Middle East Continues to Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy, but Our Strategy in Region Remains Largely Unclear

by PSA Staff | April 27th, 2015 | |Subscribe

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and current Advisory Board Co-Chair to the Partnership for a Secure America. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. The article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Middle East Continues to Dominate U.S. Foreign Policy, but Our Strategy in Region Remains Largely Unclear

Like every U.S. president of the last half-century, I find it nearly impossible to avoid focusing most of my foreign policy attention on the continuingly chaotic and confusing region of the world that is the Middle East.

I have now spent five decades working on foreign policy in government, and I’m still struggling to make sense of the Middle East. It’s an extremely turbulent area, where tensions flare up regularly. Its economic growth has been tepid at best, and its overall governance is feeble. The region is currently flooded with refugees. And city after city is fraught with danger, destruction and devastation.

Today, it has become even more difficult to sort out the competing players, conflicting visions and challenges in the Middle East. And it’s almost impossible for the world’s leaders to agree on much of anything that might improve the region’s current instability, the culmination of decades of terrible governance, economic stagnation and brutal dictatorial crackdowns on individual rights and freedoms.

Trouble exists almost everywhere you turn. While dictators have been recently driven from power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Tunisia, what has ultimately followed in those countries has resulted in very little democracy and a whole lot of dysfunction.

Iraq, Syria and Yemen remain mired in civil wars. A dozen years after the start of the war in Iraq, which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein, the country is coming apart. (According to the United Nations, at least 2.7 million people have been displaced from Iraq since the beginning of 2014.) Meanwhile, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has seized upon the chaos to capture large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Ten nations have intervened in Yemen alone.

Underlying these conflicts is the centuries-old split between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam. Iran, a Shiite stronghold, continues to spread its influence across the region, even as Sunni-led Saudi Arabia seeks to counter that country’s advances. Saudi Arabia is also part of a new Arab League effort to form a joint defense force to fight extremist threats, including ISIL, and to reduce their dependency on U.S. military intervention.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which for many years defined the Middle East, has faded in visibility, but principally because so many other high-profile conflicts have taken root in the region, including, among others, those between Sunni and Shiite, Islamists and Arab nationalists, Hamas and Israel, and Hamas and Fatah. There are deep divisions no matter where you look in Middle East and many different groups contending for power and influence.

This area has presented a massive foreign policy problem for the U.S. for decades, and navigating the chaos that engulfs the region has resulted in a confusing use of American power.

Recently, President Obama has faced enormous pressure to escalate the nation’s involvement in Iraq, where our democracy-building efforts have gone awry, and in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad clings to power amidst a now four-year-old armed uprising that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions of others who have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. U.S. policymakers and political analysts continue to debate whether to weaken or strengthen Assad, whom many blame for the rise of ISIL in Syria.

Currently, the groups that have brought turmoil and violence to these nations and others in the region don’t appear to pose an existential threat to the U.S, and it’s debatable whether they represent even a short-term strategic threat, but they can certainly become one if left unchecked.

Now well into his second term, Obama has essentially followed a policy of restraint in the region. He has been unwilling to engage in a massive ground effort and yet he has authorized numerous other combat maneuvers, including deploying special forces and launching airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Still, it’s clear he prefers negotiations over these and other military measures. I would characterize his overall approach to the region’s challenges as modest, cautious, incremental and situational.

Obama’s critics say he doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with the Middle East, a claim that may have merit. But what kind of strategy should he have? His critics call for an aggressive U.S. military in the region, but they don’t spell out what specifically they want the military to do. Furthermore, they fail to recognize that our military, a fighting force that is without equal in the world, has yet to solve the region’s problems. Recent history points to instances in which U.S. military intervention has worsened a situation, resulted in civilian backlash and unearthed other challenges far too difficult for our military alone to solve.

As we repeatedly rely heavily on the military to address our problems in the Middle East, we continue to under-rely on strategies centering on education, effective governance, humanitarian relief, citizen empowerment and refugee assistance. Airstrikes, drone attacks and elite special forces are key tools in the fight against extremist groups that seek to tear apart the region. But part of our policy should be to emphasize the best of what we can offer to the people of the Middle East, such as life, freedom, tolerance, reform, economic prosperity and dignity for all peoples.

Right now, we are missing an opportunity to help with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Using our extraordinary capabilities for that kind of purpose would hugely improve our image and reputation in the region.

We have a good story to tell. But we must first ask ourselves: What is our ultimate goal in the Middle East? What are we truly trying to achieve? To what extent can those goals be achieved by military power alone? How can we achieve effective governance? And, most importantly, what are we willing to spend in American lives and resources to achieve our objectives?

