The Collapse of Order in the Middle East

The Collapse of Order in the Middle East
Remarks to the 23rd Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Washington, D.C.   October 28, 2014

Will Rogers once observed that “when you get into trouble 5,000 miles from home, you’ve got to have been looking for it.”  It’s a good deal more than 5.000 miles to Baghdad or Damascus from here.  And, boy, have we gotten into trouble!

We are trying to cope with the cumulative consequences of multiple failures.  Just about every American project in the Middle East has now come a cropper.  There is a new velcro-backed military campaign morale patch commemorating this.  It is available through for $7.45.  The patch bears an escutcheon with a logo that, in the interest of decorum, I will not read out.  It sounds like Operation Enduring FlusterCluck.

If you’re a Middle East groupie, which your presence here suggests you may be, you need one of these patches for your jacket.  It describes what is now the characteristic within-the-Beltway approach to problem solving.  If at first we don’t succeed, we do the same thing again harder, with better technology, and at greater expense.  The patch provides a cogent – if uncouth – summary of the results of this approach so far this century.

We’re once again down to the wire in our decade-long negotiations with Iran to cap its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.  There is no evidence that sanctions have had any effect at all on Iran’s policies.  Maybe that’s because it doesn’t have the nuclear weapons program our politicians say it has.  Our intelligence agencies tell us there’s no evidence it does.  No matter.  Iran’s mastery of the full nuclear fuel cycle and its development of missiles could give it “nuclear latency” – the future capacity to weaponize nuclear materials on short notice.  The deadline for the latest and likely final round of negotiations is now only 31 days away.  The failure to reach agreement could drive Iran to decide to build a bomb sooner rather than later.  Still, those in the region against whom such weapons would be deployed seem to want the talks to fail.  Agreement with Iran would, after all, open an ominous path to better relations between it and the West.

The half-century-long US-managed effort to achieve acceptance for the Jewish state in its region has meanwhile died of a fatal build-up of glib hypocrisy, sometimes called Netanyahu Syndrome.  Despite decades of trying, American diplomacy has also definitely failed to reconcile Palestinians to indefinite existence as disenfranchised captives of Israel’s Jewish democracy.  The so-called “peace process” will be missed.  Eventually there will be an exhibit about it in the museum of diplomatic debacles.  In the meantime, politicians will visit its grave at opportune moments. There they will pray, piously, for peace, by which they mean entirely unclear and incompatible things.

The region’s leaders were long worried that Israel’s abuse of its captive Arab Muslim population would radicalize their own citizens and destabilize their societies.  Now that this radicalization has actually occurred, Israel’s cruelty to the Palestinians has become just another outrage that Muslim extremists cite to justify terrorist reprisals against the West.  Fixing the Israel-Palestine conflict would no longer call off the anti-American terrorism and wars of religion it helped catalyze.  This does not remove the Israel-Palestine issue as a motivator for anti-American terrorism but, in the years to come, you’ll hear a lot about why curing injustices in the Holy Land need no longer be a concern for American diplomacy.

There has been a  not-entirely-unrelated discovery that, in the contemporary Middle East, elections — at least the first round of them — invariably empower Islamists.  This has dialed down the American passion for free elections in Arab societies.  Think Palestine and Egypt.  The revelation that anarchy also empowers Islamists is now cutting into American enthusiasm for regime removal.  Think Iraq, Libya, and Syria.  But as Americans trim our ideological ambitions, the so-called “Islamic State” – which is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan is Christian so I’ll call them Da`ish – is demonstrating the enduring potential of religious fanaticism to kill men, maim children, and enslave women in the name of God.

The United States and many NATO countries are now engaged against Da`ish from the air, with a bit of help from a few Arab air forces.  So far, however, the Shiite coalition of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi and Syrian governments has been and remains the main force arrayed against Da`ish on the ground outside the Kurdish domains.  This has exposed the awkward fact that Iran has the same enemies as the United States, if not the same friends.  In the region that coined the adage, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” everyone is waiting to see what – if anything – this might mean.  For now at least, Da`ish is a uniquely brutal force blessed with an enemy divided into antagonistic and adamantly uncooperative coalitions.

