America’s Middle East Policy Collapses

The United States and Russia have now averted U.S. military action against the Syrian regime for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Is the agreement reached by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov on September 9 a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration, or was it,as retired British ambassador Charles Crawford called it, “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began?”

While perhaps not as bad as Ambassador Crawford suggests, we agree that the outcome is one of the worst defeats for U.S. foreign policy in decades. We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realistwho opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalistswho supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

Read the rest at The National Interest


4 comments on “America’s Middle East Policy Collapses”
  1. Uwe Weber says:

    There has been precedent. When the G5 +1 tasked Russia with negotiating a freeze of the Iranian Uranium enrichment program in 2006 or 2007 they recognized Moscow as the de facto protector state of Iran and the only key to a diplomatic solution. Lavrov proposed this freeze again in June 2013 and IMHO we will see this proposal again next year. Only this time with the Iranians happily agreeing to a freeze under Russian ‘control’.

  2. Enjoyed your article and accept some of your premises; that the Obama administration’s policy of regime change in Syria has been abandoned and that this affects Moscow’s influence in the region. But isn’t it arguable that the circumstances surrounding the decision to abandon this policy were established earlier, at least partially by US allies supporting Sunni insurgents whom publicly divided the opposition and rendered post-Assad leadership transition problematic?

    This seems the crucial point where the chalice of US policy was poisoned. And while Putin has eagerly grasped this opportunity, as you say, hasn’t the departure from Iraq and the long foreseen US withdrawal from Afghanistan already conceded a portion of the “bipartisan consensus aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence?” As for “uncertain governments” the Gulf states and Turkey might do well to reflect on their own impatience before expressing their disappointment while Israel seems content Syrian factions remain distracted in mutual attrition. Egypt, granted, seems a loose ball but still down our end of the field. Iran will be the test case for this new paradigm; I’m guessing the proposal regarding Syria’s chemical stockpile suits their intentions if it did not actually originate with them. The US may yet deliver to them what Putin can’t.

    And among Putin’s recent achievements he has grasped the chalice as well;many of the difficulties regarding delivery of this impressive agreement are now his. As Obama noted, “I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons.'” We need to be firm, as you noted, in holding him to this agreement yet there is no evidence that we won’t. We’ll see.

    If Vladimir Vladimirovich has one weakness it is a tendency to get out over his skis; the Times op-ed probably a case in point. If the adversarial relationship dictated by geography ever emerges between Russia and China it will be as the consequence of a resurgent Russia with restless, territorial leadership such as Putin’s; I can think of nothing more likely to alarm the Chinese than a cult of personality established around a charismatic Russian nationalist whom fancies himself Tsar of all the Russias.

    We need to stay alert, solvent, self-reliant and engaged. But I’m not sure one or two careful steps back is not in our long-term best interest.

  3. Lev says:

    Shouldn’t you be writing this week about NSA information “sharing”? Of course, I may have naively misunderstood the “national” in the National Interest.

  4. MLK says:

    Also posted in the comments following the article at

    Over the last few weeks we have witnessed “a strange turn of events” — perhaps without precedent. Any assessment of the consequences for the Middle East, and American power generally, that doesn’t first explain how this strangeness came to be will fall short. It’s akin to ignoring 9/11 in an analysis of the Afghanistan invasion. Here is what we know:

    For nearly 2 1/2 years, the military/foreign policy/intelligence establishment writ large was split into interventionist/anti-interventionist camps..

    For nearly 2 1/2 years, the President refused to intervene directly in the Syrian Civil War As the only opinion that mattered at the end of the day, the President resided in the anti-interventionist camp. Most importantly, whatever earlier hopes the interventionists had that he would switch sides, and the myriad pretexts he could have seized upon, the near universal perception was that he would not — until a few weeks ago. Whether deriving from signals out of the White House, or efforts of the interventionists to pressure the President into interventionism — both, is the likely answer, the near universal perception flipped; The President was going to order an attack. Strangely, these emanated signals were so credible as to shift this near universal perception on a dime but produced no visibility on the strike plan or its intended goals.

    That is, in a word, strange.

    I do not need to recapitulate what followed. Suffice it to say, the denouement was no stranger than its conception.

    It is evident that a decisive portion of the anti-interventionist camp switched sides. The conventional explanations for this make superficial sense. They boil down to “The President must attack because [fill in the blank].” Those in the interventionist camp coherently reasserted their rationales. After all, they had long counseled intervention. It is among the anti-interventionists that flipped that strangeness manifested. The President was compelled to attack by his year-old “Red line,” lest his credibility, and by extension American credibility, suffer the sort of grievous blow the authors of this article now detail. The anti-interventionist faction did not renounce one jot of their brief against intervention. Indeed, the self-described anti-interventionist among the two authors here was hardly alone in recapitulating them . . . as he expressed near assurance it would happen. Thus must and should, as in the President must (or, should) . . . were deployed as if they mean the same thing.

    The dog that isn’t barking is how we account for a near universal perception in the military/foreign policy/intelligence establishment that now the President must/should attack but was unwilling to support the President in a manner designed to bring about that outcome. Those who vowed to support him through thick and thin were few, if non-existent. Nearly everyone speaking publicly said he would and must attack — and then added so many caveats that they cannot accurately be characterized as acting/speaking in a manner designed to achieve that result. In short, the bureaucratic and political echelons, in toto, were insisting the President would and must attack, but that he was on his own. That is a very strange disconnect indeed. To be clear, the strange disconnect is not the always present CYA impulse. It is the locus of the establishment not acting coherenty to achieve an outcome it asserted must be achieved — as it unsurprisingly had always done in the past. Strange.

    With the above table-setting, my best guess is that not only are US-Russian relations the key context for explaining this strangeness, but it is the grievous SIGINT losses to Russian intelligence from Snowden affair et. al. that make sense of these otherwise inexplicable events. I hesitate to call this a Spy War as some, including one of the authors of this piece have, because if it is it is of the turkey-shoot variety, with the US as the turkey and the Russians doing the shooting. In short, the premier SIGINT agency in the world, our NSA, built a “total information dominance” infrastructure, and then allowed Russian intelligence (and God knows who else) to steal it. All members of the establishment implicated in this fiasco — and that is a very big portion indeed, have been desperate for an attack on Russian interests with three discrete (and differentially held) goals in mind:

    1) Deliver payback to Russia. You took our house, cars and bank accounts. But we’ve got your bicycle.

    2) Improve the context in which the American public learns of this disaster, and insists that heads (and programs) roll. The timing of this moment of public recognition is in the hands of Putin. Only if we are, in net effect, at war with Russia is such propagandistic mitigation possible.

    3) Creating a lever by which the President (and political echelon as a whole) can be constrained if he seeks to hold these agencies and individuals accountable for the damage they have wrought to US national security interests, image and reputation, and even the well-being of all Americans and American businesses. What better way to protect your selfish bureaucratic, political, and individual interests than by “assisting” a President in saving his presidency from implosion. In this regard, the timing of the recent media attacks on Gen. Alexander in the last few days, are anything but coincidental. There is a war for survival raging in Washington. If firing Alexander, and laying it all off on him, could have contained the damage this most powerful bureaucrat — J Edgar Hoover times a million — would nevertheless have been gone months ago,

    I, for one, will be watching intently to see whether the American Deep State can somehow coalesce under the rubric of “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” I am also mindful of the distinct possibility that that is exactly what has already occurred in the form of these “strange turn of events.” If so, the specifics of what you two gentlemen, and so many others, are now describing as the collapse of American foreign policy in the Middle East, is the price extracted (so far) by Mr. Putin for saving the Deep State from the wrath of the American people.

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