Oct 08 2013

U.S. Foreign Policy: Last 5 Years in the Middle East

U.S. Foreign Policy: Last 5 Years in the Middle East


The Obama administration ramps up secrecy in what seems like a lead-from-behind approach.

By B.D. Smiley Sept. 24, 2013

            Although the uprising known as the “Arab Spring” held the promise of democracy and justice across the Middle East, factions with extremist views or non-state actors have risen to take the place of fallen dictators or are currently attempting to gain power in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and now Syria. The last five years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has brought about tumultuous relations with strategic partners in Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and did not bring the democracy that was hoped for in more fragile countries like Tunisia (Walter, 2013). However, recent headway into relations with Iran and the resumption of Israel-Palestine peace talks have brought hope that was desperately missing since President Obama took office. Faced with the grand task of cleaning up two largely unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and adopting a “lead from behind” approach with moderate Islamic groups is an extreme challenge in the face of economic collapse at home and plenty of obstruction from Republicans in congress on just about every issue the Obama administration has presented. After over 30 years of overt military intervention into the Middle East by U.S. forces and its allies, and many years prior in covert operations and sanctions, the region has not seen significant gains in the security of its people or stability of its governments.

Sunnis outnumber Shiites nine to one in the Middle East and the idea (and hope for Ayatollahs) of a unified Ummah of Islamic solidarity has fallen wayside to sectarian violence and reprisal killings across the region (Pryce-Jones, 2013). As formerly entrenched dictators fall by revolution or by the blood and treasure of coalition forces, the power vacuum that has been created is not always as favorable to U.S. interests, civilian rule of law, or minorities in the regions. Often, as in Egypt, Syria and formerly Iraq, it is a case of secular (Bathist) military forces keeping radical groups at bay. When Egypt voted in the moderate Shiite oriented Muslim Brotherhood, the new regime’s inability to stabilize the region and make friends with neighboring oil powerhouse and mostly Sunni, Saudi Arabia, saw a violent coup d’état that does not readily tolerate democratic assembly of grieved Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The military has crushed protest encampments with brutal techniques that have killed hundreds (Nordland 2013). However, the U.S. will not claim that the military overthrow was a coup, apparently to avoid the international ramifications of this status.

The U.S. has annually provided approximately $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt for the last 30 years. However, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its donations reaching $12 billion earlier in 2013. This undercut the threat of the U.S. and Europe removing their aid in the face of the military brutality against protestors (Nordland, 2013). The undermining of U.S. influence in the region by Saudi Arabia revealed the scope of the loss of power in the region and the importance of friendly forces to their interests being installed versus the threatening power of the Muslim Brotherhood which is mainly Shiite (Nordland, 2013).

The Arab Spring first began in the streets of Tunisia in the face of economic austerity and hardship that has been the root cause of much grievance. Harsh police tactics still suppress the free speech of the people there despite their slow turn towards democracy. The policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictated that certain economic conditions from borrowing countries had to be met, forcing the dictatorial regimes to pass on higher taxes, inflationary prices, reduced services and restricted loans to its people (Chossudovsky, 2013). Presented with little options for redress, a fruit seller in Tunisia set himself on fire and metaphorically set the region on fire in 2011. Powerful demonstrations then erupted in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Turkey. Protests in Egypt and Turkey were met with concessions. But, the brutal crackdown of protestors in Libya by Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled for 41 years, led to a NATO backed no fly zone. Gaddafi used mercenaries and Islamists from neighboring African countries to reinforce his troops, but his deadly tactics led to his eventual overthrow and murder by the revolutionaries.

In Syria, President Al-Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and China, has committed massive human rights violations in an attempt to quell the unrest in his country with over one hundred thousand deaths and 2 million people displaced (Obama, 2013). Both drought and austerity have hastened the unrest and now many extremist foreign fighters, some affiliated with Al-Qaeda in neighboring Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, have infiltrated the region and added to the depth of chaos that is now a full fledge civil war. Recently, supposed chemical weapons use by the regime in Syria has crossed “red lines” set by President Obama. However, Assad’s powerful ally Russia is standing up for his continued control of Syria (Obama, 2013). When faced with large disapproval of military force by the American people, Obama addressed the nation on September 10th 2013 with a mixed message of selling strikes against Assad’s forces while buying time for a political solution that promises to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile (Obama, 2013).

