Monday, March 14, 2016

The Post-American Middle East

The title of this post is admittedly misleading and is meant for provocation purposes only. Perhaps a more apt title is: The Realist Doctrine. 

For America is not actually leaving the Middle East or any region where it currently has a presence and an influence for that matter. Wholesale abandonment of the world is not what lies at the heart of America’s political realism or Obama’s Doctrine. Rather, and under the influence of realist experts and officials, America will continue to pursue its interests, far and wide, but it will do so under the strictest of guidelines and the narrowest of focuses, paying little heed to other peoples and polities’ wants and “shenanigans,” including its traditional allies in the East and West.

The Realist America will not attempt to undertake adventures on the scale of the Afghanistan and Iraqi invasions, or even the Libyan intervention. That kind of “heavy lifting” will be left from now on to regional and local players in accordance with their interests and priorities as they see them, and irrespective of who among them is the aggressor and who the victim, and who is the democrat and who the fascist. Such considerations are not relevant to the Realists. Even when it comes to humanitarian interventions, the Realists insist that they be undertaken only when the United Nations Security Council, as dysfunctional as they know it is, gets its act together and decides on the matter, and provided that the local and regional players involved offer to take the lead on the matter.

The Realists believe that the upcoming wave of political change that will hit much of the world will be chaotic and violent in nature, regardless of what America does. They further believe that America can protect itself from the eventual fallout only if it narrowed the scope of its engagements and interventions in global affairs for the duration of this period. Once things settle down again, America might resume a leadership role when it comes to drafting a new global power arrangement. For now though, America will have to pursue its own interests as amorally as any other state kin this world, and American values will be reserved for Americans. Ultimately, the Realists believe, the mayhem currently unfolding, and that will continue to unfold over the next few years, will be brought about as a result of actions and choices of other global and regional players and powers; as such, it’s the responsibility of these actors and players to manage the consequences.

This seems like a very rational and logical position, despite being cold, and it is. In fact, and as far as I am concerned, there is only one problem with it, but it’s a major one: its tribalism.

For the whole thing boils down to this little formula: we’ll keep our good to ourselves, but we have no problems taking from others or intervening in their affairs should our interests require it. For instance, the Obama administration did eventually intervene in Syria, but not to help Syrians, irrespective of the side they chose, or to prevent Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey from intervening, but to fight the Islamic State – an entity that emerged by capitalizing on the chaos, and the vacuum left by America’s decision not to intervene or offer timely support to moderate rebels. But once IS emerged and the Obama administration became aware of its danger, they tried to appeal to moderate rebels, who were already fighting IS as well as the Assad regime, for help in this regard, but without offering to protect them against Assad and its barrel bombs, and while, in fact, insisting that they focus solely on IS. Naturally, not too many rebels were prevailed upon to accept such a raw deal, and the administration was surprised, perhaps just as the Republican Establishment was surprised by the rise of Donald Trump. The administration, then, turned to work with an entity that it erstwhile designated as terrorist: the PKK, and more specifically, its Syrian branch, irrespective of what its long-time ally in the region and NATO, Turkey, members thought of the situation.

Such bizarre turns of affairs are bound to be the hallmark of the Realist foreign policy, as one may easily conclude after reading President Obama’s own explanation of his Doctrine.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of this “Realism,” it’s becoming increasingly clear, on account of its adoption by some many political leaders from the Right and Left, as one can easily deduce from the various foreign policy visions expressed by the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Realism, then, is not distant to be a mere passing phase in America’s political history, and seems bound to color American politics for years to come.

So, what does that mean for the Middle East, the world’s most troubled region as we are often told? And does that mean for those currently involved in dabbling in its affairs? The question is important not simply on account of this writer’s background, but also because the Realist attitude at this stage seems to have emerged and evolved largely as a result of doing a series of “stupid shit,” to use President Obama’s exquisite choice of words, in that particular region over the last few years, if not decades, the stupidest of which might just be Obama’s own policies.

The answer is simple: even while maintaining a presence in parts of the Middle East, Realist America is no longer interested in playing a major role in resolving any of its conflicts. Its presence there is now more than ever meant to exclusively serve its own purposes at the expense of any possible impact on whatever is taking place at any given moment. Today that purpose is fighting the Islamic State. Tomorrow, and through whatever military bases it is busy constructing in northeastern Syria, it will monitor and carefully consider its options when it comes to any potential mayhem that will unfold in Central Asia or the Gulf States. As for allies, depending on the issue of the hour, America’s alliances will continue to shift between the different sides, irrespective of their own interactions with each other. Removing Iran’s and Hezbollah’s names from the list of states and groups supporting terror gives America much leeway in this regard.

As for the Arab Israeli Conflict, the Iran-Saudi Conflict, the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict, and the Turkish and Saudi identity crises, among other issues, the governments of the region and most of its intellectual elite will finally get that for which they have been rhetorically calling for decades but never really wanted, namely: America will finally stay out of their hair for the most part.

Not so Russia, the longtime ally of various regional causes, ruling regimes, and some opposition groups, for now that she has managed to carve out a little niche for itself on the Mediterranean in the form of the Western and central parts of Syria, it has effectively become a regional power, and is bound to behave as such. So it will crackdown on dissent and act as a spoiler for whatever plans it may not like and support terrorist groups after dubbing them resistance. In other words, Russia will be Russia, and Sovietism will live on through Putinism.

