In the spring of 1956, the prominent U.S. columnist Joseph Alsop , who enjoyed wide access to world leaders around the globe, traveled through the Middle East on an extended reporting trip. He got numerous interviews with Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. He visited Saudi Arabia and dined at King Saud’s Jeddah palace. He visited Kuwait, which struck him as “little more than a vast oil well with a small town on top of it.” He fulfilled extensive reporting missions in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
After ten weeks, he returned to Washington and produced a series of columns on what he had seen in the region and how it had struck him. “The picture there is ominous,” he wrote. “Unless present trends can somehow be reversed the free world must eventually expect a Middle Eastern disaster on the approximate scale of the disastrous loss of China to the communists.”
As a Cold War hawk, Alsop’s deep concern was Soviet incursions in the region, fostered by Nasser’s anti-Western fervor. That’s a far cry from the West’s challenge there today, but the underlying passions and loathings of the region were not far different from those seen in our time. There was the same sense of impending chaos and the same sense of helplessness in the face of it.
Alsop’s reporting got widespread attention and praise. Time magazine wrote that his “dramatic flair as a reporter in foreign lands seizes surely on color, incident, history and personality to bring a situation crackling to life.” But Isaiah Berlin, the famed British intellectual, twitted his friend on what he saw as a gap in his reporting. He said if he were asked to devise a Middle East policy for Britain or America based on Alsop’s columns, he couldn’t do it. “What policy do you advocate?”
Berlin was right. But what Alsop had in mind was a policy course involving stealth. As he wrote to another friend, “The key moves in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere would have to take the form of covert operations.” The idea of sending troops into that roiling region or resorting to the tools of military might was simply not tenable.
It’s still not tenable. President Obama deserves credit for recognizing that the Islamist movement calling itself the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) represents a serious threat to the region and to global stability. It is highly motivated, unified under a central command and driven by a coherent and powerful strategy. Its aim is to destroy the states of the Arab East—artificially concocted by the West a century ago, in its view—and employ their resources to attack all nations that impinge upon Islam, including the United States, the European states, Russia and China. Further, global oil prices are established in the Persian Gulf, precisely the pivotal point that ISIS wants to dominate for power and profit.
Nevertheless, Obama’s approach to the threat—a bombing campaign headed by the United States—is destined to fail, even after it leads, as it inevitably will, to what he swears he won’t let happen—the introduction of U.S. ground forces into the region to counter the ISIS expansion. Obama has failed to heed the wisdom of the U.S. Middle East policy of the 1950s, as explored by Alsop and others at the time. He remains mired in the same thinking that started with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has generated growing chaos in the region ever since.
To understand why Obama will fail, notwithstanding the urgency of the mission, it helps to understand some fundamental realities of the region and its relationship with the West. These realities were explored with impressive acuity recently by the former U.S. Foreign Service officer and ambassador, Chas W. Freeman, in remarks to the 23rd Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference. Herewith are some penetrating observations from that speech.
First, ISIS represents a “deviant cult within Islam,” which means it is a problem that can be solved only within Islam. Civilizations don’t normally allow other civilizations to enter their territory to settle their internal struggles. And when they can’t prevent it, they certainly don’t like it. Freeman writes that Western-led military intervention is not just an inadequate response but a “preposterously counterproductive response.” The doctrines of ISIS cannot be credibly rebutted by non-Muslims. “Arab religious engagement and moral leadership are essential to contain and defeat” ISIS, writes Freeman.
When the United States takes the lead in such a fight, two problems emerge. One is that outside military intervention roils the sensibilities of millions of Muslims who recoil at the sight of their lands and people being destroyed by alien forces. That simply aids ISIS in its efforts to recruit new warriors to its cause. America’s drone warfare in the region, for example, writes Freeman, “has not decapitated anti-American terrorism so much as metastasized it.”