Our current policy seems to suggest a vital interest in every part of the region, but it stretches far beyond our ability to protect and advance those interests. This leads then to an even more fundamental question that we really need to ask: Can we even begin to solve the problems in the Middle East? I’ve come to the conclusion that we simply cannot solve these problems in the region. We can help, and should, but these countries essentially have to solve them by themselves.

The need is to reexamine what the clear, compelling U.S. vital interests are in the Arab World. These countries will have instability, violence and bad actors no matter what we do, and there’s no end in sight.

Obama and his recent predecessors have largely followed the same playbook in the Middle East: They’ve sought some middle ground where the U.S. can effect positive change. In doing so, they’ve found out just how dangerous, frustrating, time-consuming and resource-devouring this routinely upended region is.

To Win the War on Terror, We Must Win the War of Ideas

by PSA Staff | February 24th, 2015 | |Subscribe

Lee H. Hamilton is Professor of Practice, Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; Director, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999 and is a current Advisory board member for the Partnership for a Secure America. The article originally appeared in the Huffington Post

To Win the War on Terror, We Must Win the War of Ideas

What is ISIS?

This time a year ago, most Americans wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. Today, the Islamic State group dominates the news headlines through its terrorist actions across the Middle East and in European countries such as France and Denmark.

The sudden ascendancy of a group that, 12 months ago, had yet to pervade the nation’s subconscious offers a chilling reminder of just how rapidly threats to our national security can change. It also signals just how challenging it can be to develop a coherent, comprehensive and, most importantly, effective counterterrorism strategy that ensures the safety of Americans and stays a step ahead of those who wish to do us terrible harm.

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The Confusing State of the World

by PSA Staff | January 27th, 2014 | |Subscribe

Tara Sonenshine is former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, a former PSA Board of Directors member, and currently a distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. This article was originally published in the Washington Times

Pseudo-states and Strange Bedfellows Blur Borderlines

Were it not so deadly serious, it would be satirical. The United States is losing its sense of geospatial positioning. We may be one of the few “countries” left in the world — replaced by a series of pseudo-states, groups and strange bedfellows.

Imagine having to teach geography in 2014, let alone understand it. That spinning globe we used to use, with color-coded countries and bright borders, national flags and easy-to-pronounce places hardly seems useful. We may need a 2014 Guide to Groups within Countries.

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Situation in Syria: Why the U.S. Needs to Move Beyond Iraq

by PSA Staff | May 28th, 2013 | |Subscribe

Alyson Brozovich is an intern at PSA and a graduate of Whitman College where she received a Bachelor’s Degree in History.

Situation in Syria: Why the U.S. Needs to Move Beyond Iraq

Mark Twain said, “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.”  Senator Angus King (D-ME) reiterated this notion during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month on the situation in Syria.  Twain’s quote illuminates the core of the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved in Syria— the points of similarity between the current Syrian state and the Iraq War. Many aspects of the situation in Syria mimic Saddam Hussein’s Iraq— a minority ruled the majority, Iran’s interest in the nation’s future, and the menace of chemical weapons.  However, the Syrian conflict has the potential to destabilize its neighbors, posing a potential threat to broader U.S. national security interests in the region.  This distinction between the two situations delineates why Obama should recognize that Syria is only an echo—not a repeat—of Iraq.  In order to respond to the circumstances appropriately, the administration must get beyond the foreign policy missteps of the preceding presidency. (more…)

Ambassador Crocker Speaks on Middle East Issues After Leaving State Dept.

by Cordell Critchell | September 21st, 2012 | |Subscribe

Ambassador Crocker Speaks on Middle East Issues After Leaving State Dept.

On September 17, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, appearing in his first public event since his tour in Kabul. A small audience was given special insight into arguably the most experienced living U.S. Ambassador with assignments in the Middle East. Ambassador Crocker has served in Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and, most recently, Afghanistan.  Having returned to civilian life, Crocker often stated to the audience that he was now a “free” man.  As such, the audience was privileged to have this opportunity to hear from someone who has spent nearly 40 years abroad and could speak candidly and honestly about situations on the ground and the relationships between states in the region.

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A New Approach to Interventionism

by PSA Staff | January 17th, 2012 | |Subscribe

This article was written by two Fall 2011 Fellows in PSA’s Congressional Fellowship Program.  All CFP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Fellows that were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.

