Thursday, August 28, 2014

Washington’s Stuttering Foreign Policy

US mistakes IS for an existential threat

US foreign policy is exhibiting an advanced case of ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It bodes ill for those in Asia who welcomed the “tilt” towards the region which was supposed to follow the US withdrawal from Iraq and the run-down of its involvement in Afghanistan.

Instead of focusing on its alliances and role in Asia, the location of big power rivalry, it has now announced that the biggest external threat to the US is not the rise of an expansionist mega state – China – or even a wounded and angry Russia but Islamists in Iraq and Syria who had scarcely been heard of a year ago.

Thus US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asserts that the nascent Islamic State (IS) is “an imminent threat to everything we have,” General Martin Dempsey says the US must use “all means at our disposal” to wipe it off the face of Syria, and a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan calls on President Obama to do whatever is necessary to kill it.

Obama’s valiant efforts to limit US involvement in the region are under attack not just from the usual bunch of right wing Republicans but from opinion makers in Washington and New York.

Thus having finally seemed to have escaped from a Middle East quagmire that it helped to create, notably with the second invasion of Iraq but with contributions from its policies towards Iran and Israel, the US seems determined to launch itself back into the middle of this extremely complicated fray.

In the space of a few very short years, the US has had a succession of “chief threats,” creating a foreign policy driven by media headlines and the urgings of American politicians with minimal knowledge of the outside world and its complexities. Hence the top threat has moved from El Qaeda to Iran’s nuclear program, to China and its ambitions in the east and south seas, to Ukraine and Russian revanchism and now back to Iraq.

All the while too its policies in that region have been muddied by its ambiguous response to the so-called “Arab Spring” and the contradictions inherent in its policies towards Egypt and Israel.

The US is now in such a muddle that the chief beneficiary of US strikes against IS in Syria will be Bashir el-Assad, the brutal suppressor of an uprising that the US had pledged to support. The usual armchair warriors now accuse Obama of letting this all happen by not giving enough arms to the non-IS opposition to an Assad backed by Iran But that is likely a fantasy given the extent to which the IS in Iraq, and hence into Syria, has been made popular among many Sunni Muslims because of the divisive policies of the pro-Shia Iraqi government of Nouri el-Maliki, whose departure may have come too late. That government was anyway in cahoots with former US enemy number one, Iran.

Meanwhile much of the stirring of Sunni extremism is being financed by the two countries which are supposed to be America’s close friends in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter even hosting a US base.

For sure, it is not easy for the world’s major power to have a consistent foreign policy in a neighborhood of fragile states torn by ethnic, religious and ideological passions. But the US does not seem to learn from past mistakes, the biggest being the mother of them all – its de facto support for Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 in an attempt to topple its new and anti-American clerical regime. The eventual stalemate in that eight-year war in turn led to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent two US invasions of Iraq.

The fact is that IS is a danger, for differing reasons. to all kinds of regimes in the region – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, even Turkey and Egypt. Its existence is already re-drawing alliances as well as maps. The Kurds are doing the same. A wiser American would let the regional interests find their own ways of cooperation to combat IS, not rely on the US whose involvement lets regional players avoid their own responsibilities. Nor does it make sense to pursue “crusades” against Islamic militants everywhere given that those movements are often more driven by local issues – economic, tribal etc – than by religion itself.

The only issue which should be a worry for western countries – and for Britain and France rather more than the US – is the radicalization of their own disaffected Muslim youth. But that is a domestic issue – and one likely made worse the deeper these countries become involved in combat of any sort against IS.

The zeal for more involvement in Middle East tangles must be a concern to countries in Asia from Japan to India who had believed in the tilt to Asia and been happy to develop closer ties with the US in the face of actual or potential threat from a rising and nationalistic China. As a global power the US cannot just wash its hands of one region – the Middle East – but it must keep it in perspective.

At the very least, the US cannot now see the global wood for the trees. For all one knows IS, for all of its barbaric savagery, will be a flash in the pan, like al Qaeda, and the next “greatest threat” to the US could be deemed to come from anywhere from Yemen, to Liberia to the Mexican border. Asia Sentinel

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