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How smart is US policy in the Middle East? 10/27/2014

The world was surprised and abhorred by the sudden prominence of the military successes and barbaric behavior, namely the hostage beheadings, by the so called “ISIS” (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) also called ISIL or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Now more and more they are referred to as IS (Islamic State) after they took control of Mosul and large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq. Considering the frequently biased and sometimes confused media coverage of the Middle East (ME) it is understandable that many in the world were taken by surprise. However is it acceptable for the US, the most impressive super power in world history, to be surprised and caught unprepared, after all the precious lives and resources sacrificed to secure freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people? Or could it be worse that the US was aware that this was coming and allowed it to happen, due to misjudgment, politics or neglect? 

There is now guarded relief that the US has now recognized the magnitude and extent of the dangers that misguided policies have brought about in the ME. Those in the administration, the US Congress or the media who expressed their concerns for what ISIS may do to US interests and may be planning for the US mainland, are probably correct. The President has clearly stated his intentions to build a broad coalition to degrade, defeat and eliminate ISIS, starting a military campaign consisting primarily of aerial bombardments by US forces and allies, while boots on the ground will be provided locally. There may be some doubt about the effectiveness of the declared strategy, but adjustments can always be made to improve the chances of achieving the declared goals. Some wonder if the declared strategy is based on a well-thought policy or on attempts to fulfill campaign promises and/or just reactions to events as they develop. Granted that errors started with earlier administrations, but some were partially addressed with relative success. The question now is did the current administration learn from past mistakes and continued with, or improved the corrective efforts? Or did it ignore any lessons from the past and made the situation worse, setting the stage for the current debacle in both Iraq and Syria? 

Going back in history most of us may remember the US thinking about Afghanistan after it was invaded by the Soviet Union. America correctly postulated that stimulating Islamic feelings in the predominantly Muslim nation will create difficulties for the communist superpower. Thus the US helped recruit, train and arm radical Islamists to oppose and fight the Soviets. The thinking was correct at the time and may have helped start the process that ultimately culminated in the collapse of the USSR. However one should wonder at what price? Apparently the “Genie got out of the Box” and after their success against the “atheist communist invaders” the radical Islamists under the leadership of Usama Bin Laden (UBL) and his Al Qaeda associates started directing their attention towards challenging the world dominance by the Western powers which they called “Crusaders.” To make a long story short, we ended up with 9/11. Not knowing enough about ISIS, Al Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations, who quickly started dominating the fighting against Syria’s Assad regime, the world was wondering who created, trained and supported those dangerous and barbaric jihadists? US allies such as Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates were highly suspected or rumored to be behind the creation of this monstrous phenomenon. Other harder to believe possibilities were postulated?? There is a well-known saying that “whoever ignores history is bound to repeat it”. Could the US in its hesitant support to the opponents of the Assad regime have really forgotten UBL and 9/11 and somehow allowed history to repeat itself?? 

As long as these groups were fighting in Syria on the same side of the so called moderate US allies, nobody seemed to care or do anything to restrain the growth of extremist terrorists. If anything was done, it was probably counter-productive. The US officially did not want to provide heavy armaments to the supposedly moderate free Syrian Army and was content to offer only non-lethal supplies. On the other hand the US may have unwittingly and covertly strengthened the terrorists. At one point stories appeared briefly in relation to a possible explanation of the disastrous Benghazi fiasco. These stories postulated that Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi meeting with the Turkish Consul to arrange secret transfer of some of Gadhafi’s arms to the Syrian rebels. The reports seemed to imply that there was a sort of “Iran–Contra” type of deal with sophisticated weapons being purchased from militant groups in Libya for the rebels in Syria. However it was not stated who would receive the arms: genuine patriotic freedom fighters or some of the terrorist groups? These possibilities, if confirmed, may explain why we continue to hear of the so called “Benghazi cover up”. The truth may have to await the results of an ongoing congressional investigation. Regardless of the final outcome of these investigations, which may or may not implicate the State Department, the Benghazi fiasco is a facet of a series of foreign policy errors which cannot be exclusively ascribed to the current administration but may better be characterized as bipartisan. US foreign policy resulted directly or indirectly in the fall of several ME dictators. In Iraq and Libya the US intervened militarily to rid those two countries from their terrible dictators and bring freedom and democracy to their people. However are these peoples better off today? They lost stability, but did they achieve freedom or true democracy? Did America win real friends in those countries? Are its interests better served now? 

