The Establishment and Realist foreign policy communities in the United States often seem separated by language which leads them to talk past each other. When a realist or Libertarian talks about non-intervention or restraint in foreign policy, as Ron Paul did in 2008 and 2012, the Establishment response is to denounce isolationism. As Dr. Paul noted during his campaigns, non-interventionism and isolationism have nothing to do with each other as a country that does not meddle in the affairs of others can nevertheless be accessible and open in dealing with other nations in many other ways. Non-interventionists are fond of quoting George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he recommended that “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible… Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest.” Establishment pundits tend to dismiss that “little political connection” bit, preferring instead to warn how detachment from foreign politics might lead to the rise of a new Adolph Hitler.
I was reminded of the language barrier while reading the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force report, which appeared on November 30th. The report, which promises a new “Compact for the Middle East” while also asserting that “isolationism is a dangerous delusion,” might be regarded as a quintessential document laying out the Establishment position on what should be done in the region. It is ostensibly the product of two co-chairs, Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, but it is also credited to an Executive Team headed by Executive Director Stephen Grand and Deputy Executive Director Jessica Ashooh, who in all probability were responsible for the actual drafting and editing.
The report also appears to have numerous high profile advisers who might or might not have had some hand in the final product. Running through the list of associates in the project which appears at the end of the report, one notes immediately that there is no individual or group identified that would contest the notion that the U.S. must have a leadership role in the Middle East. Indeed, many of those named derive considerable status from being part or supportive of America’s engagement in the region.
I would unambiguously describe Albright and Hadley as interventionists, a label that they might object to. Albright was Bill Clinton’s aggressive Secretary of State who is famous for her endorsement of American exceptionalism, stating that “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future…” She also is notorious for her approval of sanctions on Iraq that might have killed 500,000 children as “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it” and she also once asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
Stephen Hadley was the hawkish National Security Advisor under George W. Bush. He was one of the most outspoken advocates of military action against Iraq. During the essentially phony Syrian chemical weapons crisis in September 2013, he appeared on the media advocating attacking Syria with missiles. At the time, he was on the board at Raytheon and owned 11,477 shares of stock, which some considered to be a conflict of interest.
Albright and Hadley clearly were selected as co-Chairs to make the report bipartisan, an imperative for the Atlantic Council, which prides itself on being non-political, describing itself in its website as “a nonpartisan organization that promotes constructive U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community.” That self-definition suggests active engagement by the United States that goes well beyond George Washington’s advice. And if you look at the list of the Council’s executives and review their writings you will be able to confirm that they are pretty much inside the Beltway status quo in terms of supporting an assertive U.S. role in world affairs.
Albright and Hadley brought with them a certain point of view which was certainly recognized by the initiators of the project and one might assume that the Atlantic Council pretty much knew what the report would endorse even before it was written. The report, which runs to 105 pages, explores what it describes as a new strategic vision for the Middle East that will “change the political trajectory of the region.” It goes something like this: the states in the region must work together to create a “positive vision for their societies” to include “unlock[ing] the region’s rich, but largely untapped, human capital – especially the underutilized talents of youth and women.” Meanwhile, outside forces like the United States would have the responsibility of taking the lead to wind down the “violent conflicts” that have rocked the region. That means that the local governments will be responsible for haggling their way to some kind of acceptable modus vivendi while the U.S. must become more deeply involved militarily and using intelligence resources to stabilize Syria, Yemen and Libya.
In the case of Syria, which is the focus of the report, the argument is made that Bashar al-Assad’s reactionary regime is the root cause of the violence that has cost more than 200,000 lives and dislocated at least a third of the country’s population. This assessment is not necessarily universally accepted since 80% of the Syrian population lives in areas controlled by the government, which is about to increase its dominance by taking all of Aleppo, and there are no reports of civilians fleeing en masse to the greater freedom afforded by the rebel held areas, rather the reverse being true.
