What Would the End of “Magical Thinking” Mean?

In a piece at Atlantic career diplomat William F. Burns urges the U. S. to end its “magical thinking” about the Middle East:

President Donald Trump’s October decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria produced a rare moment of bipartisanship in foreign policy. With a shared sense of alarm, Republicans and Democrats alike accused Trump of betrayal.

Certainly, it was a betrayal of the Kurdish partners who bled for us in the fight against the Islamic State. It was also a betrayal of process—leaving our military leaders and diplomats struggling to keep up with tweets, our allies in the dark, our messaging all over the map, and chaos on the ground.

If all this episode engenders, however, is a bipartisan dip in the warm waters of self-righteous criticism, it will be a tragedy—or worse, a mistake. We have to come to grips with the deeper and more consequential betrayal of common sense—the notion that the only antidote to Trump’s fumbling attempts to disentangle the United States from the region is a retreat to the magical thinking that has animated so much of America’s moment in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.

an observation with which I agree wholeheartedly. He continues by outlining the efforts of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump which I would summarize as approving, perfunctory, mixed, apologetics, and disapproving, respectively.

He concludes:

So where do we go from here? American policy is in a deep hole in the Middle East, the product of decades of intermittent digging, a major excavation project in Iraq in 2003, and now more determined Trumpian burrowing. Climbing back to more stable terrain post-Trump will require at least three ingredients.

The “three ingredients” are

  • Rightsize our ambitions
  • Recalibrate our relationships across the region
  • “we need to find a better balance between a counterterrorism effort that we can’t afford to neglect and a longer-term drive to help address regional economic and political malaise that we can’t ignore either”

in which he engages in his own magical thinking. I would ask Amb. Burns these questions:

  • Was stationing troops in Saudi Arabia at the conclusion of the Gulf War realistic or the product of magical thinking?
  • Was the Clinton Administration’s policy of “dual containment” and its emphasis on democracy promotion in the region realistic or the product of magical thinking?
  • Was the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq based in realism or magical thinking?
  • Was the Obama Administration’s role in the overthrow of Qaddafi based on realism or magical thinking?
  • A tougher question: how about withdrawing our troops from Iraq?

I think they were all based on magical thinking.

A realistic policy with respect to the Middle East would include the following elements:

  • We must recognized the countries of the Middle East have interests of their own and virtually none of them are aligned with ours.
  • The Arab countries of the Middle East have little or no interest in liberal democracy.
  • Although we don’t need Saudi Arabian oil any more, the Saudi ability to affect the price of oil means that we aren’t actually disinterested in them, either.
  • Although Israel is the closest thing to a liberal democracy the Middle East has to offer, their interests are poorly aligned with ours.
  • Government will be either authoritarian or tenuous in all of the Arab countries of the Middle East for the foreseeable future.
  • Selling or, worse, giving arms to the Arab countries of the Middle East that we wouldn’t care to have fall in the hands of terrorists is not in our interests.

My conclusion based on all of that is that our Middle East foreign policy has been based on magical thinking for at least the last 30 years and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

3 comments… add one
  • bob sykes Link

    Once again, the lie that we and the Kurds fought ISIS. Burns is actually psychotic and delusional. For its entire history ISIS was landlocked and surrounded by “enemies.” Assad, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran were real enemies. The US and the Kurds were pretend enemies. We let ISIS export Syrian oil through Turkey, and the Turks let ISIS import tens of thousands of fighters and thousands of tons of military equipment. Turk even provided medical care in Turkey for wounded ISIS fighters. We gave ISIS close air support when Assad’s forces got too close to them.

    In 1970, our allies in the Middle East were Turkey and Iran. I have worked with Iranians who believe the revolution against the Shah was engineered by the CIA. I find that hard to believe, but they claim Ayatollah Khomeini was virtually unknown in Iran prior to the revolution. Whatever.

    Obama did support the attempted coup against Erdogan, as he did in Egypt and Libya. And once upon at time the Taliban were our pet jihadis fighting the Soviets.

    This Winter we will have been in Somalia fighting (STILL!!) for 27 years. This is by far our longest war.

    The Deep State/Cabal is delusional in the extreme. They are entirely capable of attacking Russia and China.

  • I doubt that we connived at overthrowing the Shah. I do think that Carter completely bungled the situation.

  • steve Link

    Going to disagree on leaving Iraq being magical thinking. If we had stayed I am sure we could have made Iraq turn out just as well as we have made things in Afghanistan, but with more lives lost. Better that we got out when we could. (Unless you mean it was magical thinking that we would turn Iraq into Sweden if we stayed.)


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