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


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    Big mistakes by Bush, Cheney et al do not justify more mistakes – even of a supposedly opposite kind – by Obama.

    Contra Peeler, even without the Bush interventions, the Mideast was bound to get ‘destabilized’ – if only thanks to Iran’s steady support of terrorism on the one hand and the local agitations and dis-satisfactions which triggered ‘Arab Spring’.

    Peeler’s – and most USA discussions (whether MSM, ‘left’ or ‘right’) – simplistically and wrongly assume that ‘US intervention’ will always cause more problems abroad, at least in the Mideast. These discussions typically fail to distinguish between very different kinds of even overt intervention. In truth, some interventions can be quick and beneficial and relatively cheap, and others long-drawn-out and horribly useless and costly. The issue is not black-white: it’s not ‘intervention’ versus ‘non-intervention’, nor quiet ‘peace’ versus heavy-duty ‘war’.

    What arguably went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the concept of intervention per se but the failure to (1) define a feasible and worthy aim of intervention and then (2) quit once that aim was achieved. Yet, in both nations, such an aim was actually achieved and could readily have been used as a cutoff point for rather quick withdrawal after relatively few casualties: Saddam’s capture in Iraq, and removal of the Taliban from Kabul.

    When – as in Syria – a big power like the USA keeps hands off, but doesn’t ensure that others (like Russia or Iran) do too, by default the USA is then helping enemies and hurting friends – and in the case of the Mideast the USA’s special friends include especially folks who want to bring greater liberty and prosperity and less domination by dictators and medieval Islamists.

    US pro-longed hands-off in Syria has been costly to the Syrian people and to the friends of the USA – and the economy and security of millions of folks in Syria’s five immediate neighboring lands. These countries and other local powers – except for Iran – don’t want to be seen as intervening because that will complicate their relationships with each other as well as with whatever regime(s) will later emerge in Syria. The far-away USA however has long had special options – as well as military capability – to intervene beneficially in a manner which would be cheap for us and for the rest of the world (risking few if any American military) but decisive: e.g. bombing Assad’s presidential palace and other key power assets, or sending and enforcing a message to Iran to quit Syria or else.

    By the way, Peeler has some further explaining to do. He seems to think that two
    contradictory approaches are equivalent: no US intervention, and yet clandestine US intervention without US ‘fingerprints’. As he says, the USA should not ‘dominate’ or ‘control’ outcomes, but that negative in itself does not do justice to the fact that some outcomes are definitely preferable to others, and so some degree of USA influence on outcomes can be beneficial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *