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Works and Days

The Middle East Mess

August 24th, 2011 - 11:07 am

The UN and the Middle East

We never quite knew what we were doing in Libya, which explains almost half-a-year and thousands killed to rout Gadhafi. Early on, President Obama said we were only following the UN and Arab League mandates to enforce a no-fly-zone that would have little bearing on whether Gadhafi survived or perished. Once those limitations were realized, we unilaterally broadened our mission to include ground targeting, claiming UN legitimacy in going well beyond the UN accords. In Iraq, we obtained authorization from the U.S. Congress; in Libya we bypassed it in preference to the Arab League and the UN. In Iraq, France and Russia said no to UN sponsorship; in Libya, the UN said no to bombing ground targets and targeting the Gadhafi family, as we nodded, praised, and then ignored all that.

A Reset Middle East

In the Balkans and Iraq, the U.S. led and took on the responsibility for either victory or defeat. In Libya, we sorta/sorta not participated and so allowed a dictatorship of about 7 million people to withstand the three principle NATO powers for nearly six months. If the point was to “lead from behind” and force our allies to “do their fair share,” we did not really accomplish that goal, but instead exposed European weakness and the impotence of NATO. Moreover, we will probably learn that the majority of the costs and supplies (and perhaps even the missions) were U.S., but the impression remains that France and Britain took out Gadhafi. Early on the president assured the country that regime change was not our goal, only no-fly-zones and humanitarianism; at some unspoken point that was dropped and reality set in: you don’t get rid of Gadhafi by buzzing his airports—and NATO does not bomb Libya without trying to rid it of Gadhafi.

Postmortem

At some point things could get ugly in Libya and someone is responsible; if we led from behind in the bombing, do we lead from behind in ensuring there is not a Mogadishu-like chaos? Or is that a European problem? With thousands of shoulder-held missile launchers in Libya, the question is not academic or partisan.

Well, then, what to do?

The center of our Middle East policy should be to ensure vast oil revenues are not translated into subsidizing terrorism aimed at the U.S. and its allies, or used by crazed dictators to absorb other weaker nations to create some sort of Pan-Islamic caliphate or Pan-Arabic belligerent.

That would mean in a post-Saddam world thwarting Assad’s Syria and theocratic Iran, and to the extent we can, steering the third stage of some seven decades of postwar Middle East unrest away from Islamic fundamentalism toward constitutional government, while remaining a strong supporter of Israel. To accomplish those goals, a confident America would (a) have to get its financial house in order; (b) seek to limit blackmail by exploiting all of our own huge and growing fossil fuel reserves; (c) stop backbiting democratic Israel; (d) work where we can and when it is possible with petro-rich Sunni states to isolate Syria and Iran; (e) promote consensual government apart from Islamic republicanism—especially through far more vocal and stealthy support for the Syrian and Iranian protestors. (Suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is largely secular would not be part of the plan. Nor would apologizing for past American sins. Nor would publicly rebuking Israel. Nor would outreach to Iran and Syria.)

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