I Wonder What He Means?

On one thing I think we should all be able to agree. The diplomatic order created following the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and which persisted, for most of its tenure on life support, until 2003, has collapsed. It’s fallen and it can’t get up. As he was one of the primary architects of that order, I’m prepared to listen to Henry Kissinger’s advice on what should replace it and he offers that in his Wall Street Journal op-ed. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it comports with the reality that’s on the ground there.

Like any good epic, Dr. Kissinger’s account begins in medias res:

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.

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.

which explains some of the background for the policy. Filling in a little of the earlier history, the first direct contact between a U. S. president and a Saudi head of state took place in 1945. Generally, our attitude towards the Middle East had been one of disinterest.

Truman immediately recognized the state of Israel. Eisenhower connived at the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and supported the Shah after the putsch that overthrew him but was predisposed to be wary of Middle Eastern involvements. We did not join Britain and France in the Suez Crisis and the situation between the United States in Israel during this period was, well, tense. Kennedy was a full-throated supporter of Israel as was Johnson.

U. S. policy in the Middle East during Kissinger’s tenure as Secretary of State had at its foundation a balancing of tensions among the Iraqis, Saudis, the Iranians, and the Israelis. That equilibrium collapsed when the Iranian revolution removed the Shah, replacing him with the present theocracy. Our policy has never recovered from that.

This statement of Dr. Kissinger’s puzzles me:

That geopolitical pattern is now in shambles. 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.

because of a curious lacuna. We have intervened in all four of those countries. They didn’t simply cease “to function as sovereign”. We ignored their sovereignty. We’ve knocked them down or helped to knock them down.

ISIS’ claim has given the millennium-old split between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam an apocalyptic dimension. The remaining Sunni states feel threatened by both the religious fervor of ISIS as well as by Shiite Iran, potentially the most powerful state in the region.

DEASH didn’t simply grow. Its growth was a direct consequence of U. S. policy, in particular the combination of removing Saddam Hussein and de-Ba’athification. Does anyone really doubt that one of the factors behind DAESH’s successes was remnants of Saddam’s military for whom there was no place in the new Iraq?

On one level, Iran acts as a legitimate Westphalian state conducting traditional diplomacy, even invoking the safeguards of the international system. At the same time, it organizes and guides nonstate actors seeking regional hegemony based on jihadist principles: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria; Hamas in Gaza; the Houthis in Yemen.

Nonsense. That’s like being a little bit pregnant. The mullahs are willing to hide behind the skirts of the rights of Westphalian sovereignty but unwilling to limit themselves to the restrictions and responsibilities of a Westphalian state. Dr. Kissinger is cloaking opportunism and hypocrisy in the garments of a legitimate policy.

Dr. Kissinger continues by outlining the present situation in the Middle East. I don’t think he gives appropriate weight to Russia’s interests in this passage:

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.

The support that wealthy Gulf Arabs have provided to violent radical Islamists within Russia is a threat to Russia unmatched by any interest we have in the region. The same wealthy Saudis, Bahrainis, etc. are supporting DAESH and Al Qaeda in Syria. Meanwhile, the U. S. participated in the destruction of Russia’s other ally in the Middle East and North Africa, Libya. That Russia would respond to these threats is hardly surprising we’d’ve done the same thing. The Russians aren’t just responding to a U. S.-fomented power vacuum as Dr. Kissinger would have it. They’re responding to threats to them we’ve abetted, frequently against our own interests.

Dr. Kissinger’s proposed path forward has six components.

  1. Prioritize the destruction of DAESH above the removal of Bashar al-Assad. I agree with this. Given Russia’s involvement little action is required on our part. Refraining from supporting Al Qaeda or DAESH would be beneficial.
  2. Accept Russia’s role in the effort but try to limit its involvement to the destruction of DAESH. This is a knee-slapper:

    In a choice among strategies, it is preferable for ISIS-held territory to be reconquered either by moderate Sunni forces or outside powers than by Iranian jihadist or imperial forces.

    Unfortunately, there is no such choice. There is no “moderate Sunni” force in Syria capable of opposing either the Al Qaeda-supporting or DAESH-aligned radicals. Searching for one is a fool’s errand the Obama Administration has belatedly discovered that.

  3. Descend into fantasy:

    The reconquered territories should be restored to the local Sunni rule that existed there before the disintegration of both Iraqi and Syrian sovereignty.

    Local Sunni rule in those territories lasted for about 45 minutes. Previous to that they were ruled in Syria by the Alawite Assad regime and in Iraq by the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government. Our experience of the last several years is that “local Sunni rule” is unstable.

  4. A federal structure could then be built between the Alawite and Sunni portions.

    The Alawites certainly don’t see it that way. They appear to be fighting for their lives. They were treated like dirt for centuries until the French put them in charge of the new Syrian state. Isn’t “Syrian sovereignty” actually synonymous with minority rule? Indeed, isn’t the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities a standard feature of Middle Eastern states that aren’t dominated by autocrats? And some that are?

  5. The U.S. role in such a Middle East would be to implement the military assurances in the traditional Sunni states that the administration promised during the debate on the Iranian nuclear agreement, and which its critics have demanded.

    Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. That “tradition” goes back less than a century. Indeed, that’s what’s collapsing right now.

  6. In this context, Iran’s role can be critical. The U.S. should be prepared for a dialogue with an Iran returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.

    Will that dialogue take place between rallies decrying the Great Satan? If there is evidence that the Iran of the mullahs has any interest in being a Westphalian state, I have yet to see it. Regime change is a precondition for Dr. Kissinger’s preferred outcome.

15 comments… add one
  • Excellent analysis Dave. I think you hit all or most of the significant points.

  • steve Link

    I agree with most of this, though I think that our role in Yemen has actually been fairly limited (just nitpicking), but the rest is good. Kissinger is saying a lot of what I am seeing other “experts” in the right wing think tanks seem to be saying. They all want us to cozy up to the Sunnis. Yet, the people they want us to buddy up with are the ones funding ISIS. The ones who provide the actual real, not imagined, terrorists. As to Iran, it looks to me as though they mostly play by the same Great (or aspiring Great) Powers rules everyone else has used. They avoid direct war and use proxy groups. I would predict that they will be willing to give this up when everyone else does. When our “allies” stop assassinating people in other countries. Kissinger wants to call Hezbollah a terrorist group, when we also called the mujahideen freedom fighters. Trying to pick sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict is part of what leads to our inconsistent policy. We should act in our own interests. If that means working with Iran or Russia sometimes, so be it.

    Where I think we should give credit is that Kissinger is at least not calling for confrontation with Russia. Would that the right wing think tanks would follow his advice on that issue.


  • Couldn’t have said it better myself, Dave. What a wicked web (i.e. “world order”) we weave.

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