Da`ish has been out to make itself an irresistibly attractive nuisance by committing dramatic atrocities and publicizing them to an easily vexed Western world.  It is battling to energize the disaffected among the Islamic faithful against the West and to cleanse the Arab world of Western influences.  It wants to erase the states that Western colonialism imposed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  It regards them as illegitimate entities that could not survive without continuing support from the West.

Da`ish judges that both its policies and its narrative have been validated by the American and European response to its provocations.  The major contributors to the US-led military coalition opposing Da`ish are the former colonial powers.  These are Western, predominantly Christian nations, some of them with reputations in the region for recent sacrilegious mocking of Muslim piety.  Token participation in the US-led bombing campaign in Syria by the air forces of Jordan and some Gulf Arab states fits easily into the Da`ish narrative.  Da`ish portrays those arrayed against it as a new Crusader army with Arab lackeys attempting to restore the broken framework of Sykes-Picot.

In this context, Western-led military intervention is not just an inadequate response to the threat from Da`ish.  It is a preposterously counterproductive response.  It is as if the Ottoman Sultanate had attempted to deal with Europe’s Thirty Years War by condemning Christian atrocities and treating them as a military problem to be resolved by the intervention of Muslim Janissaries.

Admittedly, the United States cannot escape responsibility for policies that helped birth Da`ish in Iraq and mature its fighting forces in Syria.  The U.S. invasion of Iraq kicked off an orgy of intolerance and sectarian killing that has now taken at least 700,000 lives in Iraq and Syria and traumatized both, while threatening the existence of the other states created by Sykes-Picot a century ago.  The rise of Da`ish is a consequence of anarchy brought on by Western attempts at regime change, but it is ultimately a deviant cult within Islam.  Its immediate objective is to destroy the existing order in the Muslim world in the name of Islam.  Its doctrines cannot be credibly rebutted by non-Muslims.  The threat it poses requires a Muslim-led politico-military response.  A US-dominated bombing campaign with token allied participation cannot kill it.   The United States is well supplied with F-15s, 16s, and drones, but it lacks the religious credentials to refute Da`ish as a moral perversion of Islam.  Arab air forces are helpful.  Arab religious engagement and moral leadership are essential to contain and defeat Da`ish.

Da`ish and the 15,000 foreign jihadis it has attracted are an existential threat to Arab societies and a potential menace to Muslim societies everywhere.  Da`ish poses no comparable threat to the United States.   Some Americans argue therefore that Da`ish doesn’t matter.  A few suggest that, because tight oil and shale gas production is making North America energy self-sufficient, what happens in the Middle East as a whole should also no longer matter much to Americans.  But the Persian Gulf is where international oil prices are set.  If you doubt this, ask an American tight oil producer what’s happening in today’s energy markets and why.  Without stability in West Asia, the global economy is also unstable.

Da`ish aspires not only to destroy the states of the Mashriq – the Arab East – but to conquer their territories and use their resources to mount attacks on the United States, European countries, Russia, and China.  It wants to get its hands on the world’s major energy reserves.  Its depredations are a current threat only to stability in West Asia, but its recruitment efforts are as global as its aspirations.  Quite aside from the responsibility the United States bears for creating the conditions in which this dangerous cult could be born and flourish, Da`ish threatens American interests abroad today.  It promises to threaten American domestic tranquility tomorrow.  It sees inflicting harm on the West as a central element of its mission.

For all these reasons, Da`ish cannot be ignored by the United States or other nations outside the Middle East.  It requires a response from us.  But Da`ish must be actively countered first and foremost by those it targets within the region, not by the United States and its Western allies.  This means that our response must be measured, limited, and calculated to avoid relieving regional players of the primary responsibility for protecting themselves from the menace to them that Da`ish represents.

Muslims – whether Shiite or Sunni or Arab, Kurd, Persian, or Turk – now have an expanding piece of Hell in their part of the Earth, a growing foulness near the center of Islam.  It is almost certainly a greater threat to all of them than they have ever posed to each other.  Da`ish will not be contained and defeated unless the nations and sects on its regional target list – Shiite and Sunni alike – all do their part.  We should not delude ourselves.  The obstacles to this happening are formidable.

