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What Is American Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

Originally posted in Dr. Kadhim's blog, at here.

The longstanding United States foreign policy in the Middle East has been focused on a few basic principles: (1) ensuring Israel’s security, (2) supporting the stability of key friendly regimes, (2) protecting the flow of Gulf oil into the world market, and (4) combating terrorism (used to be the containment of Communism before the Soviet collapse). The current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is showing all symptoms of long term failure. Setting aside the despotic regimes in the Persian Gulf and Jordan, there are no real partners the U.S. can count on – the relation with Israel is one-way and has no added value to the U.S. standing in the region. And even these partners are becoming a moral liability for the U.S. as they continue to oppress their people, and as some of them export religious extremism and finance the terrorism that is associated with it. The countries where revolutions took place are either war-torn or struggling to forge a new orientation on the international theater. All signs indicate that it is time for the U.S. to re-calibrate the Middle East foreign policy, but these signs are missed, or simply ignored.

The U.S. policy toward the Arab States of the Gulf has suffered some incoherence since the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran. On the one hand, the Obama administration correctly concluded that the Iran Deal is the best possible way to protect U.S. interests and ignored all calls from the opponents of this deal, including Saudi Arabia. To make it up for this oil-rich ally, the U.S. agreed to look the other way as Saudi troops in Bahrain continue crushing the peaceful protests against Bahrain’s oppressive minority rule. But this was not enough to please the high demands of Saudi Arabia, so the U.S. made another gesture by supporting the Saudi-led war on the Yemeni opposition to the government of pro-Saudi President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The results of U.S. support of this Saudi-led cruel bombardment of Yemenis, including innocent civilians, remain to be seen. So far, no real accomplishment have been made by the Saudi-led coalition, except for the massive death and destruction, some of which has been described by credible international organizations as possible war crimes. It is hard to see what the U.S. national interest in lending support to such a military and moral quagmire.

In Iraq, a country the U.S. invaded in 2003 and changed its political regime at the cost of more than a trillion dollars and sacrificed the lives of more than 4,000 soldiers, the U.S. is not claiming its full reward. The U.S. democratization prescription for Iraq has failed to produce a decent form of governance and the Iraqi military, trained and equipped by the U.S., has not held together due to inadequate organization and flawed planning. Iraq stands today as a de facto divided nation where the Kurds – themselves are divided as well – rule their own territories without any input from the Federal government, except for the annual allowance they receive from the Iraqi oil revenue. Their 17% share is calculated as $115 billion in the years 2005-2014. The predominantly Sunni Arab provinces west and north of Baghdad are controlled by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a barbaric terrorist group with a Wahhabi Islamist ideology, with only a few areas are war zone controlled by the Iraqi forces. The third part of Iraq is the predominantly Shia region, where the government enjoyed an attitude ranging from tolerance to reluctant support, has witnessed persistent mass demonstrations against government corruption and lack of good governance. The U.S. does not seem to know how to fix the country after breaking it twelve years ago.

There is a general perception that Iraqis are allied with their co-religionists in the region: the Shia are allied with Iran, the Sunnis are allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states and the Kurds are close to Turkey. While this may accurately describe some leaders and a number of Iraqis, the truth is that most Iraqis recognize the problems of their sectarian neighbors. This statement by Shaykh Ghaith Al-Tamimi, a public intellectual from Iraq – a religious scholar – sums up the general Iraqi feeling as we see it expressed on the social media, in intellectual writings, and when speaking with Iraqis:

“The U.S. role in Iraq is destructive and shameful, as their continuing to play games with our fate is bitter and cruel. As to the Iranian role, it is immoral and opportunistic, using Iraqi bodies and blood as a bridge to reach temporary political goals, while Iraqi orphans will remain as a curse on [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards’ policy in Iraq and Syria. The [role of] Arab states and their ally in supporting terrorism, Erdogan’s Turkey, confirms without a doubt that the Arabs possess no values, nobility, or a sense of humanity.”

If this sentiment truly represents the way most Iraqis feel – I believe it does – then all regional and International players have lost their gambles in Iraq. But why do Iraqis feel this way?

