Engagement and Entanglement in the Middle East

obama clinton

White House Photo: Pete Souza

The current crisis in Syria is producing the usual demands by Republican neoconservatives for a more robust intervention. Interestingly, liberals who pushed hard for intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s are mostly keeping their heads down on this one, notwithstanding the heart-wrenching butchery taking place in that country.

Everybody but the neocons seem to have learned a lesson from the Bush invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq: if you go in, you will at best create a puppet regime that will be dragged down by its very association with the foreign intervention. That’s what has happened to Karzai in Afghanistan, and to a succession of post-Saddam Iraqi governments as well.

Obama, to his credit, resisted the temptation to keep trying to fix things in Iraq, and terminated our combat role there. He is on course to do the same in Afghanistan. The result in both places will not be pretty, but it would be even worse if we insisted on staying, becoming a permanent occupying power. The invasion of Iraq, we now know, was done on false pretenses about weapons of mass destruction, and false premises about our ability to transform that country as we wished. The invasion of Aghanistan may have been justified by the Taliban government’s sheltering of Bin Laden, but we now understand that it still was not wise.

Similarly with the unrest of the “Arab Spring,” Obama has steadfastly resisted any overt attempt to assert control, limiting U.S. involvement to behind-the-scenes maneuvering and small-scale covert action. The overthrow of Gaddaffi in Libya happened without U.S. troops on the ground. The provisional government was not seen as a puppet of the United States. The tragedy of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi might have been avoided if the U.S. had kept an even lower profile there.

Similarly in Egypt, the ouster of Mubarak and the transition to a new, constitutional government has happened without direct American intervention. The result is a government of which we may not approve, but for which no one thinks we are responsible, as we were for keeping Sadat and Mubarak in power for forty years.

In Syria, a narrowly based dynasty is finally facing a challenge from its own population that it will likely lose, and perhaps soon. The costs in death and destruction have been and will be immense. Obama has steadfastly resisted any overt intervention in the conflict, and with good reason. Syria is a much bigger country than Libya, and poses enormous strategic challenges for a conventional military intervention. It is also a far more complex society: any intervention will surely make us at least as many enemies as friends.

I do not doubt that Obama has authorized covert measures to aid the rebels, and has recently overtly recognized the main rebel coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Obama has worked closely with the moderate Islamist government of Turkey, which obviously has a very direct stake in the Syrian outcome. The end result is likely to be the fall of Bashar al-Assad and his replacement by an unstable provisional government dominated by the Sunni majority. That will be strategically significant in depriving Iran of its most important Arab ally. And it will have happened, again, without U.S. fingerprints. As in Egypt and Libya, we may not approve of the government that emerges, but we won’t be responsible for it either.

The invasion of Iraq was the keystone of George W. Bush’s crusade to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East. We are now chastened enough to realize that he and Dick Cheney were foolish. But they did succeed in destabilizing the Middle East and opening the door to the agitations of the Arab Spring.

john peelerObama’s task—and that of his successors—will be to engage constructively with the changes the region will be undergoing, without repeating the errors of the imperialist past by seeking to dominate and control those changes.

As George Washington said, avoid entangling alliances

John Peeler

Friday, 15 December 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on December 14, 2012
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About John Peeler

John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.