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My comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East

October 4th, 2015

Four years ago, I put forward a comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East (reproduced in full over the fold). Looking back from 2015, I think it’s clear that it would have yielded better outcomes all round than the actual policy of the Obama Administration, or any alternative put forward in the US policy debate. Not only that, but it needs no updating in the light of events, and will (almost certainly) be just as appropriate in ten years’ time as it is now.

Feel free to agree or disagree.

Comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East

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  1. Ken_L
    October 4th, 2015 at 14:19 | #1

    John I don’t see anything over the fold except your heading ‘Comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East’. I don’t even see that at the link.

  2. Julie Thomas
    October 4th, 2015 at 14:30 | #2

    That’s the plan Ken, do nothing.

    If you read the comments on the 2011 post that JQ links to you will see this is the point.

  3. GrueBleen
    October 4th, 2015 at 14:44 | #3

    There’s always the “crater solution”, of course. You know, the one the USA tried out in Cambodia back a few decades ago – that worked a treat, even without drones.

    Then again, with a Middle East that contains a clandestine nuclear power with a heap of US armaments to provide a delivery service, maybe this is the modern day Crater Solution.

  4. J-D
    October 4th, 2015 at 15:04 | #4

    It would work even better as a comprehensive plan for Australian policy on the Middle East.

  5. Ken_L
    October 4th, 2015 at 17:32 | #5

    @Julie Thomas

    Thanks Julie, I must be even slower than usual today.

  6. James Wimberley
    October 4th, 2015 at 17:38 | #6

    One of the big side-benefits of a rapid switch to renewable energy is that it makes the Quiggin Plan much more realistic.

  7. Stockingrate
    October 4th, 2015 at 17:57 | #7

    One of the better outcomes would have been a more militarily powerful USA. Without the waste of many billions – and many physically and mentally smashed up Americans – the US economy would have been stronger, and economic strength is the foundation of military strength. Fewer enemies would have been another advantage to the USA.

  8. October 4th, 2015 at 18:08 | #8

    @James Wimberley
    “Buy a Tesla, save a doughboy.”

  9. Donald Oats
    October 4th, 2015 at 18:27 | #9

    Bit too wordy for our political class to comprehend 🙁

    The recent developments in Syria, with Russia running its own game within a game, make further engagement there very perilous indeed. Russia can avoid damaging ISIL, while hurting other anti-Assad fighters, which places the US and tics in a tight corner. No doubt some Ivy League types are thinking of the moves ahead, but our best move would be to exit, and to do so completely. If we want to help, we can increase the refugee intake from Syria, rather than picking a side in a three-sided (or more) fight.

  10. Ikonoclast
    October 4th, 2015 at 21:43 | #10

    Middle East involvement is the Tar-baby. The USA strangely is both Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit. As Br’er Fox it tricked itself as Br’er Rabbitt into fighting the Tar-baby. Question now is this. Is the US smart enough to throw itself into the Briar Patch? The Briar Patch is Isolationism. Born and bred in the Briar Patch! That’s where it thrived. That’s where it can escape these dilemmas.

  11. derrida derider
    October 4th, 2015 at 22:31 | #11

    Russia can avoid damaging ISIL, while hurting other anti-Assad fighters …</blockquote"

    We are being lied to again. Be very, very wary of anything our media says about the ME because our foreign policy establishment is feeding it pure bullshit at the fastest rate we've seen since the runup to the Iraq war.

    The only reason Russia would not want to hurt ISIL is that ISIL is just not as big a threat to Assad as some others – it's Syrian holdings are mainly in remote desert parts, not core cities. ALL of the anti-Assad forces that matter are factions of Sunni Islamism anyway. The west's client – the so-called Free Syrian Army – was always tiny and is now even tinier because most of them defected at the end of their CIA training & handed over those shiny new arms to al-Nusra – the people the Russians have aimed their bombs at so far. Those arms will, of course, supplement al-Nusra's abundant Saudi arms.

