Why America’s Middle East Nightmare Keeps Getting Worse
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama offered a forceful repudiation of jihadism.
"The ideology of ISIL [sic] or al Qaeda or Boko Haram will wilt and die if it is consistently exposed, confronted, and refuted in the light of day,” said Obama in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly. He went on to say "If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground -- no counter-terrorism strategy can succeed."
Powerful words from the president--but a quick glance at the alliance organized to fight the jihadist group know as Islamic State, or ISIS, should serve as a reminder that no matter how much lip service American presidents pay to the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims across the greater Middle East, the United States is -- and will likely remain -- heavily invested in an autocratic status quo in the region.
In recent months ISIS has made gains throughout much of Iraq and Syria, leaving behind tales of violence, terror and savagery. The executions of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff helped to rapidly turn public opinion on the matter, compelling an otherwise insouciant administration to act.
For Obama, the composition of the regional alliance against ISIS was key. The president rightly believed it important to foster regional buy-in and include Arab allies in the campaign. As Slate foreign policy writer Fred Kaplan put it, “To have Muslim nations, especially Sunni nations, battling against ISIS helps discredit its rationale for existence.”
Kaplan’s observation isn’t wrong, but it is a demonstration of just how limited the U.S.’s options remain.
While a bloc including Sunni Arab regimes certainly provides the U.S. with a kind of PR cover -- in addition to essential tactical support in its bombing campaign -- it also means more military aid and hardware for monarchs, sheiks and strongmen in the Mideast and North Africa. It means additional arms for monarchies in Jordan and Bahrain, as well as Apache helicopters and fighter jets for the military junta in Egypt. Ostensibly intended to help the U.S. fend off terrorism in the Mideast, this aid will also undoubtedly be used by these regimes to suppress their own restive populations.
Consider, for example, the audacity of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Perhaps the finest example of everything that has gone awry with the U.S.-Arab client state relationship, Sisi minces few words while extending his hand out for the American dole.
In a recent interview on CBS This Morning, the Egyptian president made it clear to co-anchor Charlie Rose precisely what Egypt would require from the United States in exchange for its involvement in the fight against ISIS. When pressed by Rose on Washington’s desire for Egyptian air support, Sisi replied “Give us the Apaches and F-16s you have been suspending for over a year and a half now.” He went on to stress the “symbolic” importance of Egypt’s role in the coalition against ISIS, but rebuffed Rose’s queries on any direct role for Egypt in airstrikes.
Sisi’s ambiguity on the matter was deliberate. While Egypt would no doubt put helicopters and fighter jets to good use against Islamist insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, such hardware also makes for excellent tools of intimidation against any would-be protesters.
Then there’s the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. With few natural resources and little industry to speak of, the one commodity Jordan’s hereditary monarchy can offer the U.S. is its pledge to serve as a (mostly) secular bulwark against the tide of Islamic radicalism in the region.
Indeed, Jordan’s King Abdullah II recently reaffirmed the kingdom’s commitment to the war on terrorism -- but with an added caveat. “[The rise of the Islamic State] could have been prevented if the international community worked harder together to make sure funding and support to the original groups in Syria were not allowed to get to the extent that they were,” said Abdullah during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes.