America Can No Longer “Muddle Through” The Middle East

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As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and tanks and artillery shell Deir al-zour (where fifty civilians were killed Sunday during Ramadan) and other cities. The Sunni nations are beginning to respond, but America remains “Missing In Action.”

Saudi Arabia responded by pulling its ambassador from Damascus. Following Saudi Arabia’s lead,  Riyadh’s Gulf Cooperation Council allies, Kuwait and Bahrain, did the same. The Arab League also condemned the Syrian massacres. Unconfirmed reports from Israeli news have indicated that Turkey has privately approached Syrian President Bashar Assad and demanded he step down.

The United States “welcomed” the Saudi move to pull their ambassador while at the same time the U.S. has kept Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in the country. Officially, Ford’s goal is to liaise with opposition leadership, but there is little for him to do because Damascus has restricted his access and movement.

Fox News reported Tuesday that the Obama Administration is working on plans to demand Assad step down but it remains unclear when that plan will turn into action. In the meantime, other plans are being considered for United Nations action and the possibility of unilateral sanctions against Assad. Although if it is to be sanctions, it is questionable what value they will have in persuading Assad. Sanctions can be useful in compelling an autocrat to action, but Assad is fully committed to the course of his actions now. If anything, sanctions will probably speed up his repression because he must complete his bloody work before sanctions impair his security forces’ ability to keep him in power.

In all these cases, America finds itself once again “leading from behind.”  One must question why the United States must wait until such human rights stalwarts as Saudi Arabia say “enough-is-enough” before we become willing to act.

Syria is an ally of Iran, who is supplying weapons that kill American servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. Syria funds terror, supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Syria served as a transit point for Al Qaeda members to move into Iran. And yet, the United States, as it did in Libya, seems to wait for an Arab League decision before deciding how to act.

What is the logic behind American Mideast policy?

Consider for a moment, each of the major players in the region and their actions in response to the “Arab Spring.” For most of these nations, there is already an outline of a grand strategy as they move forward.

Iran: Iran supported the insurrections in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. It opposed the insurrections in Iran (obviously) and also in Syria, where IRGC and Hezbollah assets are said to be participating in the violence.  Iran is also helping to insure the loyalty of Assad’s forces by targeting Syrian military officers who have defected to the opposition. In doing so, it supported an increase in disorder among its Sunni or secular Arab opponents in the region.  Iran is constantly seeking ways to bring Islamist parties to power and forward its Khomenist revolution. It opposed what it might consider “counter-revolution” against itself and its allies, with the brutality for which it is known. In general, it seeks to foment chaos, subverting its opposition and expand its influence, while maintaining an iron grip at home.

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia opposed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. It sent military force to back its ally Bahrain and strengthened cooperation among the Sunni Arabs by expanding and bolstering the Gulf Cooperation Council as a regional alliance vis-à-vis Iran. It called Qaddafi illegitimate (unsurprisingly considering Qaddafi’s attempts to assassinate the Saudi King). Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies have now stepped in to condemn Syria for its violence against the Sunni Arab majority. Clearly Saudi Arabia’s actions are based on its own need to insure stability against its Shiite minority at home and to draw a red-line against the advance of Iranian revolutionary activities abroad. It has used the specter of Iranian intervention to formulate an alliance of Sunni states with itself as the head.

Turkey: Turkey called for Mubarak and Qaddafi to be ousted, called the Tunisian revolt “a model for others,” urged restraint on both sides in Bahrain and has been among the most active in calls for Syria to cease its violence. This comes despite the fact that Turkey and Syrian relations have improved greatly since the Islamist AKP took power in Turkey and Turkey has been considered by some to be have been drifting into the Iranian-Syrian axis for some time. However Turkey has also been working to increase its leadership role in the Islamic world by organizing and participating in resistance activities against Israel (such as the now infamous Mavi Marmara incident). In addition to attempting to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe on its border, Turkey appears to be using the “Arab Spring” as an opportunity to take the mantle as a third pole of authority in the Islamic world, opposite both Tehran and Riyadh. Some have referred to this as Turkish President Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottoman” aspirations.

The United States: The United States backed the ouster of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and long time American ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It called for the Bahraini regime, which hosts the American 5th fleet, to endorse reforms, and opposed Saudi intervention.  After rebel violence forced Yemeni President Saleh to flee to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has called for him not to return to power. The U.S. also called for the removal of Qaddafi and joined a campaign of airstrikes to hamper the Qaddafi military’s ability to fight the rebels seeking to oust him, but only after receiving cover from the Arab League and the United Nations and at the insistence of western allies such as France and the United Kingdom. Regarding Syria, as mentioned, the United States has slowly increased criticism, only after having been embarrassed by statements calling President Assad a reformer, even after his brutal crackdown against protestors began.

In every case but one, the overarching strategic concept of the parties can be surmised fairly easily. But what is the strategic concept driving U.S. action in the region? By what standards did the U.S. decided to call for the ouster of Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh, and demanded reforms in Bahrain, but remains repeatedly behind the curve in dealing with Syria? A campaign built entirely on democracy promotion, or human rights concerns, would have seen Syria as much if not more of a target then Egypt or Libya. A pragmatic, perhaps cynical strategy of merely supporting allies and opposing enemies, would have precluded seeking Mubarak’s exit, and may have backed intervention to insure Bahrain remained out of Shiite hands and risk of Iranian interference, which is after all, the supposed reason behind massive U.S.-Saudi arm sales.

The Obama Administration handling of these events gives the distinct impression that they are “winging it.” Responses to each crisis has been slow to evolve, and based on seemingly random series of factors. In one case, Libya, humanitarian concerns seem to have triumphed. In another, Egypt, democracy promotion has been the order of the day — regardless of the costs: such as the rise of the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood, which the Obama Administration has seen fit to embrace as “mostly secular” despite the facts.  In the Syrian situation, the U.S. has maintained its desire to pursue engagement. Even the flawed concept of seeing institutions of regional cooperation, like the Arab League, take the lead on security issues has been hit or miss, endorsed in Libya, but ignored in Egypt.

In a time of continuous crises, the strategy of “muddling through” is bad foreign policy. With an articulated strategy, a country may find allies to help — but first you have to have a strategy.  Flailing from one crisis to another and responding in an erratic manner to each alienates any possible support. Whereas American leadership may have brewed discontent from states and organizations forced to swallow their ambitions in the face of American power, American incoherence creates a deeply anarchic environment where enemies are testing to see what they can get away with and allies scramble to cut deals outside of the U.S sphere of influence.  How can America “muddle through” while civilians revolt against tyrants in the streets, unsure if their sacrifice will earn American action — or American indifference.

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About the Author

Kyle Shideler
Kyle Shideler is the Director of Research and Communications for the Endowment for Middle East Truth

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