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A Plea for a U.S. Middle East Policy

The Trump administration doesn’t have a plan for the Middle East.

George W. Bush had a plan. It was based on neo-conservative thinking: bring democracy to the countries that don’t have it and which pose a threat to the U.S. The idea was that democratic governments don’t start wars (except our democratic government). That theory led to the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The result was chaos. Barack Obama had a plan, which was to exit from a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible. That plan got sidetracked by the Arab Spring, which led to the decision to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. As a result of the chaos left behind in Libya and Iraq, plus the extension of the Arab Spring mentality to Syria, where the resistance to protests by Bashar al Assad led to a civil war, a new entity emerged: ISIS. When Obama left office, the U.S. Middle Eastern strategy appeared to be to continue to fight the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan—with no end in sight—to provide support to Iraqi troops fighting ISIS and to provide military support to rebels fighting Assad in Syria. Only George W. Bush had a coherent Middle Eastern plan and, because it was based upon a total misunderstanding of the Middle East, it destabilized the whole region, and led us into the mess in which we now find ourselves.

Donald Trump had a plan when he took office. He would let Russia and Syria play the major role in fighting ISIS, although he occasionally said he would “bomb the hell of out them.” For sure, we were not going to go down the road of involving ourselves in “regime change” in countries such as Syria.

Well, now we’ve taken direct military action against the Syrian regime in response to their alleged use of chemical weapons. We’ve threatened to mount more attacks if we feel that the way Assad is waging war does not meet our humanitarian standards. According to Nikki Haley, our Ambassador to the U.N., we also are aiming for a regime change in Syria.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says we’ll let the Syrians decide who should rule them.

U.S. Middle Eastern policy is, if anything, fluid. No matter which direction we seem to go, when things don’t work out, which is usually, we take a different tack. Donald Trump is no different than Obama and both are less consistent than the (misdirected) Bush. At least Obama was able to articulate what he was doing and why, at the time he was doing it. Trump does not appear to be able to do so, and his cabinet members and spokespeople seem to go in different, often incompatible directions.

The U.S. has shown a consistent misunderstanding of Middle Eastern politics and culture, so let’s have a Middle Eastern policy that is simply pragmatic. Do what will most likely secure our interests. With regard to ISIS, we don’t want them to occupy land and we don’t want them to continue to mount terror attacks. With regard to Syria, we don’t want Assad using chemical weapons or killing countless civilians and creating more refugees. Do we have other interests in the region? No one has articulated any. We first need to decide if we can do anything to secure our interests. If not, then just sit on the sidelines and watch. If so, then develop a strategy for achieving it.

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