United States policies in the Middle East have occasionally enjoyed a unified sense of purpose among government agencies in Washington, D.C. and broad support among the American public. Those occasions have been rare, such as after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks when the U.S. used much military force in Afghanistan and Iraq. The situation today is remarkably disjointed, passive, and militant at the same time, characterized by intense military attacks in half a dozen countries alongside an almost absolute absence of a coherent and realistic political strategy to stop killing and work with regional and global powers to allow the Middle East to regain some normalcy.
U.S. policies across the entire Middle East—fighting terrorism, war in Syria and Iraq, Palestine-Israel, human rights in Egypt, relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—enjoy neither internal coherence within Washington and the political establishment, nor broad public support. To make things even worse, ignorance about conditions and militant political movements in the Middle East is so deep and wide in American society that even killers like Omar Mateen who attacked the nightclub in Orlando make wild statements of support for Islamist movements like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS or Daesh) while obviously knowing nothing about those movements or what they represent.
Washington’s senior officials, including incumbent and aspiring presidents, argue about what words to use to describe the enemy, or the threat, or whatever it is the United States is actually fighting, or should be afraid of. The argument is whether or not the president should speak about fighting “radical Islam,” or call the threat something else that describes the actual terrorists rather than tarnishing the entire Islamic faith.
Meanwhile, CIA director John Brennan told Congress Thursday that Islamic State (IS-Daesh) is still strong and a real threat to the world: “Unfortunately, despite all our progress against ISIL (another acronym for IS-Daesh) on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” he said.
In fact, he added, IS-Daesh is working to build an apparatus to direct and inspire attacks against foreign enemies, so the world should expect more terror attacks by organized groups or by violent and unstable individuals like Omar Mateen. To make things even more intense, leading republican Senator John McCain has accused President Barack Obama of being responsible for the Orlando massacre, because the president did not destroy IS-Daesh when it was just a small organization a few years ago.
This combination of ignorance, confusion, and wild emotionalism, as I have discovered again during a visit to the United States, permeates many dimensions of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and is likely to worsen in the months ahead during the presidential contest. Those in the United States and abroad, especially in the tortured Middle East, who ask for American decisive leadership on issues like the Syria wars and defeating IS-Daesh will continue to be disappointed.
Perhaps the most troubling development for the Obama administration was the news this week that 51 mid-level State Department officers working on Syria and the Middle East had sent an internal letter to the president asking him to use more direct military action to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, or at least force him and his allies to negotiate an end to the wars in Syria. When your own experts in your own foreign policy system openly challenge your policies as U.S. president, and intense and often extreme views from half a dozen other directions fill the public media and political sphere across the United States, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that this is more than just a routine policy disagreement; this is full-fledged incoherence at the level of global statecraft.
I am not one of those who asks the United States to step in and do something about Syria, because I do not believe Washington has primary responsibility for the troubles in Syria. At least a dozen other countries in the region and the world share the blame for this tragedy. For sure, decisive action by many parties four years ago could have spared Syria its troubles. Asking the United States to step in now and act forcefully is a form of global confusion and desperation that mirrors the prevailing perplexity in the U.S.
The only conclusion that I can draw from all this is that no country really cares about Syria or its people’s suffering, because none of the core strategic interests of any other country are really threatened. The existing threat from IS-Daesh will persist for some time, until the movement is defeated by a combination of existing military action, alongside political, and socio-economic reform moves in the Arab World that nobody has yet initiated or even seriously discussed.
Viewed from the Middle East, the short-term prognosis for a resolution of the wars in Syria is grim. Conditions in the United States only confirm this.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global