America’s Epic Fail in the Middle East

Today the president addressed the United Nations General Assembly, apologizing for a film no one saw and condemning the wave of violence across the Middle East without somehow addressing the anger and tribalism that is the root cause.

He spoke forcefully for human rights and against the tyranny of censorship. The response was positive, but we are still left with a policy in tatters. Instability reigns and the clouds of war ebb and flow with every day’s news. First Syria. Then Iran. Then Libya. And in the background always Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Mohammed Morsi has accumulated even more power than his predecessor, Mubarak, in the name of democracy, but we know not what his intentions are. We have gone from being close allies with Egypt to some amorphous, ill-defined relationship not through actions of state but through poorly worded presidential news bites using ill-advised language.

In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, our country’s word has lost meaning because of a disengaged, unilateral policy towards the Arab Spring that ignored the advice and counsel of our allies. Today’s New York Times reports that the president has failed to build the relationships necessary to diplomacy, staying disengaged and aloof. His personal style has actually hurt our ability to influence events. This is not a good sign.

The Israeli – Palestinian situation has effectively become a sideshow. We ignore both sides even as the crisis with Iran escalates.

This afternoon, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will speak to the General Assembly. At home he is deeply unpopular but still holds power because of his close alliance with the extremist faction. He is actively supporting the Bashar Assad regime in Syria not only with armaments but with troops as well. Iran has been fomenting unrest in Bahrain, the Gaza Strip and beyond.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban and their allies are simply counting the days until the departure of Western forces now while making life ever more difficult. They are reminding both our government and the Afghan people that they will be back once we are gone. In the background, the Pakistani government has all but declared war against western interests.

And yet this should never have happened. From 1979 onwards, the protector of the Ummah has been the United States. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it was the Reagan government that organized support for the mujaheddin.

In 1983, 241 United States Marines were killed in a terrorist attack in Beiruit, Lebanon while trying to help establish peace during that civil war. 58 French paratroopers were killed that day as well. All of them peacekeepers.

In 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, it was the 82nd Airborne who were first on the scene in Desert Shield, protecting the Holy Places from the aggressor. Saddam’s goal was the domination of the richest oil patch in the world. he would have used this as a tool not only against the West, but against any opponent of his Baathist regime, which was virtually every other nation in the region.

Over 700,000 U.S. troops were involved in the Gulf War and 394 were killed. We went home afterwards except for some forces tasked to ensure that there were no further incursions.   After Desert Storm, the United States led the way in establishing the no-fly zones, which protected the Kurds in the Iraqi north.

It has conveniently been forgotten that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction three times. The first in massive attacks reminiscent of World War I in his war against the Iranians; secondly against Israeli targets in the Gulf War; and lastly, against the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Twice he used nerve gas against his coreligionists.

In 1992 when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, the United States once again supported a Muslim government in Bosnia. The Dayton Accords led to an independent Bosnia. American aircraft dropped food and supplies while “black” C-130’s dropped weapons.

At the same time, U.S. forces arrived in Somalia on a humanitarian mission (Operation Restore Hope)  to end a man-made famine caused by civil war between tribal militias. 43 Americans were killed and 143 wounded.

In Kosovo, U.S. troops once against guaranteed the peace. Just this week, Kosovo became the newest member of the international community of nations.

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. forces in cooperation with the Northern Alliance expelled the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was among the most barbaric in history, brutalizing the Afghan people. We were greeted as liberators at the time.

In 2003, U.S. forces finally deposed Saddam Hussein with resistance collapsing within 30 days. We were once again greeted as liberators by most of the country. But then a vicious combination of jihad, civil war, and gangsterism was allowed to arise. There were no civil institutions, just as in Afghanistan. There was no reconstruction plan.

And as a result, 4,487 Americans have died to date in Iraq, the vast majority seeking simply to keep the peace. Close to $1 trillion has been spent. To achieve what?

The Maliki government is a corrupt alliance of Shiite interests, both secular and religious that is like its predecessor more concerned with looting the country’s resources than building civil society. The oppression of minorities continues and government leadership has aligned itself with Iran. In the north and other parts of the country a de facto sovereigntism has taken the place of a national government. The Kurdish regions are by most metrics independent in all but name.

In Iraq, the United States was recognized by almost all parties as the honest broker holding the divergent special interests both accountable and together. Behind the scenes and despite public pronouncements to the contrary, Iraqi politicians from all sides begged that the US remain as that balancing force. But our own politics, our leadership’s disengagement, and the desire simply to exit as soon as possible overruled the common sense answer.

