national interests?
It is a mistake to ask foreign policy experts about isolationism, which they will all condemn, but I’ll go this far: U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as salient as they once were and we should be thinking and planning about reducing our commitments and burdens there.
The main U.S. interests in the region apart from counter-terrorism are generally defined as these: non-proliferation, oil, maintenance of alliances, and human rights/democracy. The only significant proliferation risk in the region (Iran) is on hold for 10-15 years or so, the U.S. is far less dependent on Middle East oil than once it was, our allies are mostly interested in military assistance, and we appear to have mostly given up on human rights and democracy in the region.
I think it is arguable that a) deterring Iran could be (maybe better be) accomplished with a much reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf, b) we should not be spending as much American treasure as in the past or risking American lives for oil flowing out of the Gulf to China and Japan (which should share that burden more than in the past), c) our allies should be taking on more of the burden of defending themselves with the enormous amount of kit we’ve sold them, and d) human rights and democracy will gain traction in the region better with less U.S. military presence.
4. What are the competing national interests of the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S. / Iranian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Iran is a revolutionary power looking to extend its security perimeter into neighboring states and to burnish its Islamist credentials by resistance to Israel. It will be impossible to overcome these problems exclusively in a bilateral U.S./Iran context, though increased communication between Tehran and Washington (including diplomatic representatives at some level in each of their capitals) is highly desirable.
Regional stability would also benefit from some sort of regional security architecture—think OSCE in Europe or ASEAN in Asia. This would aim at de-escalating Sunni/Shia, Saudi/Iranian, Turkish/Iranian, and other regional conflicts and tensions. There are few places on earth today with less regional cooperation and connectivity than the Middle East and North Africa.
5. What are the respective national interests of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S./Russian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
It is approaching 100 days since Donald Trump took office. He is getting applause in Washington for a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base responsible for launching a chemical attack, and I suppose he’ll get some tomorrow for using the biggest conventional bomb ever in Afghanistan, but he has yet to clarify his goals or enunciate strategy for achieving them in either country, or anywhere else.
Here is a summary of the incoherent foreign policy of a president who is playing golf more often than any in recent memory and spending more money on security and travel for himself and his family:
- Threats to do something about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles if China doesn’t, but it is clear what. Promised concessions on trade to China if it will and backed off his pledge to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator, which in any event hasn’t been true for a couple of years. The guy is one tough negotiator: carrots up front.
- Warm greetings to Egyptian autocrat Sisi, who continues to hold US citizens in prison on trumped up charges (pun half-intended) and has vastly increased repression over and above his predecessors’ already draconian measures, not to mention his cozying up to the Russians and making a peace settlement in Libya impossible by supporting a would-be strongman.
- A plea to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pause settlements, which Netanyahu is pointedly ignoring with the authorization of the first brand-new settlement in many years.
- An unfriendly meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, during which Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of Europe’s de facto leader and strong US ally.
- Increased air strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that have caused a notable bump in civilian deaths, as well as increased (but now unannounced) US deployments to all three.
- Revelations of a web of contacts between the Trump campaign (and eventual appointees) and Russian businesspeople, spies, and government officials. If there is no fire beneath all this smoke, it will be a miracle.
- Delegation of major responsibilities to son-in-law real estate heir Jared Kushner, who at various times has appeared to be entrusted with Israel/Palestine negotiations, China, Iraq, reducing the Federal bureaucracy, and countering the opioid epidemic.
- Initial efforts to build a pointless wall on the Mexican border that would cost many billions the American taxpayer will need to pay, despite the years of decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. I’d guess no more than a few miles of this wasteful project will ever be completed, as Congress will not provide the funding required for more.
- A travel ban that courts are consistently finding violates the US constitution by singling out Muslim countries that have not in fact sent terrorists to the US.
- Decisions on coal that will make it impossible for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I could go on, especially with respect to domestic policy: utter failure so far to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a Supreme Court nominee so extreme his approval required the Senate to nuke the long-standing requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, and a budget proposal that cuts everything but Defense and Homeland Security, including crippling cuts to the State Department and USAID (not to mention the zeroing out of the UN Population Fund).