How long will all these conflicts have to last and metastasize, how many states will have to disintegrate, how much resources will have to be wasted, how many lives will have be taken, before these powers realize that the only solution, the only way out of the crisis within crisis within crisis, is some kind of political settlement? No one knows, no one care, not even an America busy being Realist. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is irrelevant, because none of us will live long enough to see the end of it, and all of us are bound to be deeply scared by it (whether we will realize this or not is another issue).

After all, the whole thing is beginning with genocide and a large-scale ethnic cleansing campaign. Or, to be more precise, our brave new Realist world is beginning with “us” – the Americans, the Westerners, the civilized, the holders of the Democratic Flame, deflecting blame and shirking any responsibility for this state of affairs, and whatever may follow. And the Realists are smug about it.

Personally, I might have been more receptive of president Obama’s Realist sense had he said at any point that it was truly difficult for him to watch what was unfolding in Syria and yet choosing not to intervene for whatever reason he might choose to give, had he shown an awareness of the suffering that is taking place in Syria, of the scale involved, had he shown some empathy, even in the intellectual sense if he is n0t capable of being emotional about the suffering of others… But he didn’t. Not only that, he even seemed to have considered such an acknowledgement, no matter how symbolic, to be “stupid shit.” For me this stand represents a betrayal of the liberal values that Obama is supposed to embrace and that are allegedly the ideals that lie at the heart of his realism. There is no greater betrayal of liberal values than this smug embrace of tribal ethos.

Yes, the man who actually thinks he’s rising above the tribal ethos is actually embracing and reinforcing it. By posing the question “Does “the West” actually exist?,” and calling for embracing global diversity, even if that meant legitimating illiberal forces and regimes, he has given himself the right to reject the democratic West, and to embrace what in practice amounts to an America Uber Alles ethos. How different is this mentality from the one that promoted Trump to foolishly declare that “Islam hates us” and that mosques all over the world are filled with chants of “death to America!”?    

Indeed, this new ethos is embraced by many American leaders today, and not only those on the right. For while Trump goes about making his incendiary claims, the liberals are just “too tired” to act. Too tired to care. Too tired to give a damn. Too tired to give a minute of their time. Too tired to give an honest answer.  Indeed, here’s their favorite representative in the presidential race, Mr. Bernie Sanders, finding himself suddenly too tired to answer a single question posed by a Syrian refugee who waited for hours to speak to him.

Of course! For what answer could he possibly give? You’re on your own? That’s harsh, yet it doesn’t actually tell the whole story. You’re on your own in the face of monsters! Now that’s the reality, and that would be the honest answer. But who would want to give it? Who would want to acknowledge that?

The people of the region are not being left on their own to work out their fate. The reality is that the weak are being abandoned to the wolves, wolves armed to the teeth by western powers as well as Russia, China and Europe, wolves busy investing in creating their own arms industry, including chemical weapons and even nuclear weapons, while they can’t even build and operate decent universities in their countries, wolves busy making wars, destroying their countries, and their neighbors’ countries, and producing generations of illiterates. What kind of a future can be worked out by those facing all these odds? And who will carry the deadweight represented by the millions upon millions of young illiterate and angry men and women who cannot find a refuge and future there or anywhere?

This is the big hole in the Realists’ cold logic: the suffering of others matters. Ignoring it matters. Empathy matters. It matters far beyond idealistic visions. It matters in the strategic sense. A Realist America will not be immune from mayhem abroad, because the threat to its safety is not simply military. An America that is illiberal and amoral in its behavior abroad and that does business and sign Faustian deals with illiberal forces abroad, will eventually do the same at home, if that’s not happening already. The price that will eventually be borne by it for all its Realism may not be as violent as we will witness elsewhere, but it will high enough. Too high.

Perhaps what happened recently in Chicago during the Trump protests will come as a wakeup call for Obama, and others, Democrat and Republican, Realists and Interventionists alike. Meanwhile, let’s hope that no one chooses to turn Trump into a martyr. For, then, this will not be a passing incident, and we can all seriously expect all hell to break loose. There is too much anger in many quarters in this country, and we do not need this development, and we cannot afford to think to a Trump as a purely Republican phenomenon, nor of Sanders as a purely Democratic phenomenon. There is a larger malaise involved here, and we really have to explore together across the political divide ways to satisfy the real concerns of both segments, as diverse as they are, in order to defuse the growing tensions between them.

America is not immune to social mayhem, and has never been. Only vigilance and pragmatism have saved it over the last few decades. Today, we need a major dose of them. This time calls for strong and capable leadership, not from behind but from the frontlines at home and abroad. I cannot imagine that America has grown barren.

As for the current president, I doubt history will be kind in its judgment of him and of Realists in general, or of any of the contemporary world leaders. For though the arc of history does seem to bend towards justice, eventually, this will not happen on account of Realism, but in the face of it.

For now though, pray tell me, how can this little wisdom about the bending arc give comfort to a dying child, a tortured prisoner of conscience, a grieving mother, a destitute man? Does this knowledge exempt us from the responsibility to act kindly? Does it justify indifference to genocide? Good intentions are not the only thing that paves our path to hell: smug certainties are the greater culprit.

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