Virtually every group now fighting or being victimized in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon has engaged in or been accused of terrorism by the others.  Sectarian violence continues to stoke hatred in the region.  The religious animosities between Shi`ites and Sunnis are more intense than ever.  The geopolitical rivalry between Iran and the Gulf Arabs remains acute. The political resentments between Turks, Kurds, and Arabs and between Arabs and Persians are entrenched.    Each describes the other as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Unity of command, discipline, and morale are the keys to both military and political success.  Da`ish has all three.  Its opponents do not.  Some are dedicated to the defense of Shiite privilege.  Others assign priority to dislodging Shiite or secular authority.  Some insist on regime change.  Others seek to prevent it.  A few support Islamist democratic movements.  Others seek to suppress and eradicate them.  Some fear terrorism from the victims and enemies of Da`ish more than they fear Da`ish itself.  Most treat opposing Da`ish as a secondary strategic objective or a means of enlisting American and other foreign support in the achievement of other priorities, not as their primary aim.

With few exceptions, the states of the region have habitually looked to outside powers for leadership as well as firepower and manpower with which to respond to major security challenges.  Despite vast imports of foreign weapons systems, confidence in outside backing has enabled the countries in the region to assume that they could avoid ultimate responsibility for their own defense, relying instead on their ability to summon their American and European security partners in times of crisis.  But only a coalition with a strong Muslim identity can hope to contain and shrink Da`ish.

There is no such coalition at present.  Every actor in the region has an agenda that is only partially congruent with the Da`ish-related agendas of others.  And every actor focuses on the reasons it cannot abide or work with some or all of the others, not on exploring the points it has in common with them.

The United States has the power-projection and war-fighting capabilities to back a Muslim-led effort against Da`ish, but lacks the political credibility, leadership credentials, and diplomatic connections to organize one.  Since this century began, America has administered multiple disappointments to its allies and friends in the Middle East, while empowering their and our adversaries.  Unlike the Gulf Arabs, Egypt, and Turkey, Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran.  Given its non-Muslim identity, solidarity with Israel, and recent history in the Fertile Crescent, the United States cannot hope to unite the region’s Muslims against Da`ish.   Da`ish is a Muslim insurgency.  A coalition led by inhibited foreign forces, built on papered-over differences, and embodying hedged commitments will not defeat such an insurgency with or without boots on the ground.

There is an ineluctable requirement for Muslim leadership and strategic vision from within the region.  Without it, the existing political geography of the Arab world – not just the map drawn by Sykes-Picot – faces progressive erosion and ultimate collapse.  States will be pulled down, to be succeeded by warlords, as is already happening in Iraq and Syria.  Degenerate and perverted forms of Islam will threaten prevailing Sunni and Shi`a religious dispensations, as Da`ish now does.

Where is regional leadership with acceptable credentials to come from?  The Sunni Arab states of the Gulf will not accept guidance from Iran, nor will Iran accept it from them.  The alternatives are Egypt and Turkey.  Both are partially estranged American allies.  Their relations with each other are strained.  But, any strategy that accepts the need for leadership from within the region must focus on them.  They are the only plausible candidates for the role.  But both are problematic.

Egypt is internally stressed and dependent on support from Gulf Arab partners whose main objectives are to carry out regime change in Damascus, push back Shiite dominance in Iraq, and contain Iran.  The Egyptians themselves put the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas ahead of dislodging Mr. Assad or defeating Da`ish.  Turkey is more eager to remove Assad and roll back Kurdish factions associated with its longstanding domestic terrorism problem than it is to contain Da`ish.  It does not want problems with Iran.  Until the governments in Cairo and Ankara conclude that containing and defeating Da`ish deserves priority over other foreign policy objectives, neither will assume a leadership role in the struggle against it.  In time, they may come to that conclusion.  But, in the meantime, the fact that none of our major security partners in the region agrees with American priorities suggests that we are right to proceed with caution

To be effective, any American strategy for dealing with the menace of Islamist terrorism of the sort Da`ish represents must not only find regional partners to support, it must address the pernicious legacies of past U.S. policies.  These include the legacy of the botched “peace process” in the Holy Land and the more general problems inherent in moral hazard, the confusion of values with interests, and the illusion that military power is a substitute for diplomacy.

