U.S. tries to clean up its Middle East messes



Ira Sharkansky

By Ira Sharkansky

Originally from the sdjewishworld.com

JERUSALEM — One should applaud, perhaps with one hand, the wisdom shown by Barack Obama in his efforts to withdraw the United States from active involvement in the Middle East.

At the same time, we should note that he is at least partly responsible for the present chaos.

That Nobel Peace Prize speech was a disaster. It encouraged democracy and equal rights in cultures that know no such thing. It contributed to rebellions against existing regimes which, far from perfect, had managed to keep a lid on the tinder of religious, ethnic, and ideological tension always waiting for a spark.

Also, his forceful involvement in an illusory peace process, via a obsessive and perhaps messianic Secretary of State, is likely to have done more harm than good. It is a stretch to assign Kerry responsibility for 2,000 deaths in Gaza, but there is a rich literature about the “revolution of rising expectations” that is worth considering.

Now Obama has gone back into Iraq, best thought of as putting a bandage on the mess that his country produced with its destruction of Saddam’s government and army. He should be applauded for opposing one of the most barbaric movements that emerged from the Arab Spring he once saw as the onset of democracy. Now he may see that it is easier to begin such an operation than to find his way out of it.

Thomas Friedman was one of those who led the cheers for Arab Spring, and now his rapport with Obama has produced the most recent insight into the President’s thinking.

Central to what we can perceive in a lengthy article is not too much different from Obama’s earlier aspirations for democracy and equality. Now it is expressed as”an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished.”

It means power sharing, which sounds great. It might work in Chicago, but one should be excused for having some doubts. With greater certainty, it isn’t a useful guide to the animosities/hatreds of Middle Eastern religious, ethnic, tribal, and family politics.

It is also a doubtful recipe for A deal with Russia and Ukraine, which along with Libya, Iraq, Syria, and that peace process involving Israel and Palestine, get some mention in Friedman’s interview.

The President also recognizes that power sharing may be illusory with respect that bit of the globe that stretches from the White House to the Capitol.

” we will never realize our full potential unless our two parties adopt the same outlook that we’re asking of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds or Israelis and Palestinians: No victor, no vanquished and work together.”

Perhaps Barack Obama wants to reform, or do away with political dispute. If so, he should join Jimmy Carter in teaching Sunday School, rather than trying to lead the United States and those governments likely to follow its lead in international politics.

It’s easy to blame others.

” . . .  in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not “squandered an opportunity” to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.’Had the Shia majority seized the opportunity to reach out to the Sunnis and the Kurds in a more effective way, [and not] passed legislation like de-Baathification,’ no outside troops would have been necessary.”

Obama has learned some things about a problematic setting

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”

Yet when he claims to know “the aspirations of that population,” he is on shakier ground.

The relevant passage refers to Syria, but would apply equally to Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, Libya and all else in that swath of autocratic governments from Morocco across to Pakistan.

Where there never has been a regime concerned about the aspirations of the population, the idea is not a guide to the future.

The problem is culture. They ain’t Americans, Western Europeans, Israelis, or a few others who have developed the norms of popular representation and accommodation.

Again, we should not be all that confident about Chicago, or the Obama White House and Congress.

The President stands firmly against genocide. Most likely he has received briefings from people who know something about the Yazidis. Here’s a link for those who have not until now heard about them.

He is also hopeful about the Kurds, and seeks to protect their enclave.

We can hope that he has thought about the implications of that for US relations with Turkey.

At the end of Friedman’s interview the subject turned to Libya. Obama admitted a failure of follow up to the toppling of Qaddafi, but ended with another declaration of his naivete.

“Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. … So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’ ”

The GWBush administration and then the Obama administration invested the better part of eight years trying to create civic traditions and a responsible government for Iraq, and is still at work in Afghanistan.

Nothing suggests that a gargantuan effort in Libya would have done better.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted viaira.sharkansky@sdjewishworld.com


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