OBAMA'S "FATALISTIC" OR "REALISTIC" APPROACH TO THE MIDDLE EAST. WHICH IS IT?


Obama’s Fatal Fatalism In The Middle East

Fred Hyatt 
The Washington Post

NOTE: This is Fred Hyatt's opinion piece in its entirety that appeared on Monday, May 23, 2016.


Surveying the wreckage of the Middle East and the fraying of Europe, President Obama understandably would like us to believe that no other policy could have worked better.
The United States has tried them all, his administration argues: massive invasion, in Iraq; surgical intervention, in Libya; studied aloofness, in Syria. Three approaches, same result: chaos and destruction.
So why bother? Why get sucked into “a transformation that will play out for a generation,” as Obama described it in his State of the Union address this year, “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”?

Even setting aside the offensiveness of such a sweeping dismissal of Arab potential, the formulation is wrong on two counts, one prescriptive and one analytical.
It offers no plausible path for Obama’s successor — who, as Obama’s own fitful, reluctant re-escalation shows, will not be able to ignore the region. Instead, it invites the kind of demagogic promises we have heard during the campaign, to “carpet bomb” Islamic militants until we find out whether “sand can glow in the dark,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) threatened, or, in Donald Trump’s words, to “quickly, quickly” “knock the hell out of” the Islamic State and then “come back here and rebuild our country.”

More fundamentally, the administration’s fatalism ignores a fourth policy option that Obama, from the beginning, was determined not to try: patient, open-ended engagement using all U.S. tools — diplomatic as well as military — with a positive outcome, not a fixed deadline, as the goal.
That is an approach that has worked before. In Korea, the United States forged an intimate alliance more than a half-century ago, and today U.S. soldiers and diplomats are still present. U.S. support deterred an external foe while — and people forget this, given South Korea’s stability today — helping steady a society torn by civil war as its people gradually built a democracy.
Obama came into office determined to avoid this approach. In Afghanistan, he set a timetable for troop withdrawal, untethered to conditions. In Libya, he bombed the Gaddafi regime out of power but did not stay to help a new government get on its feet. In Iraq, he overrode his civilian and military advisers and declined to keep in the country the 15,000 or 20,000  troops that might have helped preserve the stability the U.S. surge had helped achieve.
The president did not defend that withdrawal because millennia-old hatreds made Iraq a hopeless case. Just the reverse, in fact: Success had made a U.S. presence unnecessary. “This is a historic moment. A war is ending. A new day is upon us,”he said in 2011. “People throughout the region will see a new Iraq that’s determining its own destiny — a country in which people from different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.”

It does not require hindsight to appreciate the recklessness of his decision. True, few foretold just how completely the nation would fall apart, with a vicious caliphate occupying much of the country and a return of frequent bombings in Baghdad. But The Post’s editorial page was not alone in warning at the time that “a complete withdrawal sharply increases the risk that painfully won security gains in Iraq will come undone.”

I understand why Obama and so many other Americans reject persistent engagement, often derisively called “nation-building.” It is difficult, and the United States often does it badly and sometimes doesn’t succeed; Americans can’t impose democracy; we often end up doing work that we wish the locals or their neighbors would do. Obama is right, too, that other regions, such as the Pacific, are more important to the global economy and more central to U.S. strategy.
But against all that wisdom stands one stubborn fact, again proved by Obama’s re-escalation: The United States does not have a choice. The unraveling doesn’t stay put, but spreads to Syria and Paris and Brussels and the skies over the Mediterranean and, eventually, the United States. Under conditions far more difficult than they might have been, the president finds himself unleashing bombers over Syria and dispatching soldiers into Iraq.
He cannot acknowledge, maybe even to himself, that disengagement was a mistake. That is why, even as Americans are, once again, being killed in Iraq, Obama insists that no service members are in combat. But it would be healthy for the country, and the next president, to move beyond make-believe. There is no “quickly, quickly” defeating Islamist terrorism — and there is no safe way to retreat from the challenge of combating it for the long term.
MY NOTES:

"Even setting aside the offensiveness of such a sweeping dismissal of Arab potential, the formulation is wrong on two counts, one prescriptive and one analytical."

