Lost in a Sandstorm: Washington Tours the Muslim World

Both Tehran and Islamabad are striding undeterred down paths of foreign policy independence despite the obvious frustration of Washington decision-makers. Yet one is an “ally,” the other an “enemy,” and U.S. policy toward the two accordingly very different. That said, each seems adept at manipulating, not to mention resisting, Washington. Would the U.S. be better off changing course?

Among the various international challenges to Washington’s foreign policy goals, two loom large: the insistence of both Pakistan and Iran on following paths that place huge obstacles in Washington’s path. All sides can probably agree that the aggressively expansionist course desired by the Washington elite will, for better or worse, remain seriously impaired as long as these two independent-minded Islamic powers insist on doing what they want regardless of Washington’s desires. And while Washington’s power elite may be deeply in denial about the options it has, that it has a problem with both Iran and Pakistan it clearly recognizes and readily admits.
Resolving that problem, however, seems beyond Washington’s grasp, in part because it is already employing the two obvious alternative approaches – total hostility toward one and alliance with the other. Washington’s policy toward Tehran amounts to open economic warfare, winking at if not engaging in a campaign of covert terrorism, and the threat of an outright and unprovoked military attack. This long-standing policy is demonstrably failing. Tehran may or may not in the end offer some nuclear concession but shows no signs of playing by Washington rules. Pakistan, in contrast, gets billions in U.S. aid and a pass for its highly active nuclear weapons program, despite arguably doing fully as much to undermine Washington’s war in Afghanistan as Tehran ever did to undermine Washington’s war in IraqFollowing Tehran’s playbook from beginning to end, Islamabad appears to be right on schedule to assert its dominance over Afghanistan at least as thoroughly as Tehran has asserted its dominance over Iraq. If both hostility and amity fail to induce real cooperation, is there a third alternative, or is Washington doomed to seeing two second-rate (to be polite) powers endlessly stymie its ambitions?
The U.S. remains today deep in the midst of what has already been a lost decade in economic terms. In strategic terms, the story is equally pathetic. Iraq went from being hostile but not dangerous under Saddam to moving very much into Iran’s orbit, courtesy of the neo-cons; Afghanistan is about to deliver another defeat to the U.S.; Somalia is at least as much of a problem for the U.S. as during “Black Hawk Down” days; Israel is proving to be an increasingly dangerous “ally,” with increasingly severe problems of its own and no thought more original than Indian reservations or apartheid as a solution to the Palestinian issue; Hezbollah is riding high in Lebanon; Egypt can hardly be considered an ally any longer; Turkey has moved from client to chastising and increasingly distant friend; and Iran, which cooperated with the Bush Administration to replace the Taliban regime in late 2001, is being washed toward ever greater nuclear capability by the current of American hostility. Globally, Russia and China seem confident and unworried by endless American self-defeating belligerence. The U.S. is both poorer and less effective than it was in the year 2000, while its “Muslim problem”—its inability to figure out a way of adjusting to rising Muslim demands for respect and fairness and understanding from the U.S.-centric global political system—has changed but hardly diminished at all.
But if the U.S. is treading water, the Islamic world certainly is not. The barbarism of al Qua’ida may not be over, but it seems passé, while the Arab Spring—which promotes many “American values”—may end up presenting a greater challenge to American domination. Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey are all moving to enhance their strategic positions at U.S. expense, and it would be surprising if Egypt were not fairly soon to follow their lead.
After a lost political and economic decade, the U.S. seems paranoid, confused, and bereft of any new ideas except for those that are patently idiotic. Clearly, Washington must get its act together. But if both utter hostility (toward Iran, not to mention Palestinians and Hezbollah) and cooperation (toward Pakistan, not to mention Egypt and Turkey) have failed, what can Washington do to devise an effective policy toward the Muslim world?

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How to Attack an Ally

Shortly before the United States ended a two-month pause in missile strikes on militants in Pakistan last month, senior U.S. officials telephoned their Pakistani counterparts and told them Washington would be resuming its covert drone program despite mounting objections in Islamabad….
The strike that followed on Jan. 10, when U.S. aircraft fired missiles at a home in the North Waziristan tribal area, was the first such attack since U.S. aircraft, in a mishap that plunged bilateral ties into a tailspin, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along remote border with Afghanistan. [Reuters 2/22/12.]


