Conrad Black Headshot

The West's Latest Middle East Mess Up

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It is distressing to see the continuous, endless, floundering of the West and the international community in the Middle East, even after decades of mistaken policy.

A chronology of the last 35 years has Jimmy Carter throwing out the Shah "like a dead mouse" (to quote his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski), thus disposing of the most reliable ally the United States and the West have ever had in the Middle East, not excluding Israel, and the closest to a progressive government that Iran has had since Cyrus the Great, and its replacement by the demented theocracy of the Ayataollahs.

Washington then became somewhat cozy with Saddam Hussein, and the pacifistic Carter made no apparent effort to dissuade him from his wholly unprovoked attack on Iran, which resulted in the Iran-Iraq War of eight years, ending in stalemate, in which there were approximately one million casualties, half of them battle deaths, and two thirds of the casualties Iraqis.

Since the outbreak of the war came in the midst of the Tehran hostage crisis and geopolitical arithmetic commends the retention of friendly relations with at least one of the principal Persian Gulf states, the Reagan administration can be pardoned for maintaining civilized relations with Iraq. Less excusable was the farcical and embarrassing Iran-Contra affair, highlighted by Reagan's national security adviser going to Iran in disguise to present the Ayatollah Khomeini with a Bible.

It is not entirely clear what advice the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, gave Saddam on behalf of the first Bush administration about Saddam's designs on Kuwait, other than her notorious comment that the U.S. was neutral on intra-Arab disputes, and that her next and last posting was to a consulate in South Africa.

It shortly fell to the United States to lead the removal of Saddam from Kuwait. That operation was probably assisted by the fact that when Saddam seized Kuwait, the compromise-minded secretary of state, James Baker, was in Mongolia, and the Churchillian British leader Margaret Thatcher was holidaying in the United States and immediately told Bush: "George, don't wobble."

He didn't, the coalition assembly by Bush and Baker, and military preparation and execution by Defense secretary Cheney, Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell, and theatre commander Norman Schwarzkopf, were of the very highest competence. The Allies exceeded the previous all-time record for a ratio of casualties inflicted to received in a battle, established at nearby Gaugamela by Alexander the Great 2,322 years before.

Alexander killed about 45,000 Persians and captured about 300,000. In 1991 the Allies suffered 248 killed and about 500 wounded, compared to Iraq's 35,000 dead and 75,000 casualties, and hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Yet Saddam was left in place, allowed to masquerade to the credulous Arab masses as surviving David against the infidel Goliath, and the United States then had no relations with either major Persian Gulf power.

The following Clinton administration imposed embargoes on both India and Pakistan for what it represented as violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, thus extending the swath of South Asia with which the United States had no productive or even civilized diplomatic relations, from the Jordanian-Iraqi border over 4,000 miles to the Thai-Burmese (Myanmar) border.

This was a unique approach to maintaining a great power's interests in a massive slice of the Eurasian land mass. Pakistan and India had violated the Non-Proliferation treaty of 1970, but so previously had Israel and South Apartheid Africa, and in fact all the nuclear powers because the treaty pledged the founding nuclear club, the USA, USSR, U.K., France, and China to work toward world disarmament. Of course the objective was not even desirable, much less attainable, and no one paid any attention to it. But all of the nuclear powers, including Pakistan and South Africa, scrupulously avoided threatening or even momentarily publicly considering the use of their nuclear weapons other than in self-defense.

Clinton effectively ignored an escalating series of terrorist outrages, the bombings of the Khobar Towers Barracks in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the suicide attack on the destroyer U.S.S. Cole, inviting the coruscation of these atrocities in the infamies in New York and Washington in September, 2001.

George W. Bush led the world into Afghanistan, drove out the Taliban government and the al-Qaeda terrorist leadership (which it initially, mistakenly, thought was virtually singing from the same minaret as the Taliban government), and then decamped to Iraq to finish the leftover work of his father in disposing of Saddam. This left America' allies with an unclear mission statement and grossly insufficient forces in Afghanistan, where the condition of the country steadily deteriorated and the Taliban made ant-like inroads again.

The United States proclaimed the mission of promoting democracy everywhere in the world with the predictable destabilization of many of its allies, such as Egypt, the triumph of more militant enemies such as Hamas in Palestine, and in Iraq, the demobilization of Saddam's 400,000 troops and police, who while declared unemployed, retained their weapons and ordinance, which promptly turned the country into a long and deep-running bloodbath.

Iran, which had been momentarily respectful to America, became and remains more insolent than ever; six years were required to bring the Iraqi imbroglio under control, with total uncertainty over Iraq's long-term future, and the Obama administration was left with little practical option but to return in strength to Afghanistan to the rescue of America's forlorn allies and to try to shore up the beleaguered and incandescently corrupt pseudo-democratic regime in Kabul.

The younger Bush at least opened relations with India and signed a nuclear understanding with it, probably the administration's greatest foreign policy success apart from the assault on terrorism generally. Pakistan was quickly brought into the fold with large grants in military and other assistance, despite Pakistan's generous support and guidance of one of NATO's deadliest Afghan enemies, the Haqqani Taliban. The democratization policy did not prevent Obama from supporting the Ahmadinejad regime in its fraudulent re-election, over the democratic protests of the Iranian majority.

The United States, by failing to take any serious measures, under any of the presidents from Carter to Obama, to reduce oil imports, was effectively bankrolling the chief paymasters of the terrorists, and by doling out billions to Pakistan, was assisting in the killing of its own and allied troops, as well as the asylum of the 9/11 architect, Osama bin laden, (until Obama commendably had him executed in his night-clothes). Now Iran is in the latter stages of accomplishing nuclear military capability. And the Syrian Assad regime -- which Hillary Clinton hailed as one of reform but Obama has more recently commanded to be gone without doing anything to make this happen -- is routinely pouring live ammunition into the ranks of its own people.

Syria remains Iran's principal conduit into the Arab world, and link with the terrorist organizations Hamas (Palestine), and Hezbollah (Lebanon). Disposing of Assad would take no more than a flick of America's strategic finger, and would sever the hand of Iran in Arab affairs, but the Obama administration has no more will to do it than to prevent Iranian nuclear militarization.

Almost none of this has made any sense, and little of it conforms to the usual enlightened self-interested conduct of a Great Power. The U.S. should do the necessary to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and get rid of Assad and his sycophancy to Tehran. President Obama has apologized for President Eisenhower's support of the coup that restored the Shah of Iran in 1953, but apart from the diplomacy of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the area in 1973-1976, and Jimmy Carter's Camp David agreement in 1978, and the First Gulf War, this is almost all the U.S. has done in the Middle East (apart from joining Stalin in supporting the founding of the State of Israel), that has made any sense.

It is a very poor track record, and the United States will simply, eventually, have to do better than this.