Foreign policy: The view from 30,000 feet

Foreign policy: The view from 30,000 feet

The White House’s insistence that they did not err in Somalia or Yemen and that their counter-terrorism strategy is solid has reached a point somewhere between laughable and incomprehensible.  The incomprehensibility broadens when you rise to the “30,000 foot” view of the Obama foreign policy, which appears to be a strategy unbowed by facts and lacking a cohesive set of tactics.  Strategy without tactical imperatives carries no more import than a conversation in the faculty lounge.

In Egypt, we supported Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood presidency.  That same Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badi, in 2010 called for Jihad against the United States.  Despite the wealth of information regarding the Brotherhood’s goals, ideology, and tactics, this was deemed by the Obama administration to be a step forward, even though the Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology was evident to anyone willing to think seriously.

To this day, members of the Brotherhood are entertained by the Obama administration.  Upon Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military and the ascendance of President al-Sisi, we undertook to punish the segment of Egyptian society most connected to American interests and most respected by the Egyptian people: the Egyptian military.  President al-Sisi’s contention that Islam must be reformed has had no impact on the Obama team’s thinking, nor has his courage moved the needle.

An observant Muslim, al-Sisi argues for a reformation of radical ideology within Islam, taking his argument to the very center of that ideology: al Azhar University, the seat of Sunni jurisprudence.  His efforts go begging as we continue to fund radicalized Islamists, including Hamas and the PLO’s military wing.  Al-Sisi clearly wants strong relations with America, and in recent interviews he has underscored the importance of American leadership.  He will, with the rest of us, have another 22 months to wait.

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In Syria, we now appear ready to engage the “must go; don’t cross the red line; oh, never mind” regime of Bashar al-Assad.  Assad has played a clever game of keeping the two primary regime opponents, al Nusrah and ISIS, at each other’s throats, as they have either defeated or consolidated the original moderate elements standing in opposition to al-Assad.   Assad now faces off with radical elements and provides the self-justification that he too is fighting “the terrorists.”

The situation appears to be evolving to the point where the administration’s best play is to support the formerly untouchable al-Assad.  The alternative is Syria governed by either the al Qaeda affiliate or ISIS.  Assad has gone from Hillary Clinton opining that he is a “reformer,” to untouchable, to the only guy it now makes sense to engage.   This is apparently what the Obama administration imagines to be a cohesive, forward thinking foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia, in a departure from their typical behavior, has gone public with criticism of the U.S., in terms of both Syria and the pending nuclear deal with Iran.  Saudi discontent is genuine, based on the fact that Obama has simply reeled from one crisis to another without any sense of cohesion.  The punctuation mark came as Saudi Arabia undertook military operations in Yemen without the advice or approval of the U.S.  The coalition that the U.S. could have put together is now being assembled by the Saudis.  The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and possibly Turkey will oppose the Iran-led coalition of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, “Palestine,” and Yemen.  What could possibly go wrong?

In Yemen we have been thrown out of town.  While it was not quite a “helicopter on the roof of the embassy in Saigon” moment, the result is essentially the same.  Josh Earnest tells us we’re still coordinating with the legitimate government which at the moment is out at sea somewhere.  Pass the sun screen.

Despite the violence and repression wrought by Jihadist forces; the Byzantine politics of the region; the rise of radical Islamic forces; a nuclear threat from Iran; failing relationships with the most significant players in the Middle East; and ISIS, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Syrian civil war, our most strident criticism is reserved for…wait for it…Israel!  The only country in the region that mirrors our democratic traditions and grants civil rights to all of its residents, Jew and Arab alike, is Israel – but it is they that are the bad guys, the problem.  Foreign policy and international relations should be constructed in the national interest, not in the interest of petulance and pay back.

Turkey has engaged in a decade long slide toward Islamist principles.  President Erdogan has been clear about where his politics is taking Turkey: “Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination.”  That destination is an Islamist state.  It worked in Iraq, it worked for Hamas and the PLO.