Pakistan’s military has agreed to the resumption of the United States’ drone strikes….


Even though upwards of 30 people have been killed in the new wave of strikes, there have been no protest from the Pakistan Army or politicians… [The Hindu 2/25/12.]


According to Obama, drones had “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties”….since America began drone strikes, at least 385 civilians had been executed in US-led attacks. Of those statistics, the Bureau added that around half of the dead were children under the age of 18.[RT 1/31/12.]


Up to 2,000 tribesmen gathered in Miranshah bazaar shouting “Death to America” and “Stop drone attacks in Pakistan” at the rally organized by Pakistan’s largest Islamic party, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI)….


The crowd demanded an immediate end to drone attacks and compensation for those who lost relatives or property….
 [The Daily Star 2/23/12.]

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One clue to how to devise effective policy comes from looking for possible similarities between the strikingly divergent U.S. behavior toward its Iranian adversary and its Pakistani ally. Once the question is asked, the answer is obvious: both threats and actual force lie at the core of U.S. policy toward a Muslim adversary and a Muslim ally. The similarity is hardly subtle: U.S. drones violate Iranian national territory and bomb Pakistani villages. In addition, the U.S. has been busy constructing military bases in neighboring countries that both Iran and Pakistan consider important to their own national security. Danger Room reported in December, just after the CIA was kicked out of a Pakistani drone base for slaughtering Pakistani soldiers, that “Afghanistan is going to be the new major hub for the drone war.” The ironic fact that the Pakistani action followed by days Iran’s capture of a U.S. drone trespassing over Iran only underscores the similarity in U.S. treatment of the two states: not only are both states at the pointed end of the U.S. spear but the U.S. is aggressively expanding military installations designed for offensive action throughout the region in neighboring countries. Even as the U.S. military campaign inside Afghanistan winds down, the number of U.S. military bases there is exploding. From an already enormous 400 in 2010, it has now reached 450, according to a statement by an International Security Assistance Force representative. A U.S. Air Force officer has also stated that the key airbase at Bagram is being further developed in line with a “long-term” vision. Shindand Airbase, near Herat, is less than 75 miles from the Iranian border and is used for “surveillance missions over Iran.”
In sum, Washington relies heavily upon force to get what it wants both from Muslim adversaries and Muslim allies, despite—at least in the cases of Iran and Pakistan—failing to achieve its goals with either. This suggests at least two tactical insights: 1) force can easily be counterproductive regardless of how much power one has to defeat the enemy on the battlefield, and 2) one should move delicately and coordinate exhaustively with countries whose cooperation is sought when intruding militarily into third countries that border those countries. Every country will see military moves in the territory of its neighbors as affecting its own interests. From this, one can derive the following rules regarding the design of effective tactics for dealing with the Muslim world:

Rule 1. Cooperation is more effective than force.Rule 2. When moving into a new neighborhood, talk to your new neighbors.