In a Wall Street Journal article critical of the “leading from behind” strategy, Russell Mead Walter says that the failure of President Obama to overthrow Al-Assad after calling for his removal showed “hardened realists” in the Middle East that, “the American president is irredeemably weak” (Walter, 2013). This position is framed as Walter being a former Obama supporter but now highly critical of a number of decisions made by the White House over the last five years. He calls out five areas of misreading made by the President: the political maturity and capability of allied Islamists, Egypt’s political environment, Israel and Saudi Arabia relations, the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region and finally the “costs of inaction in Syria” (Walter, 2013). The solutions offered by Walter are to “devote more attention to the concerns of the Egyptian generals and the House of Saud”, to prepare the public for a long-term fight against terrorism and to refocus on Iran and their perceived quest for a nuclear weapon (Walter, 2013).

Walter fails to clearly account for several factors that the President may be counting on. In Syria, despite the civil war, many people are moderate and will not tolerate the extremists who may attempt to fill the power vacuum (Chossudovsky, 2013). In Israel, despite continued settlement expansion, peace talks are set to resume after several years away from the table. Finally, after June elections, a more moderate Iranian representative is set to begin direct talks with U.S. Secretary of state John Kerry after over a decade of mistrust and harsh sanctions. U.S. foreign policy is complex and the shift that has already taken place is vastly different than the years of President G.W. Bush, where the strong hand of military intervention was often disguised by false pretenses. President Obama has kept the military out of large theatre conflict but has ramped up covert CIA drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen and has generally placed more military capability with the CIA.  The U.S. often has a hypocritical rhetoric about its intentions; the continuing support for allies who are not democratically elected and are often brutal to their own people seems contrary to the support of unrecognized rebel forces (i.e. Free Syrian Army) with extremist ties. The U.S. and its allies are now known for helping to overthrow democratically elected governments that may not support U.S. interests, like with President Morsi in Egypt (Chossudovsky, 2013).

The endgame of Iran with nuclear capabilities is feared by nations who see this potential as a threat to the region and promise of a growing Caliphate or Shiite based Islamic Empire that would spread around the world. Western states have levied heavy sanctions against Iran that have only been defended against by their oil connections to Russia and China though it is evident that their people are suffering (Table, 2013).  The west is still reliant on oil and the region holds 65% of the oil reserves and 40% of the natural gas reserves (Table, 2013). So, with the Ayatollah’s calling for an Islamic empire and backing rogue states as allies, some think that if Iran had nuclear capabilities, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other western allies could be targeted. Iran continues to espouse that it is only seeking peaceful nuclear power (Table, 2013).

The political pressure from hawkish Neo-Cons to protect Israel, Saudi Arabia and our other regional allies by use of unilateral military force or covert coup d’état of democratically elected leaders like Mosaddeq in Iran in 1953, has never been enough to fix the problems of the Middle East and has only exacerbated conflict and damaged civilian life (Byrne, 2013). Sanctions drag on that affect regular people who are trying to feed their families. With the foreign policy in place that insists on the U.S. policing the troubled areas, the world has seen a rise in blowback known as terrorism. The complexity of the region has given way to unimaginative leaders who see the heavy handed fist of militarism as the only option for securing multinational interests of oil, minerals and strategic bases.

With new oil and gas shale “fracking” technology, the US has gained a degree of independence from foreign oil imports and has renewed its standing as the world’s largest fossil fuel exporter. This has allowed Saudi Arabia and OPEC to branch out by exporting more to China and other countries (Nordland, 2013). However, even though Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the U.S., it is a monarchy that represses its people, especially women. This doesn’t seem to align with the notion that we are spreading democracy, but rather spreading empire to those areas that defy what American power demands while clearly backing regimes that do not maintain human rights or equality for their own people. The message that is sent is that as long as you play nice with U.S. multinational corporations you can have whatever kind of government suits your elites. The U.S. has tenuous moral authority considering it’s recent past.

Israel feels threatened by the position its neighbors have taken against it, but with unflinching friends in the U.S. Congress and a large U.S. military backing, Israel continues to expand it’s settlements through military force (Lobe, 2013). The Palestinian/Arab-Israel differences have created rippling consequences for the region and a fragile peace that has been disrupted by covert operations and outright bombing of Israeli’s neighboring countries (Lebanon,Syria,Palestine). Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, along with staunch Israel supporters in Congress, have recently called on the Obama administration to increase sanctions with Iran despite rapidly growing inroads in relations between the two countries (Lobe, 2013). Part of the advancing hope of regional experts for a detente between the U.S. and Iran comes from agreements between the two countries over Syria’s chemical weapons and a new Iranian President named Rouhani who is making a concerted effort to improve relations with the west over his last two months in power (Lobe, 2013). The people of Iran and the U.S. clearly want better relations but Israel fears the radical elements despite their own massive and secretive nuclear arsenal.

