Will the world’s great powers insist upon bombing the Mideast into a new dark age, despite the inevitable backfire that will punish their arrogance or might Russian-American cooperation offer a more rational alternative?
The precedent now well established for using the Mideast as an aerial free-fire zone against any political group disliked by a global power is now developing in the predictable manner: every local group is acquiring outside patrons to drop bombs on whatever targets the local Mideast client selects. The first result will of course be more chaos and more murder of defenseless civilians. The second result will be the intensification of the process of radicalization, foreign bombing being gasoline on the fires of political protest and ethnic conflict. The third result will be the elimination of moderate, reformist protest and—the other side of the coin—the strengthening of extremist repression, be it that of vicious secular dictators like Assad or that of vicious religious movements like the Islamic State. The Israeli strategy in Gaza having been adopted by the U.S. in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, was tested by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and has thus become so legitimized that no one can be surprised at Moscow’s decision to join in. Bombing Muslim societies that harbor violent political dissident movements is now the political strategy of choice for the so-called civilized world.
One might say that if these movements adopt violence, they deserve what they get, but if they do not, they are ignored, marginalized, and repressed. The evidence regarding repressed Palestinians, repressed Iraqi Sunnis, repressed Yemeni Houthis, and repressed Lebanese Shi’a is persuasive: dissent gets squashed. Actually listening to the grievances of the repressed is an option just way too complicated to contemplate, and anyway, the opportunity to exploit the confusion for short-term private gain just so very tempting…
So the world now faces the emerging Mideast Medieval Era, and the engine powering this process of socio-political collapse is the flow of “energy” (e.g., arms, funds) from the global powers into a region that cannot effectively resist it or rationally make use of it.
But is this expensive and inflammatory great power strategy of benefit either to the Mideast or the rest of the world? Rather than pulverizing one Muslim society after another only to leave behind a degree of chaos, anger, and frustration that will predictably result in the further spread of violence into those very “developed” societies whose short-sighted foreign policies are exacerbating it in the first place, might not a policy of piecemeal resolution of local socio-political issues make more sense?
The Kurds, who seem relatively focused on defending themselves rather than repressing their neighbors, offer one potential test case, were any of the great powers willing to focus on aiding Kurdish economic and political development rather than focusing on military steps. Putin’s idea of a U.S.-Russian effort to defeat the Islamic State offers a second opportunity, were any great power leaders sufficiently visionary to see the importance of such long-term non-military steps as allowing Iraqi Sunnis to participate in politics and finding ways to protect selected Syrian populations.
Putin’s new vigorous Mideast strategy was visible in advance; Washington had at least several weeks in which to prepare a countermove. Washington’s lack of flexibility has unnecessarily weakened the U.S. regional position and unnecessarily strengthened the Russian position. Washington has momentarily at least lost the momentum it had gained in August with the breakthrough nuclear accord with Iran. Putin saw instantly both the rise in America’s stature (by breaking the self-imposed and self-crippling taboo against conducting normal interactions with Iran) and the opportunity for Russia to get back in the game (by emulating Washington’s precedents). Now Washington can follow Russia’s lead, accept seeing its position weakened, or devise a similarly creative response. Washington in mid-summer sent its castle across the board, seizing the initiative, but Russia’s pawn move of early September has now been followed by a bold Russian bishop’s strike. In the complicated multi-dimensional Mideast diplomatic chess game, Iran has followed up its own nuclear move of mid-summer coordinated with the U.S. with a supporting September move coordinated with Russia, demonstrating an impressive ability to maintain independence. Washington is suddenly losing the initiative.
The implication of the U.S.-Turkish talk about a no-bombing zone was that the civilians in that zone would be protected from attack. That implication was carefully evaded, undermining U.S. interests and giving the impression that Washington had just been defeated rather than supported by its presumed ally Ankara, but a serious and believable commitment by Washington to create and defend such a safe zone, combined with a joint U.S.-Russian agreement on some sort of military plan against the Islamic State, might blunt the momentum of increasingly dangerous Mideast firestorm while enabling Washington to regain the initiative.
The potential for Western-Russian-Iranian cooperation, even at the expense of allowing Assad to continue to survive, should be exploited not just for the critical issue of defeating the increasingly threatening Islamic State but also for its long-term benefits. Working together on an issue of clear benefit to all will open doors for unforeseeable future cooperation, while sending a message to Ankara, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh that attempting to manipulate Washington may in the future be a much riskier policy than in the past. A careful policy of cooperation will also give Washington gentle influence, inducing both Moscow and Tehran to adopt policies less abrasive to Washington’s feelings.
And what, indeed, is the alternative? U.S. Mideast policy is in shambles, with the U.S. having over the last generation created a disaster in Iraq from which it seems unable to extricate itself followed more recently by similar disasters in Libya and Syria, not to mention Somalia and the endless cancer of Israel’s repression of Palestinians. The more violent U.S. Mideast policy, the greater the resulting threat to international stability. A victory against the Islamic State could change Mideast political dynamics; the problem of Assad can wait for another day. A step-by-step approach focusing first on the most critical threat would be far wiser than the current ineffective slide toward disaster.
The creation in the Mideast of a “medieval” political system analogous to the worst of what post-Roman Europe experienced during its Dark Ages admittedly offers many opportunities for short-term gain by those lusting for war profiteering or other people’s resources, but the cost to global society is likely vastly to outweigh any short-term private gain. Such is the frequently overlooked lesson of 9/11.
Summer 2015 – Washington Castle Across Board: nuclear agreement with Tehran
Early September – Moscow Pawn Forward: facilities for troops set up in Syria
Moscow signals it wants to be a player again
Mid-September – Washington Pawns Move Without Coordination: talks with Moscow plus criticism of Moscow
Washington rebuffs Moscow in clumsy fashion, leaving door wide open for Moscow to take the initiative
Late September – Moscow Bishop Strike: Syrian bombing campaign
Moscow moves fast. copying U.S. tactics but with distinct agenda
October 1 – Washington Pawns Retreat: accuses Moscow of fomenting extremism
although true, since bombing always foments extremism, Washington’s accusation only makes Washington, which was responsible for establishing the precedent, look hypocritical and weak