The Israel-Palestine issue remains a substantial burden on the effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East.  As far as I know, the United States has never killed a single Palestinian.  Americans have just given Israel the arms, money, and political protection it has needed to oppress and massacre Palestinians.  In the region, we are not seen as having much of an alibi for our role in fostering Palestinian suffering.  Willingness to give us the benefit of the doubt and time to produce justice for the Palestinians expired forever along with the US-led “peace process” we had claimed for decades was going to accomplish this and cited as a reason for the world to leave Palestinian self-determination to the Israelis.

The next non-violent phase of the struggle for Palestinian liberation from Israeli occupation and dispossession is likely to take place not at the negotiating table but in the courts of international law and opinion, as well as other venues the United States cannot control.  Given the intimacy of American political, economic, cultural, and military relationships with the Jewish settler state in Palestine, there is a strong prospect that the mounting international effort to boycott, sanction, and disinvest from Israel – including especially the Arab lands it seized in 1967 – will directly affect American companies and individuals in ways it has not since the Oslo Accords brought about the suspension of the Arab Boycott of Israel.

More to the point, the Palestinian cause seems certain to prove irresistible to Da`ish as it consolidates and expands its hold on the region, as there is currently every reason to believe it will.  After all, Palestine combines the perfect mix of issues for Da`ish – foreign occupation, suppression of Muslims, and interference with worship at important Islamic holy sites.  With diplomacy having definitively failed, the Palestinians believe they face a choice between capitulation and violent resistance.  Da`ish is reported to be gaining ground as an alternative to more moderate movements, like Hamas.  To a majority in the region, continuing Israeli cruelty to Palestinians justifies reprisal not just against Israel but the United States.

Palestinian refugee communities provide a deep reservoir of recruits for terrorist attacks on Israeli and American targets. The growing sympathy for the Palestinian plight in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia offers opportunities to recruit Western cohorts.  Assaults on Israel and its American supporters meet every criterion of political constituency-building Da`ish could hope to find.

Israel’s right-wing government has inadvertently been doing everything it can to incite Da`ish to focus on the Jewish state.  During Israel’s recent rubbling of Gaza, its deputy minister of defense threatened Palestinians there with a “Holocaust.”  Not to be outdone, a senior figure in the HaBeyit HaYehudi party, which is part of the governing coalition in Israel, called for the destruction of “the entire Palestinian people . . . , including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.”  And a deputy speaker of the Knesset called for the forced depopulation of Gaza.

This brings me to a core issue in U.S. policies in the Middle East: the moral hazard inherent in U.S. unilateralism.  Moral hazard is the condition that obtains when one party is emboldened to take risks it would not otherwise take because it knows that another party will shoulder the consequences and bear the costs of failure.  US-Israel relations exemplify this problem.  American political and legal protection plus subsidies and subventions enable Israel to do whatever it feels like to its Arab neighbors with no concern for the consequences.  But the same phenomenon has been at work in Arab approaches to the nuclear disarmament of Iran.  If America can be induced to take the lead in handling the Iranian threat, why should anyone in the region try to do anything about it themselves?  Similarly, why should any Muslim  country rearrange its priorities to deal with Da`ish when it can count on America to act for it?  If America thinks it must lead, why not let it do so?  But responsible foreign and defense policies begin with self-help, not outsourcing of military risks.

U.S. policy should encourage the nations of the Middle East to develop effective political, economic, and military strategies to defend and advance their own interests, not rush to assume responsibility for doing this for them.  Part of such a policy adjustment toward emphasizing the primary responsibility of the countries of the region for their own security would involve weighing the opinions of our partners in the region much more heavily in our decisions than they have in since 9/11.  Had we listened to our Gulf Arab friends, we would not have invaded Iraq in 2003.  Iraq would still be balancing Iran.  It would not be in chaos and it would still have a border with Syria.  The United States needs to return to respecting the views of regional powers about the appropriate response to regional threats, resisting the impulse to substitute military campaign plans made in Washington for strategies conceived by those with the greatest stake in their success.

