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Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

America’s Middle East Delusions

USS GHW Bush

The explosive ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underscores the thoroughgoing failure of America’s political class to devise an effective and sustainable strategy for the United States after 9/11. The failure cuts across Democratic and Republican administrations, with the most self-damaging aspects of each administration’s policies roundly endorsed by the opposing party in Congress.

Both sides deny responsibility for unfolding catastrophe in Iraq: Republicans criticize Obama’s marginal modulations of Bush’s approach to the Middle East while Democrats blame Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (Republicans also criticize Maliki, but not so much that it might exculpate Obama.) Foreign policy elites also ignore a more urgent and ongoing flaw in America’s post-9/11 Middle East policy that is directly linked to Iraq’s current crisis—Washington’s recurrent partnership with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to arm, fund, and train Sunni militias.

America’s turn to jihadi proxies did not start with Bush’s strategic malpractice in Iraq. It was born on July 3, 1979, when President Carter signed the first directive to arm jihadists in Afghanistan, before Soviet forces invaded the country. For U.S. policymakers, collaborating with Riyadh to launch transnational jihad in Afghanistan seemed a clever way to undermine the Soviet Union—by goading it into a draining occupation of Afghanistan, which Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, hoped to make Moscow’s Vietnam.
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Don’t Compound the Damage Already Done in Iraq by Doubling Down in Syria

The debate over America’s Middle East policy has reached a new level of surreality. In the wake of President Obama’s West Point commencement address last month — in which he pledged to “ramp up” U.S. support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad — Washington elites are exhorting the Obama administration to do much more. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford urges intensified training and more advanced weapons for “moderate” opposition fighters; others argue for direct U.S. military involvement. At the same time, Washington has been stunned by the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and several other strategic targets, and is drawing close to Baghdad.

Washington elites are effectively compartmentalizing these stories — but, in fact, they are intimately related, and policymakers need to understand the connection to avoid another disaster in the heart of the Middle East.
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Critiquing America’s Brain-Dead Foreign Policy 'Debate'

Stephen Walt

Yesterday, Harvard’s Steve Walt posted an amusingly sharp piece on what’s wrong with America’s so-called foreign policy “debate.”  Steve’s piece, titled “Take 2 Ambien and Call Me When It’s Over:  I’d Rather Spoon My Own Eye Out Than Sit Through This Year’s Think-Tank-a-Palooza,” see here, appears on his blog at Foreign Policy; we also highlight key excerpts below. 

The piece includes a nice reference to us; more importantly, it aptly encapsulates the brain-dead quality of most mainstream discussion in the United States about America’s role in and engagement with the wider world and dares to suggest what a more serious discussion would look like.

Steve opens by noting the widespread and mounting dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy:
“Nobody seems to be happy with U.S. foreign policy these days.  It’s not hard to see why.  Relations with Russia are frosty and could get worse.  China is throwing sharp elbows and looking for opportunities to shift the status quo in Asia.  The NSA is out of control.  Afghanistan and Iraq were failures.  Libya is a mess, Syria is worse, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic effort at Middle East peacemaking was a farce.  Al Qaeda keeps spreading and morphing no matter how many leaders our drones and Special Forces kill.  With criticism mounting, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his basic approach at West Point and hardly anyone came away feeling any better.  And now we are having a pointless squabble over repatriated POW Bowe Bergdahl.

With nearly everyone—from Afghanistan War veterans to former envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to former Ambassador Robert Ford to MoveOn.org—upset about how things are going, it’s time for our premier foreign-policy institutions to step up with some outside-the-box thinking on how the United States could do better.  Surely well-informed experts can offer fresh thinking on how the United States can deal with a world that seems to spin more out of control each month.”

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America’s Shale Revolution and the Dangerous Myth of Energy Independence

Fracking


American elites have talked about “energy independence” for forty years—since the United States became a net oil importer in the early 1970s, around the time of the first major oil crisis.  While they have rarely been precise or analytically rigorous in using the term, it seems to mean, in its most ambitious formulation, that the United States would never again have to import hydrocarbon molecules, in liquid or gaseous form.  In a more restrained (but still pretty ambitious) version, U.S. demand for oil and gas imports would drop to levels satisfiable with supplies from “friendly” neighbors, rather than countries geopolitically at odds with Washington.

But, in either form, the notion of energy independence is a myth, and a dangerous one.  It is a myth because it ignores the realities of today’s international oil and gas markets; it is dangerous because it conditions ill-advised foreign policy choices.
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A Middle East Tragedy: Obama’s Syria Policy Disaster

For over three years, the United States has sought to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by supporting an Al Qaeda-infused opposition that Washington either knew or should have known would fail.  Yet, in his commencement address at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama promised the American people and the rest of the world more of the same.

