Reports from the Middle East increase my trepidation on a daily basis. Events do not bode well for the future and I am not sure what, if anything, the United States should do.
A tour around the horizon of the Middle East reveals that all hell is breaking loose. In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the run up to his re-election, repudiated decades of Israeli-Palestinian policy by stating that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch. Since the election, he has tried to walk it back a bit, but the damage is done and most pundits, analysts, and policy makers take him at his original word. What this portends for any kind of settlement, only time can tell. At best, it has delayed it. At worst, it has scuttled all hope for a settlement and caused the United States, European allies, and others to re-evaluate their unequivocal support of Israel. For the Israelis themselves it means continued occupation of Palestinian territories and a fundamental change to their nation. Either they are no longer a democracy (occupied Palestinians cannot vote) or they will no longer be a mainly Jewish state (if they annex the occupied territories the number of Palestinians and Arabs will out number the number of Jewish citizens).
In Iraq, a loose coalition of Iraqi regular military forces and Shiite militia under the direction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force general (!) taking on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Sunnis) forces in Tikrit as a preliminary operational move to retake the key city of Mosul. After preliminary success, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi fighters suffered high casualties, became bogged down and have been stymied for weeks now by the approximately 500 ISIS fighters in Tikrit. Most experts believe this is because neither the regular forces nor the militias have any experience in urban fighting and with dealing with the resulting tactics of sniper fire, booby traps, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the like. The (now) most experienced forces in urban fighting? ISIS and the United States military.
The situation was further complicated when the regular Iraqi army forces called in U.S. air strikes to help their offensive. This caused the Shiite and Iranian forces to stop fighting and, indeed, several of their leaders threatened to shoot down U.S. aircraft if they flew overhead. It should be noted that several of those groups previously fought against the U.S. during the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, the U.S. (along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) is nearing the deadline for a deal with Iran to curtail its possible nuclear weapons program. It is unclear that a deal can be reached or that it will be satisfactory to all involved.
With this in mind, as Iranian surrogates threaten to totally over run Yemen, the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia are fighting the insurgent Houthi. The Arab leadership and the ousted government of Yemen are Sunnis. The Iranians and Houthi are Shiite. One reason thought to be behind the Arab action is the belief that the U.S. is becoming too close to the Iranians in the interest of making the nuclear deal. By the way, before the Houthi success — just months ago — Yemen was a model for success in the war on terror and especially the war against Al’ Qaeda. Currently the most active, successful and dangerous branch of Al’ Qaeda is the one in Yemen — known as AQAP or Al’ Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they are Sunni. Both the Arab coalition and the Houthis would like to eliminate AQAP, but they are too busy fighting each other.
An Arab coalition, led by Egypt, also occasionally conducts air strikes in Libya, just in case you have forgotten that this is another nation that has disintegrated into warring factions, including one that claims to be a part of ISIS.
As has gone on for years, Iranian Shiite surrogates in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon are fighting other Sunni factions (including ISIS which seems to be opening branch offices in other countries). If you really want to get the low-down, Boko Haram in Nigeria now claims to be affiliated with ISIS. Most analysts believe that although troubling, it is mostly a propaganda move by Boko Haram to get on the terrorist band wagon of perceived success.
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
In brief, long-standing tension and conflict between two factions of Islam broke out into outright warfare. It is very hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the less bad guys. Without a comprehensive Middle East strategy, it will be difficult for the United States (and its allies) to deal with all of the various factions and to support the best interests of our country in the region. One might ask what those interests may be. Besides our stated national policy begun under President George W. Bush to bring democracy to the region, we also have an obligation to allies. More to the strategic interests of the U.S., one can summarize our interests in one word — “oil.” Whether or not the U.S. is, or becomes, self-sufficient in fossil fuels, oil is a fungible commodity and integral to the economies of the developed world. Conflict resulting in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (access to the Persian Gulf — or as U.S. military planners prefer, the Arabian Gulf) and of the Bab al Mandeb (the strait controlling access to the Red Sea and thus the Suez Canal) would drive oil prices very high, seriously inhibiting any recovery from the last recession and conceivably driving us back into a deep recession.
On top of this is the realization from our national experience that failed states lead to the ability of terrorist organizations to act without restraint in developing plots against other nations around the world including the United States.
This developing geo-strategic situation (the technical term is “mess”) creates the question of what should the U.S. do about it? Although in a previous career I was considered a Middle East expert, I have to say “I don’t know.” This is a tough one. In some respects, this escalating situation is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam and the resulting governmental control and continued well-being of certain elites on both sides of the equation. To me, our getting into the middle of it would be akin to the Chinese getting involved in the Thirty Years War. As the current order in the Middle East changes, and in many cases collapses, it mirrors in some ways the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s and the resulting war between Protestants and Catholics for the future of Europe. The difference today of course is that the world is interconnected in a way that could not even be conceived of in the 17th century, especially economically. Also different is the ability to project power over long distances and to injure and kill civilians a long way from the battlefield. Yet, the U.S. is not going to settle a war between two factions of Islam, just as in the 17th century the Chinese would never have been able to resolve a conflict between Christians.
