The president of the United States left two weeks ago on an extensive trip to meet Asia’s heads of state, unencumbered by diplomats. In a parting shot to reporters, he paraphrased Louis XIV: "It’s all me" — the state, he meant. He had also just offered his judgment on two well-publicized legal cases, again paraphrasing a European royal trope, "Off with their heads!" Divine right seems alive and well in the mind of the leader of the world’s oldest democracy, if not in fact. Diplomacy is treated like a fool’s errand, despite its success in limiting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, for example. Would we not like to think such an agreement could be achieved with North Korea?
The U.S. political decline goes on, while the Trump administration tries to distract the public with side issues. A year out from the electoral shock of it all, this roundelay has lost its power to amuse. Donald Trump’s party is apparently sticking with him, no matter what special counsel Mueller’s investigation unearths, at least until tax reform for the wealthy wins approval in Congress. Though the president’s poll numbers have fallen to 33 percent, the very definition of rock bottom, it would be foolish to expect a reversal — unless, of course, you are in charge of foreign/military policy. There, it’s Groundhog Day. Trump’s "generals" are gearing up to try again in Afghanistan. Stan McChrystal, the retired army officer who spent much of the early 2000s trying to nation-build in that troubled land, actually admits in a recent Foreign Affairs essay that the critics are right: Doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result is a textbook case of insanity. Nevertheless, his final effort to convince the mystified reader is this: "Even though too great a presence in the Muslim world generates resentment, it is also true that a total absence reinforces the narrative that the United States doesn’t care about the non-Christian parts of the world." Put in an outmoded British-colonial way, we must take up the "white man’s burden," though not to convert nonbelievers this time.
Why Afghanistan? First, because we can. Returning to Iraq or Syria is impossible, though some special forces remain. In Afghanistan, however, the United States has the power to settle in and "promote regional stability and economic development," claims McChrystal. Plus — and here’s the kicker — we will have a platform for collecting intelligence and carrying out counterterrorism operations. If we are in the neighborhood, we can inhibit mischief making, not only by the Taliban, but by their cohorts in Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India and even China. The New York Times ran a front-page story that may offer more credible truth telling: "CIA to Expand Its Covert Role in Afghanistan." This is supposed to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but a larger role for the CIA means less transparency. Thus, the American public wakes up one morning to news from Niger or a comparably little-known place — Chad, Mali, Mauritania — and learns that some of our elite forces have been killed in an ambush. There are apparently 600 in Niger alone (see Lounnas on jihadis in North Africa).
This is the way we live now, in a state of permanent warfare — "the forever war," as the Times has labeled it, using (unattributed) the title of Joe Haldeman’s 1975 sci-fi classic. It is only possible because our warrior caste, aided by the CIA, does the suffering and dying, in exchange for nearly unchecked authority. The part of the common citizen in the bargain is to refrain from asking too many awkward questions, as Trump’s chief of staff lectured the press corps in October. The gloves came off when the 9/11 attacks made it possible to authorize the use of whatever military force was supposedly necessary to defeat "bad guys" wherever they were lurking. There does not seem to be any strategy beyond keeping Americans "safe," particularly from Radical Islamic Terrorism. Thus, small-bore tasks become all-important, though definitions and categories are quite fluid. Mass killings of Americans by angry or deranged men with military armaments are not terrorism, nor are the crimes condemned with the same zeal. The murder of eight defenseless people by pick-up truck in Manhattan on Halloween was conflated with the phenomenon that slaughtered 3,000 by repurposed airplanes 16 years ago. Of course, we can’t stop pursuing our elusive goal; we are not losers, after all. And we tend, as Paul Pillar so aptly puts it, "to view sunk costs as investments." During the latter part of the war in Vietnam, it was often said, "We can’t leave now (before we had won); that would mean 30,000 Americans have died in vain."
The post-9/11 world of the contemporary Middle East provides our analysts with plenty of fodder. This issue of the journal contains the text of the Council’s outstanding Capitol Hill panel on the political struggle inside the Gulf Cooperation Council, at which some of the core issues were frankly examined and even explained. Augmenting the discussion are two pieces on the foreign policies of both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition, there are articles on the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Horn of Africa as a hinterland for both the GCC and the Islamic Republic, the machinations involved in the fall of Muammar Qadhafi, jihadism in Tunisia, the impact of ISIS in Algeria, the refugee burden in Jordan, and the relevance of the 100-year-old Balfour Declaration. This last piece, by the highly regarded Ian Lustick, is particularly significant, due to the desire for independence recently expressed by the Catalans of Spain and the Kurds of Iraq, to name only the most prominent cases.
The definitions of "state" and "home" seem to be shifting; not every group can be a free-standing entity. The landlocked Kurds, surrounded by more powerful states that would have to cede territory and vital resources, would not be able to secure their own borders, despite the demonstrated bravery of their peshmerga fighters. In addition, they have a long history of internecine strife. Far more effort needs to be applied to federation arrangements between ethnic and religious rivals, as discussed by O’Driscoll and Van Zoonen in our fall journal (www.mepc.org). This is not to minimize the difficulty of bridging gaps and bringing sworn enemies into some sort of coexistence. The U.S. military can’t do the job by force; in fact, its attempts are often counterproductive. Only local leaders are able to make the necessary hard compromises, usually after a great deal of bloodshed.
The Middle East Policy Council is in mourning. Our president, Ford Fraker, died suddenly of a stroke in early September. He had been the head of our team for four years and will be sorely missed by everyone, from the staff to the officers to the board. Our hearts go out to his grieving family and friends. Take a moment to read his full obituary on page 189 to better appreciate this remarkable man.