The Bush administration went into Afghanistan urgently and justifiably because of 9/11. Although the war was well planned and originally very effective, its success resulted in two undesirable consequences. First it facilitated the decision to invade Iraq on the basis of a shaky rationale and second it dragged the US into a long war and the controversial process of nation building. A democratic process was established and brought to power a supposedly hand-picked president, who somehow managed to acquire a reputation of corruption, the level of which appeared competitive with many tinhorn dictators. In Iraq, the US went in to eliminate non existing weapons of mass destruction and liberate its oppressed people from a brutal dictatorship and establish a free democracy that will serve as a model for the whole ME. After a long war and immense sacrifices in life and treasure, a smart surge in the US fighting forces gave a real chance at stability. However a relatively premature total withdrawal of US forces and the election of a government with sectarian and ethnic short sights, in addition to dictatorial tendencies, set the stage for the present debacle. The alienation of the Sunni population created a climate which facilitated the current ISIS battle successes. However these guys went out of control committing all kinds of war crimes, ethnic cleansings and barbaric acts. Iraq is risking complete disintegration. The possible emergence of three ethnic or religious entities cannot be excluded. Does the US want that? Or does the preservation of the Sykes-Picot states remain desirable with only regime changes here and there? Going back to the most recent foreign policy decision to degrade, defeat and eliminate ISIS, is the strategy realistic with significant chances of success? There is constant restatement that there will be no American boots on the ground, while there is almost unanimous consensus that ISIS cannot be defeated and eliminated by the aerial campaign alone. The current strategy includes training 5000 moderate opposition elements to wear the boots in Syria. If these soldiers could not win against Assad, fighting on the same side of ISIS, how can they be expected to win fighting against both the army of the regime and ISIS at the same time? At one point the President spoke of solutions resembling Yemen and Somalia. Are these two countries success stories? Or was the indirect American role in replacing Mubarak by Morsi in Egypt a positive foreign policy achievement? The Egyptian people apparently were smart enough to replace the so called democratically elected Morsi by General Sissi on their own, practically disregarding the current administration’s advice. 

In brief the US foreign policy in the ME needs fundamental overall revision as promptly as possible. If should painfully be understood that some people in the ME may not be ready for democracy or may not even want it. It should also be recognized that democracy cannot be successfully established by an outside power using force. While the started military process against ISIS may have to be adjusted and better focused to achieve the stated goals, the US has to rely more on better diplomacy and better differentiation between its true allies and its undeclared philosophical enemies. 

We in the American Lebanese Foundation (ALF) are focused on Lebanon and are concerned about the risks and damages the country has already been subjected to, since the start of the Syrian problems. This summer for all kind of reasons it has become clear that ISIS ambitions and intentions are not limited to Syria and Iraq, as its original name may have suggested. It is obvious now that it presents a very serious danger for Lebanon, the whole ME and beyond. Lebanon in its diversity and liberal culture may be the real antidote for ISIS and all extremist or terror oriented groups. The embryo of ISIS started growing slowly in Syria as the Free Syrian Army failed to acquire sufficient internal and external support to win significant ground against the regular army of the Assad regime. The unfortunate mistakes of the Maliki government in Iraq, frustrating the Sunni population in favor of his Shiite supporters, offered ISIS the golden opportunity to blend with remnants of the dissolved Saddam Husain army and present themselves as Sunni protectors. They found a receptive climate in much of North Western Iraq which helped them gain control of Mosul and significant adjacent territories. They added these territories to areas they controlled in Syria and declared their Islamic State as the nucleus of the new Caliphate. An independent observer could have seen this as an Arab Sunni fighting power to balance the expanding Iranian influence or domination through its support to its Shiite Arab allies. However ISIS promptly further surprised the World with their barbaric behavior consisting mainly of murders, beheadings and genocidal killings. Thus they are now thought of as the most dangerous terrorist army since Ginghis Khan. The Sunni tribes which originally welcomed and supported them are now looking to the newly formed Iraqi government or any allies they could find to get rid of them. In Lebanon the Sunni population of the North Eastern border town of Arsal originally sympathized with the Syrian revolution, whole heartedly welcomed refugees and some of its citizens may have unwittingly supported ISIS. However, when they and Al Nusra group tried to gain a foothold by force in the Lebanese town, except for a small number of misguided agents, the majority of Arsal population supported the Lebanese Army to defeat and expel them. Unfortunately, they managed to take with them a number of hostages creating a problem very difficult to resolve. Nevertheless the Lebanese Army in spite of its small size and limited resources, demonstrated stronger resistance to these groups than the much larger and better equipped neighbors in Syria and Iraq. The people of Arsal did not provide an inviting or welcoming environment and no terrorist group could hold any territory. None the less Lebanon still needs a lot of help. 

Lebanon deserves all the help it can get. The most urgent need is to support the Lebanese army by providing better equipment, more financial support to provide better salaries and recruit larger numbers, and stronger and smarter political support to protect and strengthen its unity. Although the general security situation remains better than most of the neighborhood, Lebanon’s economy, democratic institutions and even its stability are severely stressed. The United States can help by increasing its generous support in arms and training to the army and by giving Lebanon more attention in its discussions with its allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates and in its negotiations to solve problems with Iran. Lebanon has not been able to elect a President while the job has been vacant for more than four months. It is true that the Lebanese politicians cannot be absolved of their responsibilities, but the Speaker of Parliament, one the most astute politicians in Lebanon, was recently quoted as saying that the Lebanese Presidential election is awaiting discussions between the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Sadly enough for independent Lebanon, this is probably true. Despite being distracted by bigger problems in larger countries, the US knows what Lebanon needs, and that it deserves the necessary attention because it can contribute to the solutions of other problems. Lebanon has the most moderate Sunni population, generally non receptive or supportive of any form of terrorism or extremism. Twice Lebanon has successfully fought terrorism in Nahr El Bared in 2008 and more recently in Arsal. Further, a stabilized rehabilitated Lebanon can facilitate the finding of a political solution in Syria and ultimately may contribute towards real progress in the Palestinian-Israeli two state solution.


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