United States Of Common Sense

Our Foreign Policy Adrift

Iran Soldiers
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The William Brown
With a cargo of immigrants bound for a new life in America, the William Brown was a ship full of hope. It had set off from Liverpool five weeks earlier, on March 13, 1841, and was nearing the end of its voyage to Philadelphia. | Photo: Archives | The William Brown, Ship, Cargo, Ocean Immigrants, Shipwreck, Immigration,

And the rocky shore is getting closer

If you want to get an appreciation for just how disastrous and incomprehensible our foreign policy has become, you need only look at the headlines from a single day. Just recently, morning papers announced that Saudi Arabia, backed by a coalition of other Sunni Muslim states, was intervening in Yemen in response to the impending takeover of that nation by Shia rebels backed by Iran. On the very same day, the morning papers revealed that American warplanes would now be providing direct air support for Iranian-led and equipped Shia militias in Iraq, which are increasingly threatening to bring the transformation of that nation into an Iranian client state.

In short, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and a number of Gulf states, all Sunni allies of the United States, are launching what amounts to a proxy war against Iran in Yemen while we are simultaneously siding with Iran and its surrogates in Iraq.

Confused? I sure am.

Since at least 1979 American foreign policy in the Middle East has been built on two foundations, support for Israel and support for generally authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes. Iran, a radical, revolutionary, Islamic regime dedicated to the spread of terrorism and fundamentalism, has been contained.

This policy has not been without its challenges. Israel, while a staunch ally and a truly democratic nation, may be a friend but it does not always adhere to policies that we would prefer. In particular, it is on some occasions less helpful than we would like in regard to moving the peace process with the Palestinians forward.

Sunni Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have often presented even greater challenges. We have not always seen eye to eye on issues of democratic reform and human rights. Saudi Arabia in particular has often seemed slow to recognize the need to stem the flow of financial support to hostile Islamic terrorist groups around the world. Whether we have in all cases done everything we could to press these nations on these and other issues is debatable. No policy is perfect, and ours clearly has not been.

Our policy has been based, however, on a basic recognition of some fundamental truths. The Middle East is a dangerous place. It is crisscrossed with fault lines based on religious and ethnic differences. Many of its states are fragile, artificial constructs. Most of its people live in nations with no tradition of democratic rule. The rule of law is often observed primarily in the breach. And Iran is a hostile regime bent on regional hegemony and the spread of militant Shia Islam.

We have accepted, in other words, that maintaining stability is key and that change must be incremental. Radical, precipitous actions in such an environment may lead, not to greater human rights and a better quality of life but to disaster, war and genocide.

Relax
Relax

It's just an olive branch plant. | Photo: Jeff Darcy |
Enter the Obama Administration, which has acted from the beginning as if all of these considerations were meaningless, all disputes based on innocent misunderstandings and all peoples secretly yearning to live in secular, liberal democratic states built on our model. This Administration did not see in the Arab Spring a complex mix of motivations based on political, economic and religious factors. It saw the equivalent of a peace march on Washington, DC in the Middle East and acted accordingly.

In Egypt it allowed the replacement of the Mubarak regime with a Muslim Brotherhood government whose ideology was virtually indistinguishable from that of Al Qaida and Iraq. In Libya it helped topple Qaddafi and then, apparently stunned by the chaos that resulted, simply abandoned the competing factions in that nation to the nightmare of civil war. In Syria it called for the ouster of Assad and then when he had the audacity to ignore our edicts, scuttled away and abandoned the rebels to the tender mercies of barrel bombs and Hezbollah fighters brought in by Iran to prop up the regime.

Six years on, the ideological underpinnings of the Administration's foreign policy remain largely a mystery to me. As best I can determine this President seems guided primarily by na?vet?, wishful thinking and a general idea that if we have a dispute with a hostile power we are somehow probably to blame. When he does act it is to order half measures driven by crass political considerations. We are bombing ISIS, for example, not because any competent military expert believes it is a tactic that will lead to victory but because we can and it gives the appearance of action and resolve.

The scale of the disaster that is unfolding as a result is almost unimaginable. It may be, in fact, that at no time since World War II have we suffered such a series of catastrophic defeats and setbacks. Our relationship with Israel is in shambles. Our Sunni allies, tired of waiting for us to act decisively, are marching off on their own into a confrontation with Iran in Yemen. Baghdad is teetering on the edge of becoming a client of Tehran. Beirut and Damascus already are. Libya is burning. Syria is mired in endless war.

And, incredibly enough, we are seemingly poised to sign an agreement with the Iranians, who have demonstrated repeatedly that they cannot be trusted to adhere to any deal they enter into, which will allow them to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons. When that happens, and they detonate a bomb, everything that has happened so far will pale in comparison. Then we will be talking, not about civil war and terrorism, but about nuclear exchanges and the annihilation of cities.

For decades our policy in the Middle East was based on firm, if imperfect, foundations. We were anchored to the principle of maintaining stability and preventing the release of the underlying forces of chaos. We have abandoned that policy. We have replaced it with nothing meaningful or comprehensible.

We are adrift, and there are waves crashing on the rocks ahead.

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Updated May 6, 2017 5:51 AM EDT | More details

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