When a coalition of Arab armies intervened in Yemen this week to suppress an imminent take over of that predominantly (about 65%) Sunni nation by a Iran-backed Shiite militia, the same militia that disarmed US Marines as it tossed them out of the country, the United States was caught by surprise. As the invading coalition was led by Saudi Arabia, a multi-generational (mostly) ally and a keystone in our Middle East strategy the lack of warning belies a greater problem. There is no one in the Middle East who trusts us:
ENGEL (1:58): I know several people in the US military who were taken by surprise by this [action in Yemen]. Senior officials who would have been expected to know that there was going to be an operation in Yemen, they didn’t. They were finding out about it almost in real time.
And they believe, and some US members of Congress believe, that the reason Saudi Arabia and other states didn’t tell the US that it was going to launch this war against Shi’ite backed, or Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, is because Saudi Arabia and other countries simply don’t trust the United States anymore, don’t trust this administration — think the administration is working to befriend Iran to try and make a deal in Switzerland, and therefore didn’t think that the intelligence frankly would be secure.
I think that is a situation that is quite troubling for US foreign policy, where traditional allies — like Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, like the United Arab Emirates — don’t know if the US is reliable at this stage to hold onto this information when it comes to Iran.
The lack of trust isn’t confined to the Middle East. Germany is on the verge of charting its own course in dealing with Russia because the United States resolutely refuses to lead. As the usually Obama-friendly Foreign Policy observes:
The situation in the region is unprecedented. For the first time since the World Wars, virtually every country from Libya to Afghanistan is involved in a military conflict. (Oman seems to be the exception.) The degree of chaos, uncertainty, and complexity among the twisted and often contradictory alliances and enmities is mind-boggling. America and its allies are fighting alongside Iran to combat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen, the United States and many of those same regional partners are collaborating to push back Iranian-backed Houthi forces. Israel and Saudi Arabia are closely aligned in their concerns about Iran while historical divisions between the two remain great. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria; the United States and Western allies deplore his policies but tolerate his presence while some of the rebel forces we are supporting in the fight against the Islamic State in that country seek his (long overdue) removal. The United States wants the states of the region to stand up for their own interests — just not in Libya or when they don’t get America’s permission first.
The technical foreign-policy term for this is giant cluster-fuck. (In the military’s shorthand, using its own phonetic alphabet, the expression ischarlie foxtrot.) It is no wonder that the response of so many Americans is to want to back away from the region as quickly as possible. They argue that its problems are beyond our control, that the animosities fueling the fires of the current Middle East hellscape are ancient, and that many of the festering conflicts have little relevance to the daily lives of the American people.
In fact, you can say what you want about the origins of the current mess in the Middle East, but the fact that America’s relations with every important country in the region are worse with the exception of Iran is telling.
Bad choices, mismanagement, and faulty diplomacy are not the primary causes of America’s problems of its own making in the region. The biggest culprit is strategic incoherence. We don’t seem to have a clear view of our interests or a vision for the future of the region fostered in collaboration with our allies there and elsewhere. “Leave it to the folks on the ground” is no more a U.S. foreign-policy strategy than is “don’t do stupid shit.” It is a modality at best and in fact, it is really an abrogation of responsibility when so many of these relationships do have trade, investment, political, military, and other elements that give the United States leverage that it could and should use to advance its interests. Our relations with other major powers likewise should provide us with such tools if we were to do the diplomatic heavy lifting to produce coordinated efforts. (And arguing that’s what we are doing in Iran is not compelling when we are not doing it with regard to the region’s many other problems or when we have done it to ill-effect in places like Libya or Syria.)
The strategic incoherence, and I would argue strategic myopia, has metastasized into something that approached institutional imbecility. On the one hand you have senior officials confessing:
Not everyone is so forgiving. “We’re in a goddamn free fall here,” said James Jeffrey, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Iraq and was a top national security aide in the George W. Bush White House.
And on the other, you have senior state department officials saying:
“There’s a sense that the only view worth having on the Middle East is the long view,” said the State Department official. “We’ve painfully seen that good can turn to bad and bad can turn to good in an instant, which might be a sobriety worth holding on to at moments like this.”
The official offered a hopeful note, adding that a nuclear deal with Iran — which some reports say could come as soon as Sunday — could be a turning point for the region.
“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.
One is left with the ineffable feeling that the administration is adrift, it is has not only lost its ability to influence action, it has lost its ability to even understand what is happening. Rather than taking a “long view,” the administration is simply hunkered down, waiting to run out the clock until January 2017 and let the next guy deal with the problems while Obama and his acolytes protect his legacy.