Rutland Herald and Montpelier Times Argus

Sunday February 28th, 2016


I heard this recently on a Public Radio talk show.

In Iraq, the United States invaded and overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein. The result was a disaster.

In Libya, the United States overthrew dictator Muammar Gaddafi but did not invade - and it became a disaster.

In Syria, the United States did not invade nor overthrow dictator Bashar Assad. And Syria may be the biggest disaster of all.

Is this a new aphorism to describe the futility of American Middle East policy?

Actually, it is too long to be an aphorism and it is not an evident truism. Yet it certainly reflects a widely held frustration among politicians, analysts and the American public at large that nothing the United States does in the Middle East works.

I don’t pretend to know what could be done that would work. But I do know this. Washington policy makers are facing the challenge of a Middle East that has profoundly changed in recent times. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the long war that followed was a major factor in that change- but not the only one. This is short list of some of the other factors;

-The Iranian revolution, which created an assertive Shiite theocracy to compete with the Sunni majority in the region.

- The reaction of the major Sunni power Saudi Arabia to the new Iran. The Saudis have become interventionists in the region- often with their wealth, sometimes militarily, but more than ever, with their expansion of their own brand of very conservative Islam, known as Wahhabism.

- The emergence of the terrorism- and the extremely brutal ideology - known variously as ISIS or the Islamic State. Born in the ashes of the Iraq War, the Islamic State, now occupies large tracts of Syria and Iraq. Its ideology is beginning to spread significantly in Africa- and its terrorist activities have been felt in Europe and even in the United States.

- The incipient desire of many of the region’s peoples to be free. The Arab Spring has been violently suppressed in countries like Egypt. Now fear of its reawakening dominates autocratic policies of the region.

-The major influx of Soviet Jews into Israel at the end of the Cold War which dramatically changed the demographics of the Jewish state by adding more than a million people- with no experience with either the Middle East or democracy.

Reflective of these changes, America now often faces great tensions with its erstwhile allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, particularly over Iran. These shifts in attitudes have also made a diplomatic resolution of the Palestinian issue - which continues after nearly a half century of Israeli military occupation of Arab territory - a total non-starter.

If one listened to the Republican candidates for the U.S, presidential nomination, one man is largely responsible for the catastrophe of the Middle East - and that is President Barack Obama.

In response to that accusation, which has been taken up by much of the news media, I would like to offer a new analysis by Aaron David Miller, a senior Middle East diplomat who served both Democratic and Republican presidents. Miller, now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, is frequently critical of how Obama has handled Syria, as he is in this most recent 0p-ed.

“There’s little doubt that U.S. policy in Syria has been feckless and too risk-averse. The chorus of Assad must go; the non-enforcement of the red line on chemical weapons; the lapsed and wasted training program, and acquiescing in Russia’s air strikes all hurt Washington’s believability on Syria.”

But that is not his central message. This is.

“The idea that President Obama could have stopped the bleeding or now has the capacity or obligation to put the Syrian Humpty Dumpty back together is not only wrongheaded; it ignores a number of all too inconvenient realities. Consider these before you indict and sentence the administration.” These are Miller’s four “inconvenient realities” slightly abridged.

- “First, the uprising against the Assad regime and the Syrian civil war that followed didn’t happen in a vacuum. “Events in Syria were part of broad wave of Arab owned and generated turbulence and fragmentation that swept the Arab world. Indeed, that sense of ownership gave the so-called Arab Spring its legitimacy and power. In places where the U.S. had influence—Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen—Washington had little chance of affecting the outcome of authoritarians who had lost any legitimacy and power to govern. In a country like Syria, where the U.S. lacked influence and credibility, it had zero chance.

-“Second, the major responsibility for the horrors visited upon Syria and its people, including the rise of the Islamic State there and the migration crisis, is on Assad, the Syrian regime and his enablers and supporters.

-“Third. Syria is first and foremost a Syrian problem; and an Arab problem, too. Indeed, the Saudis and Gulf states supported the Assads for years, looking at him with a mixture of fear and respect. Then there’s the 40-year-old strategic bond between Iran and the Assads, driven by Teheran’s need for entry into Lebanon and a wall against Sunni encirclement. And of course there’s (Russian President) Mr. Putin, who today more than any other party is responsible for keeping Mr. Assad afloat.”

-“Fourth. Those who reportedly recommended a more muscular policy during the president’s first term—Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus and Leon Panetta—were nowhere near proposing the  kind of direct military action against the Assad regime that might have altered the battlefield  balance; brought him down; or created enough leverage to move him out.”

Miller concludes, “Instead of attributing these failures to some amorphous abdication of leadership or appeasement, the administration’s dysfunction flows more from the absence of good options, limited leverage and painful choices.  

“Syria—like the Middle East—was never America’s to win or lose. And the next new president—R or D, he or she—is likely to face a set of options and choices no better than the old one.”

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