Why Obama’s Middle East Policy Is Failing

Imagine that it is Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt goes before the Congress to request a declaration of war against . . . the Nazis’ SS.

 

Not the Japanese—they could never occupy the U.S. Not Hitler—we don’t much like him, but he’s not doing the killing. Not the regular Wehrmacht troops, they’re following orders. Not the Nazi Party—they aren’t a direct, physical threat to the U.S. Only the SS, because they are perpetrating the genocide that is the Third Reich’s worst crime.

 

Then FDR calls up Stalin and Churchill and urges them to quit worrying about German army divisions and the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s munitions factories—and focus only on the SS.

 

If America had taken that approach to World War II, it would have been utterly nonsensical, yet that is, in effect, how the Obama administration is dealing with the Middle East conflagration: by focusing exclusively on Islamic State.

 

The murderous jihadists of Islamic State, or ISIS, are only one symptom of a much larger problem in the Middle East. By fixating on this one symptom—rather than its sources—and then trying to convince everyone else in the region to do the same, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

 

In contrast, what the Russians have done makes perfect sense to the people of the Middle East. The Russians picked a side: the Shiite side of the conflict in Syria, the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah (with the Iraqi government occasionally dragged along).

 

This doesn’t mean that the Sunni Arab states, which are America’s traditional allies, like the Russian choice. But they understand it. What they don’t understand is the frightening strategy their longtime protector is pursuing. The result is that a traditional U.S. ally like Saudi Arabia has felt obliged to take risky actions in self-defense, such as executing a Shiite cleric last month, and intervening in Yemen’s civil war by backing the Sunni-led government against the Shiite Houthis favored by Tehran.

 

Most Middle Easterners regard ISIS as abhorrent and want to see it obliterated. But ISIS is not the root problem. The real problems of the Middle East stem from the failure of the post-World War II Arab state system, which has produced state collapse, power vacuums and civil wars, such as those raging in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

 

These wars have now spilled over on to their neighbors in massive refugee flows, terrorism, widespread radicalization, cross-border violence, economic dislocation and the specter of a regionwide Sunni-Shiite conflict. This destabilizing spillover now threatens Europe’s and America’s national interests—and the main threat is the region’s civil wars.

 

Such conflicts invariably spawn extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. ISIS was born (initially as al Qaeda in Iraq) after civil war broke out in Iraq. The group was brought to the brink of extinction when the U.S. finally succeeded in ending the Iraqi civil war in 2007-10, only to escape and revive when neighboring Syria slid into civil war in 2011. ISIS and al Qaeda have since grown and spread across the region, but effectively only to states in civil war or on the brink—Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Egypt and, once again, Iraq.

 

Even if the U.S. were able to “defeat” or “degrade” ISIS, as long as civil wars burn on in the region, the conditions that led to its emergence would still exist, and new radical groups would simply emerge to replace it. End the civil wars, and the terrorist groups will wither.

 

Moreover, civil wars can be contagious. One of the best indicators that any country will experience a civil war is if it borders a country in a civil war already. The longer conflicts continue in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, the more likely they will destabilize their neighbors. Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are already experiencing violent unrest, while nascent civil wars are catching fire in Turkey, Egypt and South Sudan.

 

What should the U.S. do? The history of civil wars since 1945 provides clear lessons that current policy is ignoring.

 

Contrary to common wisdom, it is possible for an external power to extinguish someone else’s civil war. Since 1945, over 20% of the approximately 150 civil wars have ended in negotiated settlements. That number increased to nearly 40% after 1991, as in the Balkans, Mozambique, Cambodia and El Salvador, in part because the international community learned how to facilitate such settlements.

 

We now know that negotiating an early end to a civil war involves three things: (1) shifting the military dynamics to a situation where none of the warring factions believes it can win an outright victory and all believe they can safely lay down their arms; (2) forging a power-sharing arrangement among all of the rival groups that ensures an equitable distribution of political power and economic benefits, coupled with guarantees against the oppression of minorities; and (3) putting in place institutions (external or internal) capable of ensuring that the first two conditions endure.

 

This approach is what the U.S. achieved in Bosnia and (temporarily) in Iraq. But it will only work if it is properly resourced and deliberately pursued. External interventions that don’t employ this approach or don’t employ enough resources to make it plausible not only fail, but also tend to make the conflict (and its spillover) worse.

 

The problem is that the Obama administration is not pursuing this settlement approach in either Iraq or Syria. The sketchy cease-fire in Syria announced late last week is unlikely to accomplish much other than let some of the warring factions catch their breath.

 

In Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts might someday produce a workable power-sharing arrangement on the political side. But it will have no chance at success until there is a parallel military effort. Such a military effort need not be as expensive and painful as America’s recent experiences in the region, including Afghanistan or Iraq. It does need to create a robust opposition force able to halt all of the radical factions and the Assad regime, so that it is clear to everyone that negotiation is the only way out. It would also need to provide real security, so that warring factions and their supporters believe they will not be slaughtered if they disarm.

 

In Iraq, the opposite is true. The American-led military campaign against Islamic State might someday convince the combatants that outright victory is impossible, but the U.S. has not shown the same vigor in pursuing a commensurate political process of national reconciliation that could produce a workable new power-sharing agreement.

 

In neither Iraq nor Syria is the U.S. or its coalition partners building indigenous institutions or putting in place an external peacekeeping force that could convince Iraqis and Syrians to trust that the changes would last. Until Washington is willing to take such steps and make ending the civil wars in Iraq and Syria its priority, nothing worthwhile is likely to be achieved.

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