We must also balance our desire to reign in Iran with the realities on the ground. Which is the more important result — stopping Iranian adventurism or stopping their nuclear program? The correct answer of course is “c — all of the above” but that is far easier said than done. Is ISIS our primary threat? It appears to me that ISIS is a terrible, evil entity, but that as an organization it will not have a lasting ability to establish their “caliphate.” They will eventually self-destruct if constant pressure is applied. At the same time, air strikes alone will not defeat them and the notion that Iraqi forces in conjunction with Kurdish militia and Shiite militia can drive them out of Iraq is now in question. Air strikes may serve to contain further expansion, but to date it shows no real ability to defeat them.
And that’s in Iraq. The real stronghold for ISIS is Syria. We face yet another dilemma in dealing with that situation. To battle ISIS is to help the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. The avowed policy of the U.S. is that Bashar must go — leave power and allow a new government to form based on a negotiated settlement among the warring factions. Isn’t going to happen. Not to mention that ISIS will not negotiate any such settlement and neither will Bashar. Middle Eastern dictators know one thing in their gut and it has been re-emphasized throughout their history — govern ruthlessly or you and your family are dead. Our policy to train militant factions opposing Bashar’s government is too little too late and is called into question by the actions in Iraq where trained forces and strong militias are having a difficult time dislodging ISIS fighters. I’m not sure how similar groups will do against ISIS in Syria or against Syrian regular forces, especially since the latter have an effective air-to-ground combat ability.
To me, the last resort, and the worst option, is expanded U.S. military involvement in the region. We have fought three wars there in the last twenty-five years and another now is not in our best interests. We need to prioritize our efforts on the economic and diplomatic fronts while still holding a big stick (the military) in reserve should something go really wrong.
In my mind, our priorities should be (with some possible smudging of the order as events unfold):
- Continue pressure on Iran to get a meaningful deal on stopping their nuclear weapons program. If the deal is not sufficiently transparent, with verifiable steps, then continue and tighten sanctions until Iranian leaders realize that they cannot ease their way out of world scrutiny of their actions.
- Continue to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS. Work to isolate and pressure ISIS through continued coalition air strikes, but no combat troops beyond advisers and intelligence support.
- Pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to settle the Palestinian issue, including through the United Nations where in the past, the U.S. vetoed every resolution thought to be against Israeli national interests. The free ride is over until meaningful steps are taken. That does not mean that we abandon our long time ally, indeed we continue with our military aid (in the billions annually) and other support. It just means that now there needs to be some reciprocal movement in the direction of a meaningful settlement of a fundamental reason for unrest in the region.
- Continue to support Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition in the fight in Yemen through coordination and intelligence support. The U.S. should continue to conduct drone and other strikes against terrorist operatives in the country, but should not engage in overt military action.
- Continue to develop alternative sources of energy in the U.S. and develop a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy taking into account fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy. It may be impossible, but such a policy should be devoid of the usual influences from lobby groups invested in their own profit motives.
This is a start and of course does not include the other areas of concern including Egypt, where one dictator replaced another; Libya which is a lawless basket case of a country; Somalia (roughly on the other side of the Bab al Mandeb) where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is still a disruptive force in the region; Lebanon where the terrorist group Hezbollah basically controls the country and Afghanistan where a fragile government is still fighting elements of the Taliban and is not yet stabilized.
I fear that it will be a long hot summer as each of these situations is likely to get worse before they get better.
I waited twenty-four hours to comment on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress concerning negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons to see if my initial incredulous reaction changed with contemplation. It has not. I think that at best it was a text-book case of political theater and at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine United States foreign policy and to embarrass our president.
For the moment, let’s defer a discussion of whether or not there should be a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons — we’ll get to that in a moment — and instead focus on the spectacle we witnessed yesterday. I had the opportunity to watch the entire proceedings live, and hope that you did as well. If not, you will find the complete transcript of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech here.