The need for restraint extends to refraining from expansive rhetoric about our values or attempting to compel others to conform to them.  In practice, we have insisted on democratization only in countries we have invaded or that were otherwise falling apart, as Egypt was during the first of the two “non coups” it suffered.  When elections have yielded governments whose policies we oppose, we have not hesitated to conspire with their opponents to overthrow them.  But the results of our efforts to coerce political change in the Middle East are not just failure but catastrophic failure.  Our policies have nowhere produced democracy.  They have instead contrived the destabilization of societies, the kindling of religious warfare, and the installation of dictatorships contemptuous of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Americans used to believe that we could best lead by example.  We and those in the Middle East seeking nonviolent change would all be better off if America returned to that tradition and foreswore ideologically motivated intervention.   Despite our unparalleled ability to use force against foreigners, the best way to inspire them to emulate us remains showing them that we have our act together.  At the moment, we do not.

Finally, we should have learned by now that military might, no matter how impressive, is not in itself transformative.  American military power has never been as dominant in the Middle East as in this century.  Yet its application has repeatedly proved counterproductive and its influence limited.  It shattered rather than reshaped Iraq.  It has failed to bring the Taliban to heel in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  It did not save Mubarak or the elected government that followed him from being overthrown by coups d’état.  It does not intimidate either Bashar Al-Assad or Da`ish.  It has not shifted Iran’s nuclear policy.  It does not obviate military actions by Israel against its neighbors.  It has had no impact on the political kaleidoscope in Lebanon.  It does not assure tranquility in Bahrain.  It did not produce satisfying results in Libya.  Its newest incarnation – drone warfare – has not decapitated anti-American terrorism so much as metastasized it.

War is an extension of policy by other means.  If the policy is incoherent, the use of force to further will be purposeless, military action in support of it will be feckless, and the results it produces will be contradictory.  Bombing first and developing a strategy later does not work.  But that’s what our political establishment stampeded us into doing with Da`ish.  President Obama was right to insist that we take the time to develop a strategy before resorting to the use of force.  Unfortunately, he did not have the courage of his convictions.

Where this leaves us is in an unfortunate position.  Without a strategy that addresses the socio-political factors and grievances that have empowered the so-called Islamic State, or Da`ish, and its predecessors, we are going to lose this war.

We have a military campaign plan but lack a political program.  We are bombing Da`ish to contain it.  There is little reason to believe this will prove effective.  Based on past experience, there is no reason to believe it will evolve into a strategy.

We and our European allies are, in many ways, the wrong leaders of the struggle against Da`ish.  It can only be defeated by a coalition with credible Islamic credentials.  Our armed forces and intelligence services could provide decisive support to such a coalition, but none is now in prospect.

Da`ish displays unity of command, strong discipline, and elevated morale.  The coalition we have assemble to oppose it has no agreed objectives.  It is divided, disjointed, and demoralized.

Da`ish is taking territory and seizing strategic positions.  We are using air power tactically for mainly humanitarian and propaganda purposes.  This has led us to defend areas that are of little or no strategic importance.  We are not blocking Da`ish from expanding its territory, population, and resource base.

There is no concerted effort outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to refute and discredit the deviant theology that inspires Da`ish and its sympathizers.  It has gobbled up large parts of Iraq and Syria.  Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine could well be next.

Even if Da`ish can somehow be eliminated, Arab backlash to the distress of foreign attack from the air, sectarian violence, and civil strife ensures the birth of successor movements.  Adding yet another factional force to this mix is not going to alter this reality.  It may exacerbate it.

The approach we are using to deal with Da`ish is a variant of the bomb-first, develop-a-strategy-later approach we have used over the past decade and more.   This has helped to spread Islamist terrorism across an ever wider swath of territory from Mali to Kashmir.  There is no reason to believe that air force and drone attacks will produce a different result now.

If we cannot correct these deficiencies, we are very likely to see widening multinational and Palestinian terrorist activity against Americans and Israelis, coordinated by Da`ish or something like it.  No Arab or Muslim country will be immune to disruption.  If there were ever a moment for Arabs and Americans to work together, it is now.  If there were ever a moment for the United States to insist on Arab commitment and leadership of such a joint effort, this is it.

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