    Al-Nusra is of course the local branch of al-Qaeda; they object to ISIL mainly because they're the competition. The Russians object strongly to al-Nusra because al-Qaeda supports Islamist insurrection in Chechnya and Dagestan; ISIL chopped off American heads – hence the US bombing – while al-Qaeda chopped off Russian heads.

    Blaming the Russians here is not merely bullshit, it's hypocritical bullshit. Were I Putin I'd throw a few bombs at ISIL in passing just to highlight that hypocrisy. That said, the Russians would IMO do better, like us, by adopting John's plan. This is a situation not resolvable by anyone's air force.

  12. plaasmatron
    October 5th, 2015 at 05:11 | #12

    I have been asking myself what has changed that has allowed/motivated Russia to finally get involved directly in Syria. One thought is that Germany is reeling under the political impact of the refugee crisis. It dominates every news headline here and has done so for the last few weeks. Merkel is pushed into a corner, sqeezed between conservatives, neo-nazis and progessives. I pondered whether Germany has not given Russia tacit support to go in and try to break the deadlock in an attempt to stem the refugee flow. I can’t see any other event that would have suddenly enticed Russia to risk a direct confrontation with the US.

  13. nickj
    October 5th, 2015 at 07:26 | #13

    @plaasmatron

    the naval base?

  14. Troy Prideaux
    October 5th, 2015 at 08:22 | #14

    @plaasmatron
    More air (and ground) attack will surely only equate to more civilian displacement – the Germans know that. Surely it’s a pretty simple explanation – the Assad Regime has been a key strategic ally (and significant arms customer) of Russia for decades and the regime has called on Russia for assistance as it’s a war they appear to be losing.

  15. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 08:29 | #15

    I guess this means our host thinks the Iran deal is worse than nothing. I don’t agree.

  16. John Quiggin
    October 5th, 2015 at 09:20 | #16

    @Uncle Milton

    The Iran deal could have been done, better and faster, if the US had declared itself non-involved and willing to accept whatever outcome the parties agreed on.

  17. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 10:25 | #17

    @John Quiggin

    Maybe. But on the other hand, absent the US imprimatur, Netanyahu mightn’t have merely complained about the deal, he would have declared the deal an existential threat to Israel and bombed Iran pre-emptively.

  18. John Quiggin
    October 5th, 2015 at 11:28 | #18

    @Uncle Milton

    If you’re invoking the US relationship with Israel as a reason for involvement in ME politics, I think you’ve already lost the argument.

  19. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 12:00 | #19

    @John Quiggin

    I don’t agree. At times, the US acts as a restraining force on Israel. It’s all relative.

  20. tony lynch
    October 5th, 2015 at 12:56 | #20

    Wow. Brilliant!@Uncle Milton

  21. GrueBleen
    October 5th, 2015 at 14:24 | #21

    @plaasmatron
    Hmmm ” what has changed that has allowed/motivated Russia to finally get involved directly in Syria’ indeed, Plasmatron, what indeed.

    Perhaps it could be that the west totally ignored Putin and Russia when Vladimir indicated back in 2012 that Russia would work with the west to get Al Assad to depart ? As the Guardian put it “Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.”

    “Ahtisaari held talks with envoys from the five permanent members of the UN security council in February 2012. He said that during those discussions, the Russian ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, laid out a three-point plan, which included a proposal for Assad to cede power at some point after peace talks had started between the regime and the opposition. ”

    (see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/15/west-ignored-russian-offer-in-2012-to-have-syrias-assad-step-aside )

    What do you reckon ?

  22. October 5th, 2015 at 14:38 | #22

    Well Uncle Milty, I guess that sometimes four and a half thousand US war deaths, 32,000 casualties, perhaps 1,600 major amputations, a trillion dollars, and who knows how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths are a small price to pay for keeping Israel muzzled, otherwise who knows what chaos they may have wrought? And this is an under appreciated role the United States plays in keeping its allies under control. After all, just imagine how horrible it would have been if George Bush Senior hadn’t used the US 7th fleet to keep Chiang Kai-Shek in check: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2012/02/hoisted-from-the-archives-unleash-chiang-kai-shek.html

  23. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 14:57 | #23

    @Ronald Brak

    I think we can all agree that the Iraq war was a bad thing. But my argument was about the Iran deal.