Another clue to how Washington might devise a more effective policy toward the Muslim world can be detected by broadening the analysis from Iran and Pakistan to include other major problem states from Washington’s perspective—e.g., Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Lebanon. Peering beneath the variation in conditions and U.S. tactics toward each state, one broad similarity in fundamental U.S. approach is apparent: in every case, Washington set its sights singlemindedly on achieving its own goals, with little regard for the perceptions, needs, or legitimate concerns of the other state. In short, Washington viewed relations with all these states as a simple zero-sum game, essentially not even bothering to ask whether or not a positive-sum outcome might be possible. Of course, creating a bigger pie is likely to take longer than gobbling up the whole small pie that now exists, but the record of the past 15 years is that gobbling up the small Iraqi or Lebanese or Somali or Afghan pie will cause a very bad case of indigestion.
The result, after an extraordinarily dangerous and expensive decade-long disaster that shows no signs of ending, has been a series of defeats for the U.S., that add up to a significant weakening of U.S. national security. The details vary widely, of course: the invasion of Iraq was enormously profitable for a long list of war-profiteering U.S. corporations, and Lebanon is unique for the smooth manner in which Hezbollah has exploited U.S./Israeli hostility to transform itself from an anti-Israeli national liberation movement into the most powerful and modern political party in the national administration. That said, the primary impacts of U.S. policy toward each country to date appear to have been the destruction of the national society, the alienation of that society from the U.S., the defeat of Washington’s policies, and the provocation of on-going social conflict. Israel’s domination of the region has not been assured, Washington’s superpower status has not been solidified, terrorist groups have not been eliminated, Islamic activists have neither been persuaded to accept the U.S.-centric global political system nor eliminated from Mideast politics, and free access to the national economies for American corporations has not been obtained, stable middle classes have not been empowered, Mideast allies have not been convinced that “Washington knows best,” other world powers have not been kept out of the region, control over Mideast oil has not been achieved, and a solid foundation for a new American empire has certainly not been constructed. It is hard to think of a single goal of any major Washington faction over the past 15 years related to the Muslim world on which significant progress has been made.
It seems that Washington is pursuing goals that simply cannot be achieved, and this suggests that a wiser course would be to seek positive-sum steps forward, i.e., incremental agreements that benefit “us” without further antagonizing “them,” or, to put it in different words, to view the other side not as an adversary but as a partner. After all, even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a partner in avoiding nuclear war. Even the Democrats and Republicans agree on some things (politicians from both parties drive on the right). Positive-sum policy is endlessly fungible: there is always room for a deal on one issue regardless of whether or not one insists on fighting over something else. This suggests a third rule, related not to tactics but fundamental strategy:

Rule 3. Seek benefit, not victory.

Numerous implications deserving careful meditation would follow from the adaptation of these three rules. Focusing just on the crucial third rule, potential steps come under two basic areas: coordination and  cooperation. In the realm of coordination, Washington should be quietly coordinating its aircraft carrier tours of the Persian Gulf with Tehran, explaining to them the reasons and what would persuade Washington to halt the provocative visits. Washington should also be informing all Afghanistan’s neighbors of its military base plans and inviting both feedback and offers of a deal with any who take exception to make it clear that U.S. military moves were thoughtfully designed to induce limited behavioral shifts rather than as open-ended campaigns of aggression. 


More positively, Washington should not just explain its military initiatives but also seek opportunities for real cooperation. Working jointly with Iran to combat the illegal narcotics trade by the Taliban is one obvious positive-sum topic. A much more ambitious step would be the promotion of a Persian Gulf mutual security regime in which the U.S. would offer to oppose any offensive air attacks across the Persian Gulf in return for some package of Iranian steps toward nuclear transparency. Even more directly focusing on the core nuclear issue, the U.S. could promote technical nuclear talks designed to clarify the distinction between Iranian refinement of medical-grade and military-grade uranium, with teeth on the Iranian side and substantive military and political concessions on the U.S. side, including acknowledgement of Israeli responsibility for itself moving toward a policy of nuclear transparency. Regarding Pakistan, putting the safety of Pakistani civilians ahead of the killing of suspected enemy fighters by scandalously inaccurate drone bombers is another potential positive-sum stance: the U.S. could improve its public image and make a powerful argument that greater effort by Islamabad to arrest suspects (to be followed by U.S. pledges to respect its own standards of justice) would constitute the expected trade-off for a more carefully coordinated drone policy. The U.S. could thus simultaneously promote cooperation, seize the moral high ground, and strengthen respect for American values. The more such positive-sum steps Washington proposes, the stronger factions in Iran and Pakistan favoring cooperation with the U.S. will become.


Washington’s tactics and strategy for Mideast victory have failed to achieve the desired goals. Two tactical shifts—avoiding force and paying attention to the national security concerns of third parties—would make Washington’s policy toward the Muslim world less counterproductive, but for a real breakthrough in U.S. relations with the Muslim world, Washington must take the hard strategic step of replacing hubris with humility and must accept attainable benefit as a more rational goal than illusive victory.
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