Pretty much off on that mistaken "conservative right foot" already.  No one, Obama included, is dismissing "Arab potential," a sweeping statement that covers so much of the ground in the Middle East that, in reality, it covers nothing at all.  What Obama has done is refused to involve the United States in the internecine religious, sectarian, clan and inter-family warfare that has consumed the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring. It's no broad dismissal of any Arab Potential at all, but a realistic assessment of the chances of success with greater American involvement in these fundamentally religious, social and cultural clashes.  Obama has decided - wisely in my view - that our chances are tiny to none at all.   Our reluctance to risk American lives in the Middle East has no bearing on or relevance to the Obama Administration's views on "Arab potential."  

 "It offers no plausible path for Obama’s successor — who, as Obama’s own fitful, reluctant re-escalation shows, will not be able to ignore the region."

The "It" refers to Obama's foreign policy as it relates to the Middle East and, as Hyatt's piece lavishly illustrates, Hyatt believes that there isn't one - except for ignoring this part of the world.  As for the "path" a future President will be unable to follow,  if one recognizes that Obama has cut a new path through the bloody thicket that is the Middle East, then the path is clear and readily followable.  It's not "bombing them back to the Stone Age" or "carpet bombing the Hell out of ISIS" that, arguably are much more "visible" approaches to the execution of foreign policy, and this may be the reason Hyatt doesn't seem to recognize what Obama's Middle Eastern policy is all about because it's a new one that doesn't involve F-16 missiles or B-52 bombers!  

"More fundamentally, the administration’s fatalism ignores a fourth policy option that Obama, from the beginning, was determined not to try: patient, open-ended engagement using all U.S. tools — diplomatic as well as military — with a positive outcome, not a fixed deadline, as the goal."

This is the crux of Hyatt's "Obama is ignoring the Middle East" - his thesis that there is a fourth way of dealing with the Middle East that Obama has not attempted.  First, his comparison to Korea is just not credible.  The Korean War was a leftover from World War II and the U.S. was committed to pushing back China who had invaded the Korean Peninsula during that world conflict. We did so at no small cost in American lives.  The entire Korean War effort was the same rationale that led to the later Vietnam War - stopping the spread of Communism.   Even though this basis is long gone, we are still there - guarding the border between a stable, prosperous, democratic South Korea and a dangerous, unpredictable, strong-armed Communist regime in North Korea. 

None of the factors that allowed for success in South Korea is present in today's Middle East. Sure, one can posit that "patient, open-ended engagement using all U.S. tools" (Hyatt's words) would be a reasonable approach but I'm not sure how it is that patience and open-ended engagement works in a splintered, fractious, multi-actor, sectarian warfare in which it is difficult if not impossible to figure out who's on our side and who's not.  The enemy in Korea - China - was quite clear.  We thought, for example, that Iraq's Al Malaki was on our side but then he fired Sunni cabinet members and forcibly crushed Sunni anti-government demonstrations giving purchase to the rise of ISIS.  Syria?  We thought that like the other Arab Spring Muslim nations, Bashar Al Assad would go the same way as Egypt's Mubarak (or Libya's Khaddafi) but he decided to fight back and today Syria is simply a mess.  

So while Fred Hyatt's analysis of Obama's foreign policy sounds rational, practical and do-able, it ignores the reality on the ground.  The current strife in the Middle East results from age old religious, sectarian and clan disputes that have exploded onto the landscape.  This is not a war like the Korean War that we, the U.S. and the West, can win.  Of course we can do whatever we are able to in mitigating or ending the strife, but there is no way in hell that the West can resolve the age old Sunni-Shiite divisions that rive the Muslim Middle East today.  That genie - long held in check by ruthless dictators - has been let free and it's hatred, poison and destructiveness will continue to roil the Middle East until the region's Muslim's somehow overcome their deep divisions.  It is not our fight and we would be wise to stay as far away from it as we are able.

PS: In reading through the comments to Fred Hyatt's opinion piece this morning, I was pleased to note that the Anti-Hyatt comments were running about 8 or 9 to one against those who agreed with him.  Good Show!

Have a good, non-sectarian day!   


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