The argument by the White House related to previous assessments of the “success in Yemen,” as made by press secretary Josh Earnest on March 26th, is that “The measure of U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise…the goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States.”
This argument is the briefest and potentially best expression of the phrasing of the crisis, not in Yemen—but inside the national security establishment of the US. For it is crystal clear that in order to defeat terror, we have to deal simultaneously with its organizations and with the direct conditions that inject these organizations with elements of growth and expansion. These conditions come under one title: Istability.
It was the Nouri Al Maliki years that brought terrorists back to central Iraq after the US forces left. The US Administration had warm relations with Al Maliki up until few months before the same administration called for his departure. It was the brutal savagery of Bashar Al Assad in killing civilian protesters demanding democracy in 2011 that brought about the horrors that followed in Syria and created what we now call “the mother of all crises.” The US refused to assist Syrian army officers who, instead of killing their own people, decided to join the protesters to form what was then a very moderate opposition. And it was Iran’s persistent policy of regional expansion that led, by using the political crisis, to an explosion in Yemen. The political crisis and the current explosion are not a “separate enterprise.” It is a blessing to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). The two elements mentioned by Mr. Ernest are, to the contrary, inseparable.
No one is asking the US to intervene militarily or to even solve the political crisis in any or all of these countries. But when we listen to official statements in Washington, it becomes almost spontaneous to ask if there is a concept that really frames any real understanding of the dynamics which help savage entities like ISIL, or AQAP, or the Syrian government, or the Iraqi pro-Iran militias to expand. This question comes to the surface when we hear things like “We do not have a strategy yet [for Syria],” as President Obama said last September; and “The Syrian opposition is made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” as the president said last August when he described the idea of arming the Syrian opposition as “a fantasy”. Then comes the statement of Mr. Earnest.
Only when it was too late, did the administration overrule Vice President Biden’s conviction that Al Maliki is “our best bid,” and stood against the former Iraqi Prime Minister’s attempt to remain in office. And only when it was too late, did the US start discovering that the real fantasy is its own policy and began arming groups of the doctors and farmers in Syria. And only when it is too late now, that it finds itself faced with a very real threat of a conventional war in the Middle East over Yemen.
The lack of a general concept that provides a clear understanding of the dynamics in that region of perpetual war is not helping the US or the region. This apparent absence of a general strategic concept is not due to any shortage in strategists specialized in this region’s many complex issues. There are some of the most brilliant of that breed in the world right here in the US. The real problem is the restraints imposed by short-sighted political “principles” and the real narrowing of the process of forming a policy, regardless of attempts to give a different impression.
“We do not want to be involved in the Middle East,” ended up with daily air raids on ISIL. Why? Because much less of an “involvement” at the proper time was rejected under the dogmatic belief in the principle of non-intervention. “No help to the doctors and farmers,” ended up with helping them anyway, but only when this help was meaningless. “The stability of Yemen is another enterprise different from success in fighting Al Qaeda”? Can anyone sign on to this stunning statement? Shortsightedness is always an art of self-betrayal.
The global influence of a superpower is based on both a perception (in the minds of friends and foes alike) and the concrete reality of a real military capability. If this superpower announces in all four corners of the world that it will not exercise its military might under any circumstances, it would be voluntarily dismantling the perception of its power. By giving up its image as capable and willing to keep the world order, it gives up one of the two bases of its role as a superpower. This path, almost always, leads to forcing it to later use its military capabilities anyway—but in a much worst context. When one loses one leg, he is forced to depend only on the other. Non-intervention could be a strategy dictated by whatever subjective reasons. But then, why whisper to everyone—friends and foes—that they can do whatever they please because we are not willing to stop them? They will. Then the US will be forced to intervene when it sees the chaos threatening its vital national interests which are spread all over the globe.
Chances of a Middle East conventional regional war are increasing dangerously by the day. The Arab military campaign in Yemen may usher in a period of a shift in the balance of power in the region. A joint military force is the outcome of the Yemeni crisis and the Iranian regional expansion. This new configuration will allow the US much less space to shape the outcome of any crisis in the region. Riyadh informed Washington of its Yemen military operations in a way that left Washington no option but to take a clear position. The US cannot neglect the Middle East. The stakes are high and the US national interests are not served by this incompetence.
The main problem in the US regional strategy is that it has been reduced to a collection of separate issues (nuclear Iran, Iraq’s governance, Syrian opposition, etc.). Then this was reduced again to a mere reaction in each separate case. More reduction followed when the objective of obtaining a nuclear deal with Iran to prevent it from using nuclear weapons to expand its influence resulted in Iran expanding its influence already, not with a nuclear weapons capabilities, but with the talks about nuclear weapons capabilities. Then the strategy was further reduced to a subjugation to internal political calculations to the extent of seeing a desperate effort to save “the legacy” of one person. The final result was a collection of deep regional crises accompanied by pathetic spinning and apologetic self-serving political statements a la Mr. Ernest.
So what can be done?
The US has to start from a clearer concept of the link between objectives and means, based on the real nature and dynamics of the “totality” of situation in the Middle East, not the “separation” that Mr. Earnest describes. Such an organizing concept should shape the evaluation of each of the particular manifestations of the regional crisis (Where are you Dr. Kissinger?). The “separate” issues like those described by the White House press secretary have to be synthesized into one overall view that connects US interests to the practical steps proposed and in a clear break-out from narrow political goals and ideological considerations and principles. The “legacy” is not helped by the current chaos in the Middle East and the unbelievable shortsightedness of the current “strategy” (if there is any).
The military operation in Yemen will change the regional balance of power insofar as it gives the Arabs more confidence in their military capabilities and will shape an organizational framework for a regional military force. This development will change, for a long time to come, the nature of the US military ties with the region. In our view, this will be the most important “structural” change in the American regional role and in the US ties with Arab nations. The current sentiments among the Arab leaders towards the US policy are summarized in one word: contempt. It is time to ask who is “losing the Arabs”.
In the case of Iran, negotiations should be looked at from the vantage point of their “raison d’être,” not from personal legacies. Iran is not trying to obtain a bomb because it likes “collectibles”. If the objective of the nuclear talks is to reduce Iran’s ability to threaten US and regional interests, it is high time to ask: so what is it doing now, already, while the negotiations are still going on? Is it not time to see that sometimes shortsightedness leads to sacrificing the objective while you are trying to achieve it?
Iran could have reduced the intensity of its regional interventionist policy at least during its sensitive nuclear talks with the international community. But in fact, it is doing exactly the opposite. It is listening to a different drum. And it is the same drumbeat on which it launched its nuclear program. The drum is still beating louder and louder.
On the Titanic, there were people making love when the catastrophe happened. We are not sure if they were able to complete what they were doing.