For the vast majority of Americans, watching the last American boot leave Iraqi soil is nothing short of good riddance. The numbers have become seared in Americans minds: Nearly nine years. Nearly a trillion dollars spent. Nearly 35,000 US soldiers wounded. Nearly 4,500 US soldiers dead.

The long-term effect of the Iraq War is pretty obvious—a national sentiment for retrenchment—a streak of isolationism that is being espoused by both sides of the political spectrum. It’s hard not to watch Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry warn against “military adventurism” without comparing him to his predecessor.

But despite the desire to go inward, the simple fact is that if there was any hope for the US to go on the sidelines, that’s changed forever with the onset of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has reminded the world of the danger of failed states. With long-time dictators losing power, militant Salafists (not solely Al Qaeda) are looking to fill the vacuum.

But the Arab Spring also comes with a new challenge—a new type of interventionism.

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A Different Goodbye

by Bryan Bearden | December 16th, 2011 | |Subscribe

Col Bryan Bearden, USAF, is an instructor of National Security, Joint Warfare and Leadership and Ethics at the Marine Corps War College.

A subdued but respectful ceremony marked the end of combat operations in Iraq.  A flag was rolled and encased, and speeches respectful of the fallen and hopeful for the future were made.  Signs of friendship between the two countries were left in the hearts of both peoples and policies are in place to continue non-military support to a continually developing democracy in Iraq.  A joyous America will see her military members return celebrating a job well done and remembering those who paid the ultimate price.

This is in stark contrast to the images scared into the American psyche of a helicopter rising from the roof of the embassy in Saigon in April of 1975, an event that most recognize as the end of a terrible chapter in America’s history.

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Drones Can’t Change War

by PSA Staff | September 28th, 2011 | |Subscribe

William S. Cohen, former Secretary of Defense under Clinton and PSA Advisory Board member, recently wrote an opinion article in Politico discussing the use of drones in modern warfare. Cohen has always supported bipartisan action on issues of national security and as a member of Congress (R-Maine) took a nonpartisan stance on security policy. Since leaving the pentagon, Cohen has penned numerous articles and books and even appeared on the Daily Show. In his most recent article, Cohen focuses on the critical role drones have played in Afghanistan and their place at the center of counter-insurgency vs. counter-terrorism debate.

Among the many issues that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta must ponder in the coming months will likely be whether to recommend shifting U.S. strategy in Afghanistan from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism.

Some critics argue that our current policy of deploying large numbers of ground troops puts more of our men and women at risk for questionable gain and even encourages more Afghans to join the Taliban, fighting against what they claim is an invasion force. Yet the recent gains in clearing out Taliban strongholds and helping to build schools, medical facilities and other civic institutions argue, instead, for staying the course for several more years.

National Security Reform: Mission Managers and Solving the Authority Problem

by Taylor Jo Isenberg | February 9th, 2011 | |Subscribe

“Virtually all serious observers of national security affairs now recognize the current structure of the national security system militates against unified problem-solving when the problem is a multiagency issue. The question is what to do about it.”

Counter-proliferation, counterinsurgency, food security, energy policy – all examples of complex and multifaceted issues that increasingly dominate America’s security priorities and starkly highlight the chronic limitations of the U.S. national security structure. The Project on National Security Reform and others stress the critical need for a Goldwater-Nichols Act of national security to take on the colossal and outdated bureaucracy built around the security challenges of the post WWII period. (more…)

The Military Meltdown Just Keeps Going and Going and Going

by David Isenberg | October 3rd, 2010 | |Subscribe

Can you hear that grinding noise? That’s the sound of an overused, overextended military breaking down.  We seem to spend a lot of our time deliberately avoiding our gaze from obvious trouble signs. But for those who care to observe reality the warning signs are plentiful.

Consider just a few news reports in the past week.

New York Times
September 30, 2010

Four Suicides In A Week Take A Toll On Fort Hood

By James C. McKinley Jr.

HOUSTON — Four veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan died this week from what appeared to be self-inflicted gunshot wounds atFort Hood in central Texas, raising the toll of soldiers who died here at their own hands to a record level and alarming Army commanders.

So far this year, Army officials have confirmed that 14 soldiers at Fort Hood have committed suicide. Six others are believed to have taken their own lives but a final determination has yet to be made. The highest number of suicides at Fort Hood occurred in 2008, when 14 soldiers killed themselves, said Christopher Haug, a military spokesman.

About 46,000 to 50,000 active officers and soldiers work at the base at any given time, making this year’s suicide rate about four times the national average, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates at 11.5 deaths per 100,000 people. (more…)

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All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.