Saturday, October 17, 2015

Henry Kissinger on the Middle East

This weekend’s must-read essay is Henry Kissinger’s analysis of the current turmoil in the Middle East: “A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse.”

As would be expected, Kissinger exhibits a significant and welcome depth of knowledge about the region’s history, the character of the combatants and the geopolitical fault lines. Next to his analysis, the current administration looks feeble minded. Of course, it is also and equally possible that this administration looks kindly on Islamist regimes and sees no reason not to grant them what they wish.

To be fair, the leading Republican presidential candidates have yet to demonstrate anything like a real understanding of the situation. It is impossible to deal effectively with a situation that you do not understand. 

Anyway, Kissinger opens by suggesting that the administration’s Iran nuclear deal, deal whose purpose was to stabilize the region, has done no such thing. Moreover, it has caused American influence in the region to diminish significantly. Everyone in the region understood that America had caved to the ayatollahs and was withdrawing from the region, its tail between its legs:

The debate about whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran regarding its nuclear program stabilized the Middle East’s strategic framework had barely begun when the region’s geopolitical framework collapsed. Russia’s unilateral military action in Syria is the latest symptom of the disintegration of the American role in stabilizing the Middle East order that emerged from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

This is a useful counterweight to administration happy talk about how great it is that Putin is getting himself into a quagmire. Rarely has an administration so shamelessly rationalized its own craven inaction.

People who do not know very much about much of anything have compared Obama’s Iran deal with the Nixon administration China deal. Allow Kissinger, a major architect of the latter, to explain the differences:

The prevailing U.S. policy toward Iran is often compared by its advocates to the Nixon administration’s opening to China, which contributed, despite some domestic opposition, to the ultimate transformation of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The comparison is not apt. The opening to China in 1971 was based on the mutual recognition by both parties that the prevention of Russian hegemony in Eurasia was in their common interest. And 42 Soviet divisions lining the Sino-Soviet border reinforced that conviction. No comparable strategic agreement exists between Washington and Tehran. On the contrary, in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear accord, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the U.S. as the “Great Satan” and rejected negotiations with America about nonnuclear matters. Completing his geopolitical diagnosis, Mr. Khamenei also predicted that Israel would no longer exist in 25 years.

Forty-five years ago, the expectations of China and the U.S. were symmetrical. The expectations underlying the nuclear agreement with Iran are not. Tehran will gain its principal objectives at the beginning of the implementation of the accord. America’s benefits reside in a promise of Iranian conduct over a period of time. The opening to China was based on an immediate and observable adjustment in Chinese policy, not on an expectation of a fundamental change in China’s domestic system. The optimistic hypothesis on Iran postulates that Tehran’s revolutionary fervor will dissipate as its economic and cultural interactions with the outside world increase.

Kissinger explains that in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, America (that would be Nixon and Kissinger) exerted more influence in the region. We cobbled together a balance of powers that gave some stability for a period of decades.

In his words:

In the aftermath of that conflict, Egypt abandoned its military ties with the Soviet Union and joined an American-backed negotiating process that produced peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, a United Nations-supervised disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria, which has been observed for over four decades (even by the parties of the Syrian civil war), and international support of Lebanon’s sovereign territorial integrity. Later, Saddam Hussein’s war to incorporate Kuwait into Iraq was defeated by an international coalition under U.S. leadership. American forces led the war against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States were our allies in all these efforts. The Russian military presence disappeared from the region.

Without assigning blame to the current or past administrations, Kissinger describes the new geopolitical realities in the Middle East:

Four states in the region have ceased to function as sovereign. Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq have become targets for nonstate movements seeking to impose their rule. Over large swaths in Iraq and Syria, an ideologically radical religious army has declared itself the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) as an unrelenting foe of established world order. It seeks to replace the international system’s multiplicity of states with a caliphate, a single Islamic empire governed by Shariah law.

Enter the bear. The Russian bear, in particular. After listening to the Obama administration pooh-pooh Putin’s intervention, it is refreshing to read a cogent and informed analysis:

These conflicting trends, compounded by America’s retreat from the region, have enabled Russia to engage in military operations deep in the Middle East, a deployment unprecedented in Russian history. Russia’s principal concern is that the Assad regime’s collapse could reproduce the chaos of Libya, bring ISIS into power in Damascus, and turn all of Syria into a haven for terrorist operations, reaching into Muslim regions inside Russia’s southern border in the Caucasus and elsewhere.

The situation is complicated:

On the surface, Russia’s intervention serves Iran’s policy of sustaining the Shiite element in Syria. In a deeper sense, Russia’s purposes do not require the indefinite continuation of Mr. Assad’s rule. It is a classic balance-of-power maneuver to divert the Sunni Muslim terrorist threat from Russia’s southern border region. It is a geopolitical, not an ideological, challenge and should be dealt with on that level. Whatever the motivation, Russian forces in the region—and their participation in combat operations—produce a challenge that American Middle East policy has not encountered in at least four decades.

