Needing a new Mid East policy?

An interesting article argues that the US needs a new approach in the Middle East, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” was the wise advice proffered by Michael Corleone in the classic film, The Godfather: Part II. To sort out U.S. policy in the Middle East, however, the United States might need to take the reverse view — and take a hard look at the roles its Arab friends and partners are willing to play. The recent obscene terror attacks in Paris and the on-going Syria conflict would seem to cry out for an international response, no less than Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Islamic State’s new global terrorism underscores that it is a mortal threat to both Arab states in the region and major powers outside the region — and not just the United States and Europe, but also Russia, China, Japan, and India”.

The author then mistakenly draws a parellell between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and ISIS, “Why is it that the United States is not actively mobilising a similar coalition to reverse all the gains of the Islamic State? This necessarily also involves expunging the Islamic State from its Raqqa-based “caliphate” and finding a resolution to the Syria conflict. Sending 50 Special Operations troops is a transparent attempt to check the box and appear to be doing something. Where is Jim Baker when we need him? To be fair, the tepid response cannot all be blamed on the fear and loathing of a meek, retreating Obama administration. How is that the Saudis, Gulf states, Egypt, and Turkey — all of whom face an existential threat from the Islamic State — are so preoccupied with other concerns that they can’t be bothered to fight the Islamic State? Think about it: If I call myself the Islamic Caliphate, the leader of all Muslims, don’t I need to possess the holiest sites of Islam at Mecca and Medina? Is that not obvious to Riyadh? The Islamic State has already wreaked havoc on Egyptian territory in the Sinai, and is literally a stone’s throw away, across the border from Turkey”.

Yet the problem with this analysis is that ISIS is not seen as a threat to the Saudi’s because ISIS makes no claim to Mecca. The other point to bear in mind is essentially geopolitical. The Saudis gain from the weakening of Syria, and with it, Iran and Iraq. Therefore to view the problem as purely religious is a grave error.

The piece goes on to argue somewhat implausibly, “While between them these frontline states have more than 5 million men under arms, they do not see it in their respective interest to deploy them and wipe out the Islamic State. And as any military officer will tell you (take the U.S. experience in Iraq), a war cannot be won solely by airpower. Any strategy whose objective is destroying the Islamic will sooner or later need boots on the ground to seize their occupied terrain and lay the basis for a new, legitimate governing authority in that liberated land. The intriguing question then is why Arab countries, so eager to have the United States play a leading security role in the region, are so obsessed with other concerns? To be sure, Iran and its imperial designs are a clear long-term threat to the Saudis and other Sunni-dominated nations in the region”.

The author goes on to mention “Nonetheless, while the details may be argued and a debate about burden-sharing with oil importers like China, India, Japan, and the EU is overdue, a U.S. offshore balancing role in a volatile region remains an important pillar of stability. But we are still left with the conundrum that any Western-led effort to wipe out the Islamic State cannot ultimately succeed on its own. If such a campaign is viewed as an American or Western war (or a crusade) it will trigger a backlash in the Islamic world. This is the trap the Islamic State, with its end of days pseudo-theology is laying. There must be a coalition within which those in region play a major, leading role. It cannot be, not a coalition mainly in name only with Uncle Sucker doing all the heavy lifting: The war against the Islamic State must be owned by those surrounding frontline states. The United States, France, Russia, and others can and should strongly aid and support it — including with some boots on the ground. But it must be principally their war. They must show beyond a doubt that the Islamic State is not Islam, it is not legitimate: it is a scourge and a hijacking and bastardisation of the Islamic faith”.

This ignores that theses states, do not have the technical or military ability to truly defeat ISIS. At the same time it should be argued that there needs to be a principle US involvement in order to buttress and extend the role of the United States in the region. If, as the author suggests, the Arab states take a lead without the US it could set a dangerous precedent that would lead them to take military action without US permission. This would only further weaken American abdication in the region that has taken place under President Obama with disastrous consequences.

The piece goes on to mention “There is a congruence of threat assessments in regard to Iran and its long-term intentions. This is discernable in Tehran’s hardline reaction to the nuclear deal: that it is a one-off exception, the United States is still the Great Satan and expanding Iranian influence remains their strategic objective. But in the here and now, there is an urgency to the threats from the Islamic State and the conflict in Syria that supersedes concerns about Iran. Indeed given that the Islamic State cannot be eliminated until the Syria conflict is resolved, there is some overlap of interest in that Iran will necessarily be a part of any Syrian solution”.

He concludes “In any case, unless and until frontline Arab states rethink how they calculate their near-term interests, the United States would be wise to begin some soul-searching discussions with its friends in the region about the nature of U.S. security ties in the imploding Middle East. The on-going multiple crises in the Greater Middle East has led many U.S. analysts to argue for enhancing security ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab partners. But security partnerships, and certainly coalitions, necessarily begin with shared objectives. In other regions, where the United States has a dominant security guarantor role, Europe and East Asia, there are active partners and security relationships with shared threat perceptions and some measure of reciprocity in regard to their respective defense roles and missions. In NATO, there is a full-fledged collective security commitment. In East Asia, through U.S.-Japanese, U.S.-Korean, U.S.-Australian bilateral alliances, and a growing set of security partners in ASEAN, a regional security network is evolving”.

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