Iraqis blame the U.S. for leaving behind them a corrupt and inept government and when interfering it is to further establish and aggravate sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraq. Another accusation is that U.S. government has not done its part to stand by Iraq against the security threats and when it did it was only half-hearted effort. The most cited example is the U.S. failure to spot and deal with the open manifestations of power by ISIL in many Iraqi areas. And this is not only an Iraqi perception. In a recent Congressional hearing, U.S. Representative Ed Royce (R-California) stated the following: “If you can take out armored divisions, you could certainly from the air take out pickup truck in the open desert.” Iraqis dramatize the situation a little bit, saying, “If you can detect water in Mars, how can you fail to see ISIL convoys in Mosul?”

Iraqis find it unacceptable to stand by for more than a year as their second largest city remains in terrorist hands and more than tree million Iraqis are displaced in several provinces. ISIL is already wreaking havoc in the territories it controls and molding a generation of young population into its own image. Meanwhile, the U.S. refuses to fully support the predominantly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) because of the close relations some of its elements maintain with Iran, and insists that any final attempt to liberate Mosul must take place after the recruitment of a Sunni force to be trained and equipped by the U.S., a plan that has not shown any potential so far.

Among all of the cases of U.S. policy struggle, the Syrian case is the most challenging. Three problems make Syria a terrible can of warms: (1) there are no good guys to support, even for the U.S. where the bar of decency for allies is so low it is crossed easily by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. On one side, there is Syrian President Bashar Assad, a loathsome despot who inherited his father’s brutal rule of terror and added more of his own. And on the other side stands an assortment of terrorist groups radicalized, armed, and financed by oil-rich Arab States of the Persian Gulf. The U.S. allocated a hefty $500 million to identify, recruit and train “moderate Syrian opposition to Assad, but only had four or five fighters, a number that Senator Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) described as “a joke”, because the expected number of trainees was 5,400 by the end of 2015.

(2) The Assad government has the commitment of several regional and international forces, a coalition led by Russia and includes Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as some Iraqi and Afghani volunteer Shia units, in addition to a large part of the Syrian armed forces that maintained loyalty to President Assad. This made the war unwinnable by the militant opposition groups in spite of the foreign support they receive from their respective foreign patrons. (3) The U.S. priorities in Syria are not aligned with the priorities of the key regional allies and the groups the U.S. is willing to support. The stated U.S. policy is to focus the fight against ISIL, while the regional actors have overthrowing the Assad regime as their top priority. When asked to reconcile these competing priorities, the U.S. administration dodge the question.

When it was attacked in Iraq, during Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s term, ISIL moved to Syria and captured some territories that were made soft by the fighting between the Syrian forces and the opposition. Having established a launching pad in eastern Syria, ISIL began to coordinate with the Sunni opposition to the Iraqi government to have them facilitate the ISIL invasion of Mosul at a time when the Iraqi political elite were off-guard paying full attention to government formation. By taking Mosul and other territories, ISIL controlled a vast territory with about eight million people and vast resources of oil, water, agriculture, and archaeological treasures, in addition to the capture of large sums of cash (more than $500 million in Mosul’s Bank alone). They also generate cash from taxing local populations, human trafficking, and unbelievable as it sounds, the Iraqi government continued to send millions of dollars to former employees in ISIL-controlled areas as salaries where ISIL is taking up to 40% taxes on this money, curtsey of the Iraqi government. But cash has not been the only thing they got from the Iraqi government. They also captured an arsenal of American military hardware and ammunition from the Iraqi forces that abandoned everything and melted away.

The longer ISIL stays in power in these Iraqi and Syrian territories the more permanent their social and political damage will be. They are harming innocent civilians, complicating the conflict in the region, and radicalizing a generation of young people who are a captive audience in their hands. There seems to be no articulated U.S. strategy to end the menace of ISIL any time soon. Will there be a well-defined strategy in the upcoming future, given that we are heading toward an election year? Only time will tell. But the continued lack of focus in U.S. foreign policy and the increased role of competitors, especially the Russians, the U.S. may eventually have to make painful adjustments to the definition and scope of American national interests in the Middle East.

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