There is one reason to hope that things might improve on the international front. National Security Adviser McMaster, who is a serious expert himself, is hiring serious people with real expertise. He has already gotten Trump to reverse direction on NATO, which the President is now praising. But the State Department is still a wasteland, with no appointees to any of the sub-cabinet positions and a Secretary of State who seems not to understand or care for the public affairs part of his job. He was initially laconic to a fault. Now he talks but contradicts himself. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yes, I too would have thought Americans up in arms at this wholesale betrayal of their values, but I’m afraid it is no longer clear what those values are. Are we prepared to play a leadership role in moving the world towards liberal democracy, or are we content to cut deals with the worst autocrats on earth? Are we going to rely on real facts and knowledge, or are we going to try to scam the world, just as Trump has scammed his investors and contractors as well as the students at his “university”? Are we going to pursue a foreign policy that relies at least in part on diplomacy and international assistance, or are we going to use only the military?
Our current course is clear: towards a more militarized, less honest, and more illiberal foreign policy. I’m not seeing anything on the horizon that will turn us in a better direction.
For those who doubt that things are so bad, here is Trump’ April 12 interview with Fox Business, in which he remembered the cake he was eating when he ordered the missile strike but not the country targeted (at 27:30-29:30):
Never mind that he forgets that he opposed an attack on Syria while President Obama was in office and fails to credit his predecessor for the military technology used, not to mention that the meeting with Xi Jinping he claims went well the Chinese think went badly, especially with respect to Syria and North Korea.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted April 4 a panel “Containing the Civil War Contagion” featuring Kathleen Cunningham, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland; Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Kenneth M. Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings; the discussion was moderated by MEI’s Ross Harrison.
Lynch said that a conversation on civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should not begin with the uprisings in 2011, as these point only to the tipping point of a larger trend. The steady decline in ability of states to deliver economic goods and to tackle issues such as growing poverty, deteriorating infrastructure and corruption had continued for over a decade. As citizens’ demands of their governments mounted, there was a new pattern of civilian empowerment through social media and civil society.
The events of 2011 occurred at the intersection of these two trends. Even after six years, not a single factor contributing to state decline has been alleviated. Rather the causes have intensified. Where we see the restoration of autocratic stability, the regimes maintain a surface level of stability but accelerate the underlying drivers of instability. If the current trajectory is followed, region-wide volatility encompassing many of our Sunni-Arab allies will be the result.
Citing international intervention as a driving force that prolongs and intensifies violence, Lynch sees little hope for resolution of the on-going civil wars in the next four years. International actors can only do good if their intentions are aligned, which has proven impossible in Syria, Libya and Yemen. From a policy perspective, there is little hope for making a positive impact in areas that have already collapsed, but he encourages the White House to strengthen state capacity in our regional allies. This support should go beyond security forces, as seen in Tunisia, to promote responsible, responsive and transparent governance.
Pollack said he agreed with Lynch on the issues despite their different beliefs on policy options. The most pressing issue for international powers from the civil wars is spill over: terrorism, refugee crises, economic disruption, and spreading instability. Unlike Lynch, Pollack believes that it is possible to end other countries civil wars, it is just hard to do so. US actions over the past few years are inconsequential because they lacked muscle; limited intervention is unproductive.
The civil wars are due in part to deliberate actions by the Assad and Gaddafi regimes to turn protest movements into civil wars. Western intervention may succeed in preventing the outbreak of civil war and its eventual spillover. How much engagement is needed? Pollack believes you either do it right, or you get out. He sees potential for the US to determine the outcome in Syria, but advocates strongly that the US should leave Yemen alone.
Cunningham said that civil wars are increasingly fragmented, posing unique challenges to negotiating a settlement in traditional ways. There are more options than just staying out or negotiating a peace agreement involving all parties. The alternative is piecemeal settlements that entail getting some, but not all, of the groups to stop fighting.
