Editorial

Anne Joyce, November 21, 2016

The electoral battle is finally over, leaving shock and awe in its wake. It is too soon to make specific predictions, but some of the president-elect's early appointments of hardline insiders give one pause. Perhaps a seasoned diplomat will win the State Department post, but the individuals mentioned so far include some with little experience in international affairs. Of course, Donald Trump's primary interest, and that of his followers, is the domestic agenda. He made few suggestions for change in U.S. foreign policy during the campaign. Even his idea of cooperation with Russia was not new. To some extent, Washington and Moscow have been working together for over a year against ISIS, a common enemy.

Foreign-policy analysis is our assignment, no matter who is in power. It has been convenient that the elite consensus on the Middle East is seldom in play, though that may change. The major media pay little attention to it — the Israel-Palestine conflict and the merciless carnage of two Gaza wars went unmentioned during the recent campaign. The candidates did not reveal any deep or even superficial thoughts on the region, and their interlocutors didn't press Hillary Clinton on the risks of a no-fly zone in Russian-protected Syria. Nor did anyone probe the distinction between the human shields in Aleppo and those in Mosul. The United States seems less concerned with the latter, although the bodies of noncombatants in both cities are being used to protect ISIS fighters. The rush to reclaim Mosul seems arbitrary, and there may be reason for skepticism about the official rationale (see Dylan O'Driscoll, p. 61, on the failure to prepare the political ground in Nineveh Province).

Back to that consensus: Many Americans seem to want an empire — a.k.a. liberal hegemony — particularly as there is no competitor strong enough to deny it to us. Of course, it's expensive, a problem that has led to the eventual downfall of all the others throughout history. But perhaps we have that licked now, the public being panicked by terrorism and wanting it stamped out (see Bernard Lia on the expansion of jihadism post-2011, p. 74). No matter how many times statisticians reassuringly mention the low risk — being struck by lightning on your birthday — it doesn't seem to convince. The details of successful strikes are too horrific, and in recent cases, Americans and Europeans have often been the victims. Besides, lone-wolf perpetrators can't be identified ahead of time, and those who fit the profile are appallingly numerous. No one can keep you entirely safe, thus the fear. And don't bother trying to explain that terrorism is not an existential threat to the country. It could be just a matter of time, supposedly, before a crude nuclear device is detonated at O'Hare by an international evil doer.

Therefore, money for a military approach to straightening out the Middle East has been no object. But Harvard realist Stephen Walt has doubts about the heart of the problem, as he revealed in his Foreign Policy blog post:

I've yet to see any of the advocates of intervention lay out a plausible blueprint for a post-civil-war political order in Syria and a plausible path for getting there…. What I object to most, however, is the attempt to scare Americans into doing something by suggesting that the country's power, image or reputation is at risk if we refrain. This claim does not stand up to even mild scrutiny, and the only thing that gives it any bite at all is endless repetition.

The risk constantly stressed here and in Britain emanates from Russia (see our Williams/Souza article on its counterterrorism in Syria, p. 42). Anti-Putin opinions in the news organs of record are rife. The Economist depicted him on their cover as the devil incarnate, even though it is conceded that his country is weak: a pitiful economy, rampant corruption, the lack of cutting-edge anything, a shrinking population. All the Russians have, in fact — besides, um, nuclear weapons — are the guts of a bank robber. They seem to be over-compensating. However, just as in the school yard, we can't be seen to back down. This all-too-human tendency has ensnared the United States in some rhetorical traps that could have been sidestepped: like "Assad must go," and the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." President Obama got little credit for facilitating the destruction of Syria's Sarin stockpile without killing anyone. Even his rather useful idea of leading from behind became a joke, supposedly a sign of wooly-headed lawyerly hesitation, though Stephen Walt would disagree.

Such craft is not so blithely dismissed by the Israelis, it seems. In Syria, two U.S. enemies are fighting each other: the government forces versus the affiliates of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Stalemate would be the best result, according to military strategist Edward Luttwak, in synch with Henry Kissinger's opinion of the ideal solution to the Iran-Iraq War back in the 1980s. Efram Inbar, the head of Israel's major think tank, also seems to believe the destruction of the Islamic State would be a strategic mistake. Better for it to be kept in check but allowed to make trouble — for Iran, in particular, one of its arch-enemies. Or should Washington make common cause with Tehran and try to stamp out Islamic extremism, to bring some stability to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? This would be a nonstarter in the current political climate, although it's early days; the wars in Syria will continue for a long time in any case. And we can't yet know how disinclined a Trump administration will be toward military activism or how attuned to the opinions of valued U.S. friends and allies in the Gulf. They are understandably worried.

It is far from clear whether President Trump will want a free hand to firmly "assert U.S. power and interests," as Pentagon-connected columnist David Ignatius of The Washington Post seemed to recommend to a hypothetical President Clinton less than a week before the election. After warning of the Russians' sense of grievance against America, he closed with this pulled punch:

Clinton's tougher stance sounds like a better way…, so long as she doesn't make Putin feel humiliated or backed into a corner. This Russia is weaker than it looks, but it has been wounded by recent history and is all too ready to lash out.

Well put. Let's remember the catastrophe of 2003, when we allowed ourselves to be convinced that U.S. eminent domain included the Middle East — if only we camouflaged our actions with the trappings of freedom and democracy. One might wonder how being more aggressive would ameliorate the horrors spawned by three misguided wars. Discussion of the fallout related to such U.S. policy decisions, from North Africa to Turkey to Iraq to the Arabian Peninsula, can be found inside this book.

Anne Joyce
November 21, 2016