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America Needs a New Middle-East Playbook

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Every week there is new confirmation of what an insane idea it was to set about nation-building in the Middle East. The desire of the George W. Bush administration to promote democracy after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has always been understandable as an impulse, both from democracy's merits and for the reason espoused by the administration, that democracies are not aggressive war-making or terrorist states. But the latest figures from Iraq show that the numbers of people killed from terrorist actions in 2013 doubled to about 10,000 from 2012, still only a third of such deaths during the worst year in 2006, but a disturbing trend. It is apparently clear to whatever sensible people are left in the Iraqi government that the absence of foreign, and especially American, forces is the chief explanation for this increase and that the absence is due to the refusal of the Nouri al-Maliki government to grant a status-of-forces agreement to the United States and its allies. This assured that any incidents, and the indigenous forces certainly possessed the ability to generate such incidents, would be dealt with according to the caprices and inestimable motivations of the post-Saddam Iraqi judicial system. Obviously, no country in the world could accept such a preposterous assertion of unlimited vulnerability for its forces and an uptick of 5,000 murdered people, 14 per day, in the ensuing year, is the down-payment on the price of Maliki capitulating to Iranian pressures and mindless local sensibilities and pushing out the foreign forces there to help him.

The current picture of George W. Bush, discreetly at his ranch, painting pictures of cats, is an appealing one and does him great credit for not padding around the overpaid dinner circuit or slagging off his successor (who is nothing if not a tempting target). In this, Mr. Bush is following the highest traditions of his predecessors. No former president of the United States up to and including General Eisenhower and Messrs. Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, accepted one cent for after-dinner speaking, and except for Lyndon Johnson, none of them was a wealthy man on leaving office; Richard Nixon had a negative net worth and had to churn out books to create a modestly comfortable standard of living for himself. Gerald Ford left office with a net worth of scarcely $250,000 and he did speak for a fee occasionally. So has Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan would speak for a modest fee to be paid to his foundation, and George H.W. Bush has at least shown some restraint in the matter, but Bill Clinton gives essentially the same speech (very fluently) for an astonishing fee, with remarkable frequency. Again, he was in straitened financial circumstances when he retired as president, but for 12 years he has presented a spectacle of selling his great former office that is unedifying, and his successor's abstention from that is admirable. But I wonder if George W. Bush reflects, in his retirement and in his tasteful discretion, on what he got the world into with Iraq. No sane person regrets the passage of Saddam, and the Kurds and Shiites, 80 per cent of Iraq's population, are feasting on the Sunnis, as the Sunnis feasted on them throughout Saddam's time. But the United States has nothing to show for the thousands of dead and trillion dollars spent in the second Iraq War.

Mr. Bush certainly cannot be blamed for moving on Afghanistan to dispose of the Mullahs' government here and to chase Al Qaeda out of the country, but there will not be much to show for the trillion dollars and thousands of dead servicemen there either. His move to democratization helped to destabilize the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and elected Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and ultimately bore the unsought fruit of the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. President Obama purported to bring a refreshing note of realism to the area and did nothing to disapprove the brutally vitiated election in Iran. Bur when Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, the United States, including Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, rushed to defend the rights of the deposed leaders of the Brotherhood (which violently opposed the Egyptian-American alliance and the Camp David agreements with Israel, and which the Egyptian government has denounced as a terrorist organization). The pattern in much of the Muslim world is that only the army can defend whatever threadbare version of democracy may exist in most of these countries, and that often means overthrowing the ostensibly popular government, because the people often prefer dictatorship. The army overthrew Sukarno in Indonesia in 1966, intervened to prevent Islamist autocrats winning the Algerian elections in 1991, dispensed with the Muslim Brotherhood when it set out to write itself a new constitution last year, and are making ominous, though relatively subtle, noises in Turkey, where Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has been trying to appropriate more power to himself, having, as he thought, cowed the military which Kemal Ataturk left behind him when he died in 1938 to assure that the theocrats did not gain control. The army is not overtly threatening to overturn the government as it did twice in the 65 years between Ataturk and Erdogan, but it has certainly assisted in the publicization of scandalous allegations that have been very damaging to the government. These have set back Erdogan's march to ever-enhanced powers and an indefinitely extended incumbency.

Given the proportions of the recent fiasco of American policy in Syria, where the administration played footsie with President Assad, then rebuked him but declined to assist his enemies, then declared a red line had been crossed when Assad gassed his own people, then abdicated deployment of the armed forces to congressional approval, then blinked at legislative defeat and seized a life preserver spuriously proffered by the Russians, the recent terrorist acts in Russia may show the way forward. The Russians have their own problems with Muslim terrorists, especially in Chechnya. The threats to security at the upcoming winter Olympics at Sochi give the Obama administration the opportunity to promise complete cooperation with Russia as it navigates around the Near and Middle East. As long as Russia doesn't crush Georgia or aggravate the nuclear peril to Israel, the United States, since its own Middle Eastern policy has been such a failure since Camp David 35 years ago, could do worse than take a back seat to Russia -- the Kremlin seems to have learned from its defeat in Afghanistan. It's time for American foreign and security policy specialists to re-write whatever playbook they have been working from, because it has led the West into a cul-de-sac.

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