Obama’s vague pledge to “ramp up” support for selected oppositionists is a craven sop to those claiming that U.S. backing for the opposition so far—nonlethal aid, training opposition fighters, coordination with other countries openly providing lethal aid, and high-level political backing (including three years of public demands from Obama that Assad “must go”)—has been inadequate, and that Assad could be removed if only America would do more.  This claim should be decisively rejected as a basis for policy making, rather than disingenuously humored, for it is dangerously detached from reality.


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The Sino-Russian Hydrocarbon Axis Grows Up

Eight years ago, in the pages of The National Interest, Flynt Leverett and Pierre Noël identified a “new axis of oil”—a “shifting coalition of both energy exporting and energy importing states centered in ongoing Sino-Russian collaboration”—that was emerging as an increasingly important counterweight to the United States on a widening range of international issues.  While, at the time, Russian oil and gas exports to China were negligible, Leverett and Noël projected that Russian hydrocarbons would become “a major factor buttressing closer Sino-Russian strategic collaboration” in the future.

Western analysts have long been skeptical of the prospects for sustained Sino-Russian cooperation—but over the last eight years, the new axis of oil has become undeniable market and geopolitical reality.  Russia is now one of China’s top three oil suppliers (with Saudi Arabia and Angola) and is set to grow its oil exports to China significantly in coming years.
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Can the West Get Out of Its (Self-Made) Cul-de-Sac in Syria?

Obamakillingsyrian

In recent years, the limits on America’s ability to shape important outcomes in the Middle East unilaterally—or even with a few European partners—have been dramatically underscored by strategically failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Last year, President Obama’s inability to act on his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August made clear that Washington can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force in the region.

Still, American and other Western elites persist in thinking they can dictate the Middle East’s future by helping armed insurgents overthrow Syria’s recognized government. If Western powers don’t drop their insistence that President Bashar al-Assad leave power—even though he retains the support of a majority of Syrians and is winning his fight against opposition forces—and get serious about facilitating a political settlement between Assad and parts of the opposition, they will do further damage to their own already distressed position in the Middle East.

Since protests broke out in parts of Syria in March 2011, Western policy has focused on destabilizing President Assad and his government.  American, British, and French decision-makers calculated that, by undermining Assad, they could inflict a damaging blow to Iran’s regional position. They also reckoned that targeting Assad would help coopt the Arab Awakening that had emerged in the months preceding the start of unrest in Syria.
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The Use of Force, the Reflexive Resort to Economic Sanctions, and the Trials of America’s Hegemonic Mindset

Putincameronobama

As negotiations toward a “final” nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran continue, it is important to consider to what extent the world might be witnessing a fundamental change in American foreign policy. We are inclined to think that the Obama administration would not have gone as far down the diplomatic road with Iran as it has in the absence of President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August 2013. This episode drove home—to the Obama administration as well as to most of the rest of the world—that the United States can no longer credibly threaten to use military force in the Middle East for hegemonic purposes.

After the American public so resoundingly rebuffed Obama’s call for U.S. military action, his administration was compelled to conclude that starting down the diplomatic road with Iran was politically less costly than pushing for more sanctions and continuing to insist that the “military option” was still “on the table.”

But can the Obama administration really go all the way to a comprehensive realignment of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran—and, in the process, show that the United States can shift proactively from a counterproductive drive to dominate the Middle East to serious engagement with all important regional powers, and not just slink out of region in defeat?
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The Year of Iran: Tehran’s Challenge to American Hegemony in 2014

Hassan Rohani’s election as Iran’s president seven months ago caught most of the West’s self-appointed Iran “experts” by (largely self-generated) surprise. Over the course of Iran’s month-long presidential campaign, methodologically-sound polls by the University of Tehran showed that a Rohani victory was increasingly likely.

Yet Iran specialists at Washington’s leading think tanks continued erroneously insisting (as they had for months before the campaign formally commenced) that Iranians could not be polled like other populations and that there would be “a selection rather than an election,” engineered to install Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate—in most versions, former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. On election day, as Iranian voters began casting their ballots, the Washington Post proclaimed that Rohani “will not be allowed to win”—a statement reflecting virtual consensus among American pundits.
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Is Obama Trying to Resolve or Prolong the Conflict in Syria?

Obamasyria1

Suppose a great power declares that it supports a peace process aimed at finding a political solution to a terrible, ongoing conflict.  Then suppose that this great power makes such declarations after it has already proclaimed its strong interest in the defeat of one of the main parties to said conflict.  And then suppose that this great power insists on preconditions for a peace process — preconditions effectively boiling down to a demand for pre-emptive surrender by the party whose defeat the great power has already identified as its major goal — which render such a process impossible.  Is it not reasonable to conclude that the great power in question is (how to put this gently) lying about its purported support for peace?

That, in a nutshell, is the Obama administration’s posture toward the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began sending out invitations for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for January 22.  And, as Ban’s spokesperson acknowledged, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the “first round” of nations asked to take part.
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