Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Trump's Mideastern Policy Makes No Sense Whatever

Donald Trump’s Mideastern policy makes no sense whatever.  In all fairness to Trump, his predecessor’s policy and the Blob’s policy (a lot closer than either cares to admit) didn’t make a lot of sense either.  But Trump’s policy makes even less sense.  That is quite an achievement (of a bad kind). 

What is basically happening in the Middle East is that local conflicts are being exacerbated by great power meddling, the Great Powers of the Middle East being Iran and Saudi Arabia.  This is not to suggest that the great powers are creating local conflicts.  The local conflicts would exist without great power meddling.  But the great powers escalate the conflicts and make them much longer and bloodier than they otherwise would be, all the while justifying their actions by saying that they are only helping out an ally in trouble.*

We are on the side of Saudi Arabia in this great power conflict.  It is not clear that this makes any sense.  The usual reasons given for this are that the Iranian government is repressive, violates human rights, destabilizes governments that act against its interests, and sponsors terrorism.  All these accusations are true.  Then again, the Saudi government is repressive, violates human rights, destabilizes governments that act against its interests, and sponsors terrorism.  Of course, in the Middle East there are no good guys.  The choice is not between good guys and bad guys, but which set of bad guys you prefer.  Why do we prefer Saudi Arabia?  Would it make more sense to favor Iran?

In terms of repressiveness and human rights violations, although both governments deserve our condemnation, the Iranian government at least maintains the outward forms of democracy, holds contested elections (though closely controlled by the clergy and Revolutionary Guards who hold the real power), and allows limited dissent.  Saudi Arabia makes no such pretense and allows no dissent whatever.  So, advantage Iran.

Iran exercises tight control over its terrorists.  Whenever there is an outbreak of Shiite terrorism, one may be sure that it was done under the direction of the Iranian intelligence service at the direction of the Iranian state.  In 1994, Hezbollah, under Iranian direction, blew up a Jewish cultural center in Argentina and killed 85 innocent people, wounding hundreds.  Certainly the Saudi state has never sponsored such an attack against a western target.  Nonetheless, Iranian proxies do not target us, and since 1994 have confined their terrorist attacks to the Middle East.  It is genuinely and strongly opposed to the really dangerous terrorist organizations in the Middle East, such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Currently the Iranians are backing the murderous Assad regime in Syria and strongly fighting ISIS.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, does not have a tightly controlled terrorist network and is also opposed to Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Nonetheless, whenever there is an outbreak of Sunni terrorism, it almost always turns out that, although not under the control or direction of the Saudi state, it was committed by individuals who were radicalized at Saudi-established madrassahs and financed with Saudi money.  Terrorists of this kind operate the world over and can target anyone.  Saudi Arabia does nothing to command or control them, but keeps promoting the ideology that inspires them and permits the money flow that finance them.  Of the 19 hijackers on 9-11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis regard Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as an enemy, yet their intervention in Yemen's civil war, with a focus on on defeating the Iranian-backed Houthis has had the effect of creating a power vacuum that AQAP is filling.  The Saudis apparently consider AQAP, which was behind the Charlie Hebdo shooting and has attempted to down US airliners, as the lesser evil compared to the Houthis, who have never bother us at all.  In Syria, wealthy private citizens (presumably condoned by the government) indiscriminately loaned money to any rebels who showed up, including Al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS.  

In short, Iran is an enemy of our chief enemies in the Middle East -- but it also commands a vast terrorist network that it could unleash against us, even though it currently keeps leashed.  Saudi Arabia is also an enemy of our chief enemies in the Middle East -- but keeps pursuing policies that have the effect of empowering them.  Saudi military interventions tend to have the indirect result of empowering anti-western militants, while Iranian military interventions have the direct result of empowering the Iranian state.

The Blob (and Obama, who did the Blob’s bidding in most cases, though with conspicuous disagreement directly seeking the overthrow of the Assad government) has decided that we should treat Iran as an enemy and Saudi Arabia as an ally.  It is far from clear to me that the Blob is right.  This is not to say that we should reverse ourselves and align with Iran against Saudi Arabia.  To me, it means that we should not get too involved in their great power rivalry and do all we can to lower tensions between the two.

At the same time, backing Saudi Arabia against Iran makes sense in at least one way.  One could see this as part of Cold War II.  In other words, one could treat the great power rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as part of a larger great power rivalry between the US and Russia.  Russia backs Iran; therefore we must back Saudi Arabia.**  This is dubious, but not crazy.

Trump, during the campaign, challenged this conventional wisdom and proposed that instead we treat ISIS and other such groups as our primary enemy and Russia as a useful ally against them.  That may or may not work, but it isn't altogether crazy either.

What is utterly crazy is to pursue a pro-Russian foreign policy while simultaneously doing everything to ramp up tensions with Iran and give Saudi Arabia a blank check.  If you attack Russia's ally, relations with Russia will suffer as a result.  Duh!  Nor is this limited to Trump, who might not know that Russia and Iran are allies.  The whole pro-Russia crowd appears to consist of strong Iran hawks.

Most notably, Michael Flynn was both strongly pro-Russia and anti-Iran to a deranged degree.  U.S. Representative Dana Rorschbacher is called Putin's favorite Congressman for his pro-Russian policies, but he is also so outrageously anti-Iran that he actually suggested an anti-Iranian alliance with ISIS.  And Flynn holdovers are apparently pushing for direct intervention in Syria to fight Iran, even though this greatly increases the risk of a showdown with Russia.

I truly don't get it.  I can't come up with any explanation for this, not even a cynical one.  How do you simultaneously seek improved relations with Russia and outright war with a Russian ally?  This is nuts!

*Read Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War for a brilliant account of how this dynamic played out in Ancient Greece.  It hasn’t changed since.
**That Iran and Russia have ended up as allies despite their traditionally tense border and the fact that Russia actually invaded Iran during WWII is a testament to the extraordinary incompetence of a whole series of US Presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama.

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