  24. October 5th, 2015 at 15:07 | #24

    Syrian Elections Observers’ Report to the United Nations, 19 June 2014

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnFQd4wBXnk&w=480&h=360%5D

  25. October 5th, 2015 at 15:38 | #25

    @Uncle Milton
    Oh, I see. You wrote, “At times, the US acts as a restraining force on Israel. It’s all relative.” So I thought (1) you meant the US had acted as a restraining force in Israel more than once extending into the past, and (2) the US has restrained Israel more than it has emboldened it.

    But actually with regards to (1) you were actually only talking about one time – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Iran deal. I wasn’t aware of that due to your use of the word “times”.

    Am I correct about (2)?

  26. pablo
    October 5th, 2015 at 15:43 | #26

    Does anyone know if Israel offered any financial aid or safe passage to Syrian refugees? I am not aware of anything other than BAU across the Golan Heights barrier between the two countries but in the light of ‘breaking the stalemate’ suggest that it might have benefited
    both sides if some form of temporary relief occurred as with other neighbours, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The action would not have been lost on some, perhaps many West Bank Palestinians where we get the impression hatred runs deep. Even more so and with more justification in Gaza. There is always the memory of ‘ping pong diplomacy’ between the US and China to suggest this ‘what if’ gesture might have been worth a try.

  27. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 17:08 | #27

    @Ronald Brak

    Another time was during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, after Ronald Reagan rang Menachem Begin and told him to stop bombing West Beirut.

  28. October 5th, 2015 at 18:39 | #28

    @Uncle Milton
    So Uncle Milton, in your opinion, if the United States hadn’t kept the leash on Israel by staying involved in the Middle East on those two or possibly more occasisions, the United States of America would have suffered more than 4,500 millitary deaths, more than 32,000 casualties, more than perhaps 1.600 majore amputations, and there would have been more than hundreds of thousands of civillian deaths of some nationality? And so the United States was better off to stay involved in the Middle-East rather than do nothing? If so how would that happen? Would Israel surprise attack the United States in retaliation for it not being there to retrain them? That seems unlikely to me, but what do I know? I’m not very bright.

  29. John Turner
    October 5th, 2015 at 19:06 | #29

    I am with JQ on this one, but perhaps it is even more pertinent for Australia not to get involved.

    US policy is driven by a) the need for the military-industrial complex in the US to sell and develop armaments b) the present political imperative to pander to the powerful pro Israeli policy and c) the strategic objective (albeit one that is weakening) of ensuring continuing access to ME oil.

    Surely the best policy approach for the US would be to leave them to it and try to get some consensus to ban military sales to the region. We have no strategic interest in the ME apart from grain and beef sales and I can’t see these being adversley affected so it would certainly be the best policy for Australia to butt out.

  30. Uncle Milton
    October 5th, 2015 at 20:22 | #30

    @Ronald Brak

    My claim is much more modest. It is that the United States has some influence over Israel, which occasionally it exercises to stop the Israelis killing even more people than they do during their periodic forays into Lebanon and the West Bank.

    What the Americans get out of the relationship, other than arms sales, I have no idea. Occasionally one of them thinks this out loud, as once did the elder George Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker.

  31. October 5th, 2015 at 21:30 | #31

    Uncle Milty, are you arguing in favour of the proposition that the United States should stay engaged in the Middle-East? Or do you agree with John Quiggin? Or are you just somewhere inbetween and not too fussed either way?

  32. GrueBleen
    October 5th, 2015 at 23:51 | #32

    @derrida derider
    An interesting quote DD. Whence came it ?

    And does it explain exactly why “our foreign policy establishment” is feeding “pure bulls**t” to “our media”. Who exactly is “our media” ? And has theDept of Foreign Affairs become totally politicised ? Or are other “foreign policy” folks involved too, or instead ?

