Monday, September 1, 2014

Gaza, ISIS and the Arab Spring

To be honest, foreign policy hasn't exactly been my forte. I'm more of a domestic policy type. Subjects like supply side economics, racial tensions and polling numbers are much higher up on my food chain than the goings on in the Middle East. With the notable exceptions of our costly and unjustified war in Iraq and the fake Benghazi scandal that Republicans keep harping on, I don't think I've written more than a piece or two on the whole region.

With that in mind, I thought I'd volunteer my nickel's worth on the three major stories that have garnered the most attention of late. They're in no particular order.

Gaza: Unlike so many of my progressive brethren, I think Israel was completely justified in launching retaliatory missile strikes into Gaza. It had every right to defend itself. Let's be clear here, Hamas knew perfectly well what it was doing when it started launching missiles into Israel. The fact that it launched those missiles from sites where many Palestinians lived, thus turning them into human shields, was appalling. Yes I know it was gut wrenching to see images of civilians lying dead in the streets, many of them burned beyond recognition, but that was the fault of Hamas, not Israel.

But while Israel was perfectly justified in launching missiles to defend itself, its decision to send troops into Gaza was a tactical blunder. It only added fuel to the fire and aided and abetted its staunchest critics who now could point to its occupying army as proof that it and not Hamas was the guilty party. This was an unforced error on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has had more than his fair share of missteps, the latest being the recent land appropriation in the occupied West Bank, a move that will only inflame the passions of the Palestinian people and make the prospects of a two-state solution that much harder to bring about.

ISIS: At the risk of sounding like John McCain - please forgive me - this group poses the greatest threat not only to the Middle East, but to the West in general. If you thought al-Qaeda was bad, well these guys make them look like the Boy Scouts of America. It isn't just the beheading of an American journalist that should concern the United States, it's the fact that ISIS has made its intentions perfectly clear. It wants nothing less than a world-wide Islamic state and it will use whatever means it has at its disposal to accomplish that goal. And, unlike al-Qaeda, it is well organized, well funded and has the support of a good portion of the populations of both Iraq and Syria (where it began).

Two things, though, need to be underscored about the rise of ISIS. First, it would never have gained a foothold, at least not in Iraq, had the U.S. not toppled Saddam Hussein. The Maliki government, which rose to power in 2006 during the American occupation, all but excluded Sunnis from any role in the government, exacerbating tensions between them and the Shiites and setting the stage for the sectarian violence in the country that led to the rise of ISIS. Had Maliki's government been more inclusive, it is highly doubtful that ISIS would wield the power it now has in Iraq.

But secondly, and even more importantly, it is important to understand that much of the unrest within this region can be traced back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. That empire, which was founded in 1453, included the territories of what later came to be known as Iraq and Syria. There is an excellent piece in The Daily Kos about the birth of Iraq that is very revealing and is worth a serious read by anybody regardless of political ideology. The parallels are striking. Suffice to say, 100 years later we still don't know much about this region.

Still, even in spite of our regional ignorance, some of the blame here must go to President Obama. His decision not to take a more active role against Assad in Syria indirectly led to the emergence of ISIS in that country. While some of his reticence was understandable given the recent history of American intervention in the region, 180 degrees from wrong is still wrong. It's true there may not have been any moderate opposition forces within Syria, but the Administration should have made a more concerted effort of finding them. While it focused mainly on Assad's chemical weapons, the elements that led to ISIS grew. Now the U.S. is in the precarious position of having to side with Assad and Iran to defeat an opponent which rose to power right under its nose.

The Arab Spring: This might be the hardest nut to crack, especially if you're a neo-con. If it's true that democracy is messy, than what's been going on in most of the Middle East resembles a toxic waste dump. But, like the above, it is important to understand that for the last century, most of this region, which included Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and Libya, were ruled by despots. The Iranian revolution of 1979 came about because the U.S. backed Shaw had brutalized his own people. It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the rest of these countries would follow suit and depose their tyrant rulers.

I submit that what's really behind all this anti Arab Spring rhetoric is the fact that all this democratization isn't going the way its critics thought it would go. After all, if you're not spending a trillion dollars forcing your vision of democracy on a country, what good are you anyway? The fact is that these countries have a right to determine their own destiny, messy or otherwise. The United States needs to know the difference between active engagement and out and out colonialism. One can employ the former without the latter.

I suspect that had we adopted that strategy decades ago, we might not be in the mess we're in today.

1 comment:

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

Sir:

In your otherwise fine analysis of the events in the Middle East, I do find fault with just one part. And that would be your criticism of President Obama's reluctance to intervene against the Assad regime in Syria. Honestly, have no lessons been learned from the outcomes in Iraq, Egypt and Libya? You said that ISIL's emergence in Syria was indirectly related to the US not taking a more active stance against Bashar al-Assad. I don't see the logic in this at all. If the US proceeded to remove - or even weaken - Assad, it would've formed a power vacuum that most assuredly would've been filled by ISIL or its sympathizers. Instead of occupying a sliver of the country in the northeast (along with smaller support zones), they would end up occupying Damascus.

You stated the following: "It's true there may not have been any moderate opposition forces within Syria, but the Administration should have made a more concerted effort of finding them."

You kind of just dismiss that first part for some reason. But it happens to be very important. The majority of the population in Syria is Sunni, and their sympathies lie primarily with ISIL's cause against the state. Where are the organized groups of moderates? I'll answer that for you: They don't exist.

Finally, you stated: "Now the U.S. is in the precarious position of having to side with Assad and Iran to defeat an opponent which rose to power right under its nose."

Well, yeah. What's the greater evil? Our country has done these types of calculations forever and, as a result, has sided with some pretty bad actors over the years to achieve specific strategic goals. I guess you can file it all under the broad category of Realpolitik.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.