Where is America in all this? Dazed and confused would describe it well:

American policy has sought to straddle the motivations of all parties and is therefore on the verge of losing the ability to shape events. The U.S. is now opposed to, or at odds in some way or another with, all parties in the region: with Egypt on human rights; with Saudi Arabia over Yemen; with each of the Syrian parties over different objectives. The U.S. proclaims the determination to remove Mr. Assad but has been unwilling to generate effective leverage—political or military—to achieve that aim. Nor has the U.S. put forward an alternative political structure to replace Mr. Assad should his departure somehow be realized.

American retreat, as many have noted, created a power vacuum. Obama has been fiddling while the Middle East burns:

Russia, Iran, ISIS and various terrorist organizations have moved into this vacuum: Russia and Iran to sustain Mr. Assad; Tehran to foster imperial and jihadist designs. The Sunni states of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and Egypt, faced with the absence of an alternative political structure, favor the American objective but fear the consequence of turning Syria into another Libya.

Kissinger is not very optimistic about the ability of the players in the current conflict to maintain a balance of power, especially with Iran having been granted eventual permission to develop nuclear weapons. This Obama action will most likely induce the other players in the region to do the same:

But the current crisis is taking place in a world of nontraditional nuclear and cyber technology. As competing regional powers strive for comparable threshold capacity, the nonproliferation regime in the Middle East may crumble. If nuclear weapons become established, a catastrophic outcome is nearly inevitable. A strategy of pre-emption is inherent in the nuclear technology. The U.S. must be determined to prevent such an outcome and apply the principle of nonproliferation to all nuclear aspirants in the region.

How should we deal with the crisis? Kissinger suggests that we begin by defeating ISIS. He adds that American retreat is a powerful terrorist recruiting tool. The point is worth underscoring because so many members of the pusillanimous peanut gallery has been insisting that Gitmo and videos and Israeli settlements are major terrorist recruiting tools:

The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled. Making sure that this territory does not become a permanent terrorist haven must have precedence. The current inconclusive U.S. military effort risks serving as a recruitment vehicle for ISIS as having stood up to American might.

He adds that territory currently controlled by ISIS should be returned to Sunni control. This will require the participation of the other Sunni nations in the region and some very skilled negotiation.

He has other suggestions, but I will leave those to you.

Kissinger concludes:

The U.S. must decide for itself the role it will play in the 21st century; the Middle East will be our most immediate—and perhaps most severe—test. At question is not the strength of American arms but rather American resolve in understanding and mastering a new world.

The situation in the Middle East is difficult and extremely complex. Only a president who understands the region in depth will be able to deal with it effectively. Such an understanding requires a lifetime of study and hard work. It cannot be required through a crash course in history.

The challenge for both political parties, but especially for Republicans, is to find a candidate who has a depth of experience in foreign affairs. Today, America’s foreign policy is being run by rank amateurs. This offers Republicans a great opportunity to put forward a candidate or candidates who understand the region and its history and who knows how to conduct foreign policy. It cannot be comprised on sound bites and debate zingers.

If a candidate cannot do better than to promise that he will learn it all within the next year or so, he is simply offering four more years of amateurish muddle. By now America knows that the amateurs in the White House have produced an extremely dangerous situation in the Middle East. Since the Obama administration does not understand what is going on, it has chosen to withdraw. A winning Republican candidate will be one who brings foreign policy experience to the debate.

1 comment:

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: The situation in the Middle East is difficult and extremely complex. Only a president who understands the region in depth will be able to deal with it effectively. Such an understanding requires a lifetime of study and hard work. It cannot be required through a crash course in history.

This statement sounds sensible, but rather hopeless. Obviously a president IS NOT and CAN NOT be an expert on everything he (or she) makes decisions on, rather a president has to be wise enough to choose experts who have spent a lifetime of work in a certain domain to offer expert advice. Well, someone like Kissinger we presume.

On the other hand, even experts have their biases. And we can imagine many people BECOME experts on a given field of study because they have a personal connection to it, and perhaps a personal tragedy from their past that they want to resolve through their access to power.

Or perhaps like Bush calling Saddam as "The guy who tried to kill my dad." A leader should NOT be making political decisions based on personal grudges. And as soon as a leader (or expert advising a leader) "makes it personal", we all should take heed that this is not an unbiased person capable of objective awareness of reality on this subject.

Kissinger himself might have biases in his assessments for being born in Germany after World War I, and having to escape Germany with the rise of the Nazi's. So those experiences can be a point of experience and wisdom, but it might also be a point of vulnerability.

It is interesting that the U.S. has not had a Jewish president in our history (not Lutheran either), but of course Jews have wide access to power, and including strong representation currently on the Supreme Court.

Would America "trust" a Jewish president? Ben Carson said we shouldn't trust a Muslim president, unless he foreswore allegiance to the Constitution over the Koran, but Jews also have their Israel to protect. Can we trust a Jewish president to put his allegiance to the United States even at the cost of Israel's survival, if at some point Israel's interests diverged from ours?

Well, John Kennedy had the same predicament as the first Catholic president, and we decided to trust the pope wasn't pulling his strings. Maybe a Jewish president is possible too?