So here is what transpired. The Speaker of the House invited the head of state of another country to address a joint meeting of Congress, without consulting with the opposition party, the president or the State Department, or even informing them of the invitation until after it was accepted. The head of state of one our closest friends accepted the invitation without informing our Ambassador or State Department that he intended to come to the United States. The Ambassador to the United States from that country, born in the United States and who worked on the 1990s Republican Congress’s Contract with America was integral to arranging the visit with the Speaker. That head of state is in a very tight political fight of his own and is up for re-election in two weeks. In past campaigns, he has used video and audio of his prior speeches in Congress as campaign ads. In his own country, a judge ruled that his speech yesterday could only be broadcast on a five-minute delay so that political references could be blocked because his own government and judiciary thought his motives to be political. And finally, in that speech, he was condescending and nearly insulting to our Congress and especially to our president.
There are very few, if any, other heads of state that could plausibly fill this scenario other than Israel. While technically not a speech to a joint session of Congress (it was a meeting) it had all the trappings of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, complete with the spouse in the gallery and guests referred to and acknowledged by the speaker as part of the speech. In every respect, it was designed, intentionally or not, but I think intentionally, to help Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel by allowing him to look tough by taking on the President of the United States in the chamber of our own Congress.
I note that the negotiations that are underway with Iran are not bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. They are multi-lateral negotiations involving the “P-5 + 1” (or the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China — plus Germany). It is curious that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not go to the U.K. to address a joint session of the Parliament or otherwise visit with or discuss with, or otherwise engage any of the other nations negotiating with Iran. He only engaged the U.S. in a political spectacle designed to enhance his stature in Israel and to embarrass the president, and he did it at the invitation of the Speaker of the House sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Whatever our special relationship with Israel — a relationship I support — in the end, the foreign policy of the United States must support the goals of the United States. I guarantee, and history supports, that Israel will do whatever it sees in its best interests without regard to what the United States may or may not want. Most times the interests of both nations coincide. However, when they do not, the best interests of the United States should take priority over those of any other nation.
I should also note that since 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning that Iran is only three to five years, or less depending on which assertion of his one wants to quote, away from building nuclear weapons. He’s reiterated this claim time and again including in his book Fighting Terrorism published in 1995 and in previous addresses to Congress. He may eventually be correct, but he has no special insight that is not apparent to the national leaders of many countries.
As to whether or not the negotiations underway with Iran are a good deal or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed, a bad deal, we do not yet know. There is currently no deal. His speech broke no new ground and did not bring forward any points that are not well know by anyone that has even a modicum of interest in the subject. Iran is a bad actor. Nothing new there — they have been the primary source of terrorist activity in the Middle East since the early 80’s.
President Obama already stated, well before Prime Minister Netanyahu, that a bad deal was worse than no deal. President Obama also said in an interview last week that he puts the chances of a deal with Iran at less than 50%. They are not going to take just any old demand that Iran throws out. With this in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu was merely grandstanding and added nothing to furthering the mutual U.S.-Israeli goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. (Conveniently forgotten is that Israel is commonly known to possess somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nuclear weapons of its own.)
There may be no deal. The P-5 + 1 have put a deadline of 24 March for Iran to agree to a substantive settlement or they will walk away (another Netanyahu applause line that is already stated policy prior to his speech). No one is naive about the Iranians, and it should come as no surprise that they are going to try to get their own best deal. That is the nature of any nation’s national security policy. This much is fact so far. The interim deal from two years ago allowed for inspectors to visit Iranian facilities for the first time. The Iranians are not currently building any nuclear weapons. If the talks breakdown or scuttled, there is nothing to stop Iran from eventually building a nuclear weapon.
Most troubling to me were the implications near the end of his remarks. While advocating for, in essence, “no deal” with Iran, a move that may in fact lead Iran to build the weapons, he stated that Israel would be willing to act. Or in his words:
We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.
Especially in the context of his speech and the way that he delivered these remarks in person, this sounds like a veiled threat that Israel will take military action to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. While this is troubling in and of its self — and by all expert testimony will only be a bump in the road for Iran’s ability to build the weapons, and will in fact spur them to increased efforts to do so — it also implies that they would expect the U.S. to join them in that military effort. In essence, a foreign leader is trying to commit the U.S. to another Middle East war.
I am troubled. Troubled by the precedent set by this political spectacle. Troubled by the meddling of a foreign leader of a close and friendly nation to undermine — not influence, undermine — our foreign policy. Troubled by the blatant attempts to scuttle negotiations that are in a delicate phase. Troubled by the terms of the deal which must reign in Iran and remove their ability to build nuclear weapons. Troubled by the consequences of a failure to negotiate a settlement.
These are troubling times around the world in many, many ways. There are no easy answers, although in the rhetoric surrounding complicated issues too many are willing to give one-line sound bite solutions.
While I agree with the caution regarding Iran that Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined in his speech, and while I have no illusions that any agreement with Iran is not fraught with possible problems and that they must be held to account, I am also so very disappointed that our foreign policy is no longer bi-partisan and is used as a political weapon in the face of grave danger to our nation and to our friends and allies.