The Jewish and Palestinian conflict has been going on since Israel was etched out by violent actions of the Zionist movement and British colonial forces after WWI. It has continued with violence in the last five years. Palestine is now split between two rival factions who are struggling to come to terms; the democratically elected Hamas who controls Gaza and is aligned with the Shiite’s Muslim Brotherhood versus the hardened and longer lasting Fatah, who controls the other regions of Palestine. They have recently signed peace agreements but continue to remain hostile toward each other, despite The United Nations recognizing Palestine as an observer state against U.S. wishes just last year. The two groups continue to struggle for power while Israel stalls peace talks with settlement practices that threaten to split Palestine into two distinct regions. The fact that Israel or Washington will not publicly admit that Israel has nuclear weapons is a sticking point for its neighbors who would prefer transparency. This secret fact is what created the impetus for Syria to gain access to chemical weapons in the first place (Table, 2013). Mutually assured destruction has been a dangerous game and some experts’ think that Iran is trying to bluff its way into possessing a nuclear weapon of its own, despite its claims for peaceful intentions only.

One of the most disrupting factors in the Middle East was the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 in response to the September 11,2001 attacks of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. President Obama was assigned the task of ending those wars and was prematurely awarded the Nobel Peace Prizesoon  after he took office. His efforts to exit the quagmire in Iraq are valiant but the increased militarization of the CIA drone program in Yemen and Pakistan have drawn rebuke from locals and peace activists who see the drones as a violation of human rights. The blow-back from civilian deaths and foreign incursions has yet to be felt abroad but will surely come at a price. Some wonder if these actions are creating more Salafist Jihadists than destroying them, while others applaud the covert struggle and also call for direct military action with Syria (Table, 2013). The neo-conservatives on the Council of Foreign relations fear that if Syria is left unchecked by the U.S., the violence will spill over to other countries and create a safe harbor for Islamic extremists (Table, 2013). The Sunnis and Shiite of Lebanon are already fighting each other in parts of Syria, as are the Kurdish separatists in the north near Turkey (Table, 2013). However, no one doubts that an increase in humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and the rest of the region is essential. Diplomatic efforts must continue and a calming of the rhetoric could lead to a Geneva II for a Syrian peace deal (Lobe, 2013). A tough but compassionate, “long distance” approach is better suited than red lining, name calling and short term posturing.

Religious differences and economic power struggles have caused much of the violence in The Middle East and South Asia. However, the recent public admission of the CIA’s involvement in Iran’s 1953 coup, the U.S backing of Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s and the creation of Al-Qaeda to fight the soviets in Afghanistan are all examples of how U.S. involvement has outright created and exacerbated many of the challenges in the region (Byrne, 2013). When you combine this subversion with the alliance of brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, because they support U.S foreign policy, the overall approach by the U.S in the Middle East seems hypocritical and tragic. Not only has the U.S. underestimated powers and movements, the lack of support after sanctions and incursions is borderline criminal. The shame of military behavior at Abu-Ghraib prison or the support of questionable mercenary contractors like Xe (Blackwater) have all tarnished the U.S. image in the Middle East and caused a backlash that has helped give rise to Islamic governments in the place of disposed secular leaders. As well, whistle blowing leaks of foreign correspondents and documents by Manning and Snowden have caused friends and foes to question U.S. practices. With the decrease in media attention due to news agency consolidation and lack of foreign policy coverage at home, America has failed to recognize the importance of humanitarian needs and diplomatic intervention until the problems have grown out of control (Bennett, 2012).

The often confusing and complex world of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East over the last few decades has produced quagmires of immense proportion. In the last 5 years there have been short-term gains with disposed enemies and decimated command structures that have only been undermined later by the lack of political will to truly win hearts and minds through meaningful aid programs. The same corporate-beholden, shoot first and ask-questions-later policy, is the same force that is keeping millions of Americans in poverty at home. So, after over 60 years of overt military intervention into the Middle East by U.S. forces and many years prior in covert operations, heavy sanctions that target civilians, secretive drone programs and the stalwart defense of corporate interests,  the region has not seen significant gains in the security of its people or stability of its governments. The blowback from corporate warfare is terrorism in the U.S. and allied territories, but the drone program, secret prisons, and questionable allies are not helping the long term trust needed in the region.




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