The key to this strategy is to stop the fighting in stages, which is most likely to be successful when people on the ground want to stop fighting and feel it is feasible to do so. She feels that targeted pressure on groups is likely to be more fruitful than calling for everyone to lay down their arms. This necessitates understanding what people on the ground will accept in return for not fighting. In Syria she sees an outcome where the Kurds maintain autonomy, ISIS is pushed out, and low level fighting persists in opposition areas. But it is hard to imagine a situation where Assad is out of power.
Last Thursday the Atlantic Council hosted an event “Prospects for Ending the Civil War in Libya,” moderated by Karim Mezran. The event featured Nebras Attia, human rights activist, Federica Saini Fasanotti, nonresident scholar at the Brookings Institution, Azza Maghur, senior lawyer at Maghur & Partners, Jason Pack, executive director of the US-Libya Business Association, and Ambassador Jonathan Winer, former US Special Envoy for Libya.
Ambassador Winer said that of the three actors vying for control of the country, no party has legitimacy among the Libyan people. Elections to determine sovereignty. Both Fayez Sarraj (Government of National Accord or GNA) and Aguila Saleh Issa (House of Representatives or HOR) reached out to international powers for help in facilitating elections, while military strongman Haftar refused to negotiate. Winer believes that the joint Tunisian, Algerian and Egyptian efforts to facilitate a Libya-Libya solution have some potential to re-energize negotiations, but he is not overly optimistic about their potential for success. The most foreign governments can do to encourage a favorable solution is to consolidate support behind one body instead of the divided foreign support for different militias. Winer maintains that US involvement in Libya is aimed at inclusivity reflecting local interests, though efforts are often thwarted by lack of cooperation and willingness to take orders from foreigners. He sees little indication that the Trump administration will pursue a policy towards Libya different than his predecessor.
When asked why she was skeptical about the Libyan Political Agreement that aimed to establish the GNA, Maghur replied she was not only skeptical of it, but that she knows it is a failure. The agreement is not realistic because it lacks transparency, inclusivity, and a clear start date. The agreement only makes the international community happy, and if they want to make the Libyan people happy they need to include them in the process.
As a lawyer in Libya, Maghur sees the judicial system as a strong tool for reunifying the nation. It is a venerable institution that survived the dictatorship and will survive the civil war. The criminal courts are very effective, but improvements are needed in the civil courts.
Fasanotti said Libyans need to develop a sense of nationality and to accept the country’s diversity as a strength. Although nobody wants a divided Libya, the three regions have existed since Italian colonization and are a good place to start. She imagines a federal system that capitalizes on the strengths of each region and celebrates their differences. When asked her opinion on Italian policy towards Libya she stressed its consistency: Italian government support for the GNA is unwavering. Unlike Ambassador Winer, she does not believe that reopening the Italian embassy in Libya is a good idea for security reasons, and because it might be vulnerable to exploitation by military strongman Haftar.
Attia criticized the international community for viewing the Libyan crisis in its own terms. She said that outside actors do not see the real issues affecting Libyan communities. She encourages people in power to reach out to cities and communities to ask what they need help with, supporting a bottom up approach as the best course of action to support Libya. Internationals are not solving the real problems in Libya. Youth is the most vulnerable population sector, at risk of extremism unless someone steps in and engages them with alternatives.
Pack described the proxy war in Libya as a situation where everyone wants to get control of the ‘Libya file,’ either to amp up their international status or to influence developments in a future, more stable, Libya. The Russians seek to limit American influence in the conflict, gain a warm water port, and potentially “trade” Libya for leverage in Syria or Crimea. Pack believes that a viable future for Libya requires heavy handed American intervention, both to consolidate foreign influence behind one actor and to support legitimacy on the ground with capacity building in every sector. He sees the private sector as a potential tool for the Trump administration to incentivize development that creates jobs and infrastructure while increasing bilateral ties between the US and Libya.
Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.
Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.
At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.
I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.
Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:
…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.
This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.
In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.
But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.
Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.
The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.