We should recall as well that Turkey refused to support the alliance during the first Gulf War, and similarly refuses to stem the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iran.  Turkey, once the only example of a Middle Eastern country that constrained Islam with democratic secular governance, has moved inexorably away from the secular, and in no way supports the overall goals of the Western alliance it remains a part of.

Next to Israel, the Kurds are, despite their disappointments with us, quality allies.  All they ask is that we allow them to fight stolen American ordnance and weapons with equivalent American ordnance and weapons.  They will take on ISIS for us, as they already have.  We are, unfortunately, again dysfunctional.  It is true the Kurds want more significance independence from the central Iraqi government than they have; who wouldn’t?  We apparently fear displeasure in a dysfunctional Baghdad more than we fear the onward march of ISIS.

Iraq is falling apart (if you believe that there still truly is an Iraq).  Iran has long been a power in southern Iraq and in Baghdad; they have now moved to the north to take on ISIS, in support of both Bashar al Assad and the Shia majority in Iraq.   The recognition is absent in Washington that Iran has been at war with us for over two decades; that missing recognition pollutes our ability to clearly judge our and Iran’s self-interests.

Libya saw its strongman removed over trumped up charges.  The tribal politics and conflicts so long kept under control by Gaddhafi are now in full bloom, with the added flavor of foreign fighters who see yet another possibility for safe haven based on a leadership void.

In Afghanistan, where we fought the “good war,” we appear to be willing to beg the Taliban to negotiate with us.  I may be missing something, but aren’t those the guys who helped motivate us to fight the “good war” to begin with, based on their refusal to give up bin Laden?  Nothing has changed with the Taliban except they have perhaps grown stronger.  Afghanistan will return to what it was before we got there: a medieval, repressive, Sharia-based safe haven for radicalism.  Exactly what Pakistan wants, as it allows them to concentrate on India to the East with no significant threat from a U.S.-controlled Afghanistan to the West.

Iran is by far the most significant threat to the region and beyond.   We are, to all appearances, on the verge of surrendering to Iranian demands in the current negotiations.  Sure, folks – Iran basically says – we buried our “peaceful” nuclear program 3,000 feet down under a mountain with over 2,000 centrifuges running material to 20% enrichment.  So what?

As exhausted as we may be with America’s policing role around the world and the lack of apparent appreciation for the effort, the alternatives are worse.  The current-day Middle East would be proof of that contention, as the declining role of America empowers radicalized and imperial behaviors.  Crimea and Ukraine are as important for the messages they send as for the geopolitical challenges they represent.   The message is that the U.S. is disengaged, and so fears the any harsh engagement that Putin, Khamenei, and their like are empowered to continually test the limits of American patience and will.

In their world it truly is a zero sum game, and our disengagements are, for them, a hand-delivered opportunity to expand influence without fear of reprisal or significant costs.  We have been tested – and we have failed.  The failure was foreshadowed by the reversal of our commitment to anti-missile technology in Poland and the Czech Republic, back in 2009.  The motivation for our reversal was little more than incessant Russian whining.  If whining is a winning strategy capable of altering American commitments and self-interest, why worry about the response to invasions?

Will bad behavior continue?  Of course it will.  For the past six years, there’s been no significant price to pay for foreign incursions, support of terrorism, genocide, pogroms against Christians, or an illegal nuclear program.  We are willing to negotiate with Iran and the Taliban, but we do so within the context of projected weakness and disengagement.   Oh, you may get a “strongly worded letter” or a twitter hash tag campaign, maybe even a presidential statement.  So far, those tactics do not appear to be striking fear into the hearts of those who oppose us.

Life teaches that when you are responsible for the management of large issues or groups of people, fear is a component.  While those relationships should not be based on fear, the absence of some degree of fear nearly guarantees a lack of serious accountability.  Fail to perform, ignore the rules, or demonstrate bad judgment, and you will face consequences.  That sense of fear is currently absent from American foreign policy, replaced with the continual desire for “engagement” undirected by a cohesive set of strategic imperatives.  22 months and counting…

D.E. Landreaux

D.E. Landreaux

D.E. Landreaux began writing political commentary to realize an irresistable urge to have a voice in the political process beyond the voting booth. He also blogs at