The report recommends using the U.S. military to establish safe areas in Syria to protect civilian populations, to include no-fly zones, which would bring about direct contact with the air forces of both Damascus and Moscow. It explicitly calls for direct military action against Syrian government forces including the employment of “air power, stand-off weapons, covert measures and enhanced support for opposition forces to break the current siege of Aleppo and frustrate Assad’s attempts to consolidate control over western Syria’s population centers.”
This judgment has been overtaken by events, but the co-authors do not really discuss what such an intervention would mean as it would involve the United States in an actual war based on executive fiat without any declaration from Congress. It also ignores reality on the ground, to include some politico-military reliance on the mythical moderate rebels while choosing not to recognize that the U.S. military is the intruder in Syria which, like it or not, has a legitimate government and a legal ally in Russia. The possibility of a second war with Russia is largely ignored in the report though there is an assumption that military pressure from the U.S. would push Damascus and Moscow towards a “political settlement” of the conflict after Russia becomes convinced through the assertion of American military power that “defeat, or stalemate, not victory, are the only realistic military outcomes.”
The report was initially intended to serve as a bipartisan rebuke to the current Barack Obama policy which limits direct American involvement in the conflict. Written before the presidential election, the co-authors could not have anticipated a Donald Trump victory, but they might be hoping that the report would serve as a guideline for the new administration. Hopefully they will be wrong in that expectation, but it is difficult at this point to see where the next White House will be going with its Middle Eastern policy.
There are a number of things wrong with the report from my perspective. Most significant, it assigns to the United States the responsibility to set and enforce standards of governance in parts of the world where the American people have little in the way of actual interests. The report refers to this oversight role as part of “enabling American global military operations,” an odd objective and also a point at which the language and perceptual problems come in – I am hearing intervention, which has been a failed policy since 2001, where Albright and Hadley construe a humanitarian mission based on American interests. They also have difficulty in conceptualizing that what they describe as the “debilitating cycle of conflict” in the Middle East might actually have been caused in large part by Washington’s involvement in that region, starting with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Second, the authors assume that the countries in the region, all of which have disparate interests, will act in good faith to support the “unlocking of the region’s human potential,” as the report enthuses, as part of its “positive vision.” It sounds good and probably is pleasing to globalists, but I would be skeptical of any kumbaya moments that require bringing together players like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey into one harmonic movement to better everyone in the region. Such pie in the sky is not even close to credible.
Third, when the report was issued Stephen Hadley told Reuters that “It may not work. But one of the things we know is that what’s going on now isn’t working.” No, it isn’t, but that might be based on a faulty assessment of the nature of the conflict. And this is thin gruel indeed to use as justification for going to war against Syria and possibly Russia.
One of the report’s obvious weaknesses derives from its Establishment-centric worldview. It calls for building stronger political institutions among the Palestinians in order to achieve a two-state solution without any serious examination of what the Israeli occupation is doing or not doing to impede any real movement in that direction. It treats Iran as an enemy of the “positive vision” that is “interfering” with its neighbors with the U.S. willing to “deter and contain Iran’s hegemonic activity,” making any real progress towards regional rapprochement unlikely. It sees a liberal democratic solution to all ills and judges multifaceted regional conflicts in purely “us against them” terms, favoring its “friends and allies” against the numerous other forces that are not on the same page.
The Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force Final Report argues that a transformation of the entire region, starting with establishment of security by replacing al-Assad and defeating ISIS, is both desirable and attainable. And it is an enterprise that has to be left to local players for the necessary social and political constructs with the U.S. providing leadership and direction, particularly when it comes to repressing “violent conflicts.” It is a utopian vision of what might be but one has to be concerned that the simplistic application of military force as a remedy for the regional cycle of violence ignores the probability that the reliance on such a solution in the first place has been a key element in the evolution of the current instability. That Syria will be fixed by coming in with force majeure on the side of what is being promoted as a progressive and humanitarian alternative to Bashar al-Assad borders on the ridiculous, but it is characteristic of the default position that many in Washington adopt when considering how to solve the problems in the Middle East.