There Is No Good Answer in the Middle East

Writing about foreign policy in the Middle East is hard. The purpose of political writing is to create policy guideposts for leaders to follow, and to elucidate confusing policy and partisan knots for readers. Writers like us prove ourselves not only by our skill with words and our ability to provide moral clarity, but also by making accurate predictions and giving good advice. I pride myself on my predictive track record, both in terms of gauging the mood of the electorate and the likely actions of political leadership. And I feel that my advice, particularly to Democrats, has proven to be fairly sound over the years.

That’s why I try not to write much about foreign policy in the Middle East–mostly because I frankly have no idea what I would do if I were president, and while I can criticize some decisions I feel are obviously wrong (like invading Iraq or lobbing 60 tomahawk missiles at an empty airfield) I can’t say I know the right course of action, either morally or pragmatically.

I have a certain hierarchy of value goals when it comes to policy in the Middle East. Loosely speaking, they’re as follows:
1) I’m anti-imperialist but not necessarily anti-interventionist

2) I’m strongly pro-Kurd: there needs to be a Kurdistan not only because justice demands it, but because long-term peace in the region demands it.

3) I’m anti-Turkey for a lot of reasons: Erdogan, the refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, their mistreament of the Kurds, their quiet support of ISIS, etc. Yes, they’re a secular government compared to other Muslim-majority nations, but that’s cold comfort considering all the problems. We would deal somewhat more harshly with Turkey except for  fact that we enable Turkey in order to have a proxy state against Russia. That may be good realpolitik in terms of dealing with Russia, but it’s bad policy in the region.

4) I’m fiercely anti-fundamentalist, anti-islamist and pro women’s liberation. I see no distinction between belligerent gun-toting, homophobic, misogynistic theocrats at home or abroad, whether they be Christian or Muslim. It’s all the same disease.

5) I’m stridently against propping up dictators and regimes that sell the people’s oil wealth to Exxon. The CIA coup against Mossadegh in Iran–like so many of our actions in Central and South America–was one of the dumbest and most immoral blunders in the history of American foreign policy.

So where does that leave us? The Arab Spring generally showed that the alternative to strongman pro-western dictators is fundamentalist Islamists. Whatever hope there was for a secular, constitutionally liberal movement to take hold in any of these countries has basically been dashed. And the West can’t leave islamists in power because, Glenn Greenwald and his friends notwithstanding, they’re not only evil to their own people but they won’t actually leave us alone if we leave them alone. Blowback is certainly for real, but that doesn’t mean radical Islamists will cease attacks in the West if we pull out of the region entirely–any more than theocrats in red states will content themselves with banning abortion in their own enclaves should Roe v. Wade fall. Theocrats always seek to expand the Kingdom of God over decent people, by violence if necessary. It’s what they do.

What this means is that there really isn’t leadership in most Middle Eastern countries that a progressive westerner can easily tolerate. Bashar al-Assad is a muderous, child-gassing monster. He can’t stay. But he loses, the future of the country likely belongs to ISIS and Al-Qaeda offshoots. Al-Sisi in Egypt is a right bastard, but the alternative is apparently the Muslim Brotherhood. As soon as the House of Saud falls in Saudi Arabia, the crazy Wahhabis will run the show entirely. There are no good guys in Yemen. The same dynamic applies in many other countries, from Libya to Bahrain.

Everyone abuses the Kurds. I generally think we should hang Turkey out to dry and help the Kurds directly. That in turn would mean re-engaging with Russia more closely, but Putin’s recent actions and presence as the world’s greatest Bond villain make that a non-starter.

We need a two-state solution in Israel, a free Palestine and an end to settlements, but it’s hard to tell the Israelis to back down when the Palestinian government is literally a terrorist organization.

We definitely need to stop basing our foreign policy on what’s good for military contractors and oil companies, and work on actually empowering people and building liberal populist movements in those countries instead.

We should probably be doing far fewer airstrikes in various places (especially Yemen, where there seems to be little upside), but the dirty secret is that European powers are happy let us do it because it may decrease terrorist threats to NATO countries. But when we kill innocent civilians as collateral damage in our airstrikes, we not only create more terrorists with the blood on our hands, but our own anti-terrorism rhetoric rings quite hollow.

Meanwhile, even pacifist countries like Sweden are getting hit by ISIS radicals, just because they can. Because again, while imperialism is evil, they won’t actually leave us alone if we leave them alone.

I think that’s why Obama seemed so conflicted in his Middle East policy. There aren’t any good answers at all. Dropping bombs doesn’t help. Not dropping bombs doesn’t help. Engaging in the region doesn’t help. Disengaging from the region doesn’t help.

It’s a nightmare for policymakers–and for writers who pride ourselves on giving good advice. There’s none to give.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.