One thing we have learned beyond doubt is the personal disengagement of the President. When General McKiernan begged for additional troops in Afghanistan he was fired. When General McChrystal requested the same, the administration waited for over 90 days to respond. Today’s New York Times describes the president’s disengagement with leaders in the region.

To a dangerous extent the president has isolated himself from events. To then misrepresent facts on the ground for political purposes such as the root cause of the assassination of Ambassador Stevens and blame an obscure video for the past two weeks of violence avoids and abets the complete failure of our government, not only in this administration, to deliver an effective message in the light of the facts.

We have fought more time for the basic rights of Muslims than for any other religion or people. We have gone to the aid of Muslims more times than for any other people. Even when supporting regimes that have been oppressive, we have acted in the interests of peace and the personal safety of the individual. The problem does not lie with the United States. It lies with the extremists. It lies with those who stay silent in response to the extremists.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. There is an unsteady awakening in the Middle East. The old leaders have been overthrown. But now what? Can the institutions of justice and human rights survive conservative Islam? What of the Copts in Egypt and the Jews of Baghdad and the Christians of Syria? What of the rights of women?

The United States has done its best to come to the aid of Muslim peoples. Trillions of dollars and cemeteries full of American and other foreign bodies have been filled trying to protect and preserve Muslims. There is nothing to apologize for.

But in the balance, 30 years of policy has been a failure. The Wahabbists were allowed to propagate their philosophy just as the Deobandists have done so. The result was Al Q’uaeda and fanatic violence in Pakistan.

The president’s lecture of the extremists this morning is symptomatic of our epic misunderstanding of the politics and psychology of the Ummah. The Koran was frozen in context in the 1200’s. Any reformation or reinterpretation is punishable by death.

This is a massive barrier to progress. But to deny that the rage is against the “other” is to deny what has been proven time and again.The state of conflict between Shiite and Sunni should be a clue to the underlying issues.

But all of the Arabists and all of the experts seek to define the issues through a Western prism and this is perhaps our greatest failure. Western understanding of the Middle East can go only so far and no further. The facts are pretty clear.

We tried to change the game in Iraq and Afghanistan and failed. We tried to stay ahead of the curve in Egypt and Libya, and we have failed.

We tried to simply keep coreligionists from killing each other and we failed. We protected Muslims from oppression and we failed.

We are destined to fail because we are not considered a source for the positive in any light. We are simply infidels to the majority, who have no say in their affairs. Our blood and our treasure and our good intentions have bought us little politically because we are both outsiders and have been disengaged.

Our presidents have hit the reset button so many times in the Middle East that it is broken. Politically and militarily we have spent the last four years disengaging ourselves. This will have had deeply negative consequences in the long term, but with few options now there is little we can do. We have backed ourselves into a corner.

 

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One thought on “America’s Epic Fail in the Middle East

  1. After reading this entry, I am interested in hearing what you believe our next course of action should be. Anyone who saw Afghanistan as salvageable in 2001 was mistaken from the beginning. That country has been on fire for 40 years now and the longer it burns the less of a chance of recovery there is. I believe the Soviets had the best chance at stabilizing the country under their puppet regime, given the fact that they did not have to follow any absurd “rules of engagement” in their war that we follow today. You would not see any Red Army officials giving compensation for accidental killing of goats, sheep, or even civilians. However, entire generations of Afghanis have been born directly into a battlefield between then and now, so the situation will only worsen if not amended soon.

    I was ecstatic to read your mention of Saddam’s use of illegal weapons against the Iranians, Kurds, and Israelis. Too many citizens of this country have an endless thirst for a casus belli when it comes the our invasion of Iraq. All of the material they could possibly want is right in front of their faces unfortunately. Scuds were also launched at a number of other non-belligerent nations in the Gulf war.

    I do believe however, that even state-supported Islam can serve justice and cater to human rights. The Turks appear to have been the only people capable of doing this, however. Even the Ottoman Empire was far ahead in terms of social equality and religious toleration. If a Christian or Jew were to transit Anatolia during Ottoman times, they would rarely be without a place of worship. On the contrary, Muslims would have only been persecuted in Central and Western Europe, having no place for worship, much less burial. The religious persecution taking place now is far harsher than in the imperial days. The Christians in Syria, as you mentioned, may have at least had a chance at being second-class citizens in the Empire, but if a radical party takes control of the country after this civil war, they are surely doomed.

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