  33. Uncle Milton
    October 6th, 2015 at 08:57 | #33

    @Ronald Brak

    Let’s put it this way. I find the prospect of ISIS, Putin and Iran carving up the Middle East to be very unappealing. Who could stop them? Only the United States. Will they make things worse if they try? Quite possibly. I would also like Israel and the Palestinians to find a peaceful settlement. What is the only country that could push the Israelis into doing so? The United States. Do the Americans want to? Maybe, maybe not. There’s no reason to be hopeful about anything in the ME.

  34. October 6th, 2015 at 12:39 | #34

    So Uncle Milty, that would be you are in favour of the United States remaining engaged in the Middle-East then. Took a long time to work that out.

  35. October 6th, 2015 at 13:15 | #35

    Here’s a link to an article on The Drum posted yesterday about Saeed Fassaie’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-05/fassaie-how-i-freed-myself-from-the-demon-in-my-head/6828092

    I don’t know how many US citizens are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, but given the 32,000 injuries suffered and thousands of deaths, I suspect the number is quite large.

    It really was a massive human tragedy, even just looking at US losses and ignoring the much greater death toll among the people who were invaded. The cost was so high, the gain so negative.

  36. plaasmatron
    October 6th, 2015 at 17:44 | #36

    @Troy Prideaux

    I can see the reasons why Russia is involved. I can’t see what has changed that they now go in hard. The Russians are the masters of timing so I suspect the UN council meeting plays some role in explaining the decision. Look at their timing with the invasion of Georgia. One day before the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony the invade Abkhazia.

  37. October 8th, 2015 at 21:58 | #37

    So just to be clear on this, Uncle Milty, when you write, “I find the prospect of ISIS, Putin and Iran carving up the Middle East to be very unappealing”, you think the United States should stay engaged in the Middle-East to oppose ISIS which the US created, and to oppose Iran’s local hegemony which the US created by smashing the Iraqi state, and that Americans should waste lives and money in the Middle-East to prevent Putin’s Russia from wasting lives and money in the Middle-East? Because if so, I think the first two might only work if you have found the secret switch to flip that would magically change America’s Middle-East foreign policy from “incompetent” to “competent”. Otherwise they seem destined to continue in their long standing pattern of attempting to solve problems by creating new problems, as in the case of ISIS and Iran’s new regional superpower status. And the third point would really only make sense if the US valued Russian lives and treasure more highly than American lives and treasure, which I suppose is possible if they were really noble and self-sacrificing, but even so, it still might be a good idea to set a good example and abstain from Middle-East politics. Some relationships, no matter how close and supportive, still need a dose of tough love every now and then if they are set on a self-destructive course.

  38. Ikonoclast
    October 9th, 2015 at 09:00 | #38

    The USA needs to take some geostrategy lessons from China. China does not waste men and treasure on distant expeditionary war. China relies on internal development and incremental expansion while retaining a strategic interior lines posture.

    Meanwhile, the US breaks the first rule of all war. Have a clear objective. What is the USA’s clear objective in the Middle East? There is no clear and militarily winnable objective.

    To expand it a bit further. To wage offensive war there must be a clear objective that is militarily winnable and which will confer some lasting net benefit to the winner. One might also add that if this objective is achievable in any other manner than war must be eschewed as the last, worst and most costly option.

    What is the clear objective of the USA’s Middle East wars? I wish someone could explain it to me. If the objective is oil it is misconceived. The Middle East’s oil could have been continuously accessed via trade at a much cheaper price (meaning almost zero military expenditure in the area). If the objective is to combat terrorism then it has obviously backfired and created much more terrorism. If the objective is to contain Russia (and Iran) it is misconceived because Afghanistan and the M.E. in general naturally contain these countries anyway via the various expressions of overall demography and geography in the region. The peoples, mountains and deserts of the region create a “quagmire” for any superpower foolish enough to stick its foot in there.

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