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.”
Another problem is that it relieves regional players of the responsibility for protecting themselves from ISIS and rising above ongoing petty squabbles and less pressing strategic aims. “U.S. policy,” writes Freeman, “should encourage the nations of the Middle East to develop effective political, economic, and military strategies to defend and advance their own interests, not rush to assume responsibility for doing this for them.” But, instead of facing a coherent Middle East counterforce, ISIS now is “blessed with an enemy divided into antagonistic and adamantly uncooperative coalitions.”
A second principle explored by Freeman centers on correctly identifying the enemy. He makes clear that ISIS is indeed such an enemy, as it is gathering the strength to destroy the vestiges of stability in the region. Without Muslim leadership and a strategic vision, he writes:
“the existing political geography of the Arab world…faces progressive erosion and ultimate collapse. States will be pulled down, to be succeeded by warlords, as is already happening in Iraq and Syria. Degenerate and perverted forms of Islam will threaten prevailing Sunni and Shi’a religious dispensations.”
On the other hand, Iran not only doesn’t pose such a threat, but views ISIS as an enemy. The same is true of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who has been attempting to fend off an insurgency, led largely by ISIS, bent on destroying his regime. But, while the Obama administration is working assiduously to reach an anti-nuclear arrangement with Iran, some within the United States are seeking to sabotage those talks so that tensions between the two nations will rise. And, while Obama has initiated bombing attacks against ISIS in Syria, he still identifies Assad as an enemy of America.
It’s as if Obama has come up with a punchy new catch phrase to synthesize an important element of his foreign policy: The enemy of my enemy is my enemy. It’s difficult to see how that could make much sense in any context.
Freeman believes the United States must begin working with nations within Islam that could emerge as civilizational leaders in the region, bringing together the countries truly at risk from the spread of ISIS and fostering actions designed to smooth over petty intra-civilizational squabbles. Iran, being a non-Arab nation, can’t play that role, though it can help considerably in the fight against ISIS. The potential leaders are Egypt and Turkey. “But both are problematical.”
Egypt is preoccupied with its internal struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian movement Hamas. Turkey is fixated on upending Assad and thwarting Kurdish factions contributing to its domestic terrorism challenges. And yet ISIS represents a threat to both, and the U.S. tendency to assume leadership in far-off regions merely allows those countries to ignore the true nature of the threat. That’s another reason for America to pursue policies that are “measured, limited, and calculated to avoid relieving regional players of the primary responsibility for protecting themselves.”
Could this kind of measured, limited and calculated approach succeed in turning the tide of ISIS in the region? There’s no way to answer that question short of adopting that approach on an experimental basis. But the current approach—applying a half-hearted bombing campaign under U.S. leadership—can’t work and probably will pull America into another quagmire. Perhaps it’s time to apply the wisdom of the 1950s and America’s Cold War strategy—a lighter footprint, more deftness, diplomatic finesse and stealthy action when necessary.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.