Belmont Club

The Once and Future Has-Been

Anyone watching the Middle East will have noticed that all roads lead to Qatar. Reuters reported that President Hamid Karzai, fresh from accusing the US of making a separate peace with the Taliban, made his own journey to the Gulf state in order to prepare to negotiate with … wait for it … the Taliban.

Then there was Moaz al-Khatib, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, who recently resigned his post in protest to ‘outside influence’ taking the seat formerly reserved for Assad at the Arab League, now meeting in Qatar. The Syrian opposition, whoever they may be, now represent Damascus to other Arab states. And they have asked NATO to defend their enclaves within Syria. “I have asked Mr. Kerry to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the subject,” he said.

Lebanon’s Daily Star reports that the center of the Middle East now seems to be Qatar. Of course Qatar is a shorthand that also includes Saudi Arabia.

DOHA, Qatar: Qatar’s emir looked over an assembly of Arab leaders Tuesday as both cordial host and impatient taskmaster. His welcoming remarks to kings, sheiks and presidents across the Arab world quickly shifted to Qatar’s priorities: Rallying greater support for Syrian rebels and helping Palestinians with efforts such as a newly proposed $1 billion fund to protect Jerusalem’s Arab heritage.

No one seemed surprised at the paternal tone or the latest big-money initiative. In a matter of just a few years, hyper-wealthy Qatar has increasingly staked out a leadership role once held by Egypt and helped redefine how Arab states measure influence and ambition.

The United States seems to have given up trying to lead events, appearing to be the tail to the KSA/Qatar kite. Reportage from the New York Times suggests that the CIA has been shipping arms to “insurgents” in the region for some time now. And they’ve given up trying to control who gets them.

In a new report detailing how the CIA helps Arab states buy and transfer arms for Syrian rebels, C. J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt of The New York Times reveal a major flaw in the West’s strategy to arm non-radical Syrian rebels.

A commander of Ahrar Al Sham — one of the largest Islamist militias in Syria — told the Times that the American intelligence officers vetting rebels to determine who should receive the weapons are doing a poor job.

“There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” the commander told the Times. …

Hardliners receiving the lion’s share of weapons isn’t a new problem. As far back as October Middle East and U.S. officials told the Times that most of the weapons being sent from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Syrian rebels were going to hard-line Islamic jihadists as opposed to secular-leaning rebels.

“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” one American official familiar with the situation told the New York Times.

Egypt, according to the Financial Times, will soon  become an economic ward of the Gulf states. And America appears to have no choice but meekly go along; chipping in whatever little money it has. “During his trip to Cairo this month John Kerry, secretary of state, warned that it was ‘paramount, essential, urgent that the Egyptian economy … gets back on its feet.'”

Did Kerry, drifting on the waves like the Flying Dutchman, originate that thought or did he just take his cue from the new masters of the region? Egypt needs a bailout. Financial Times writes,  “the time has come for serious consideration of how the US and its partners, particularly the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf, can support Egypt’s economy while also steering its politics on to a more consensual track. One idea is the establishment of an international support group, to which Gulf and European allies would make financial contributions.”

So it has been written, and if Egypt is worried about public opinion in America it isn’t showing. The New York Times reports that five anti-Islamist activists were ordered arrested by Morsi for criticizing the government on social media. “One of the five surrendered Tuesday and was released without bail. The others are still at large.”

In fact, Fox News reports that Islamic hard-liners turned a mosque in suburban Cairo into torture chamber for Christians. “‘[We] deeply regret what has happened and apologize to the people of Moqattam,’ mosque officials said in a statement, adding that “they had lost control over the mosque at the time.”

It’s beginning to look like President Obama actually meant what he said in using the phrase “leading from behind”. Washington is starting to act like the junior partner in the coalition. This has not gone unnoticed. The Washington Post writes, “a decade after Iraq invasion, America’s voice in Baghdad has gone from a boom to a whimper.”

With no troops on the ground to project force and little money to throw around, the United States has become an increasingly powerless stakeholder in the new Iraq. It has failed to substantively rein in what it sees as government abuses that have the potential to spark a new sectarian war. It also has had little success in persuading Baghdad to stop tacitly supporting Iran’s lethal aid to Damascus, an important accelerant in the neighboring conflict.

Maybe Kerry should go to Qatar. After all that’s where everybody else is. America’s new powerlessness is perceived by some as a choice.

“No one thinks America has influence now in Iraq,” Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, the most senior Sunni in the [Iraqi] coalition government, said in an interview. “America could still do a lot if they wanted to. But I think because Obama chose a line that he is taking care of interior matters rather than taking care of outside problems, that made America weak — at least in Iraq.”

Some American diplomats are hinting that weakness is part of a deep and clever plan that conservatives haven’t a hope of understanding. The Washington Post continues:

In some ways, two senior U.S. officials said, having a smaller mission in Baghdad, with no U.S. troops, has set the tone for a healthier relationship. They noted, for instance, that once American troops withdrew at the end of 2011, Shiite militias stopped lobbing rockets at the embassy.

“The smaller our presence, the more strategic our presence, the more effective we can be,” said another senior U.S. official involved in Iraq policy, adding that American officials routinely deliver tough messages to the Iraqi government in private.

That is to say if you’re insignificant enough everyone will ignore you.

But those who can’t buy into the ‘weak is strong’ line should consider what the new American passivity may mean. It implies that America must follow the lead of  the KSA and Qatar in the coming confrontation with Iran. By choosing weakness it has been forced to fall into the rear ranks of the Sunnis in the looming Sunni-Shia conflict.

Spiegel, interviewing Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, explores America’s withdrawal from the Middle East. Nasr’s main complaint is that it is withdrawing without anything to fill the vacuum of its departure. It can leave the region, Nasr says, because it believes it can do without Middle Eastern energy, simply by relying upon domestic petroleum breakthroughs it has done its level best to strangle in the cradle.

Nasr: We need to develop structures that would stand in place of the United States withdrawing. We did this in Europe after World War II. We have done it in Asia. But we have spent zero amount of effort in creating a regional political architecture that could potentially replace the role that we played in the region. We have told the Middle East very clearly that the United States no longer needs its energy, and thinks it can manage from a distance, like in a remote-control approach….

SPIEGEL: In your book, you say Obama’s foreign policy is controlled by a small group of loyal advisors in the White House. Even heavyweights like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or AfPak-Special Representative Richard Holbrooke had a hard time getting around this “Berlin Wall” of advisors, as you call it.

Nasr: Under Obama, it has been difficult for professional diplomats to make the case for engagement and diplomacy, whether it is on Syria or Iran or on Afghanistan, Pakistan, or on Egypt. The larger problem is that the administration has come to view disengagement from the Middle East and a minimalist foreign policy as a good foreign policy. You can justify this in the context of economic problems at home or a pivot to Asia, but the reality is that just when the Middle East is changing, we are adopting a minimalist foreign policy that basically equates doing less with effectiveness.

SPIEGEL: This approach seems to work for Obama. He was re-elected partly because his foreign policy is perceived as successful.

Nasr: But only because we associated successful foreign policy with doing less, winding down wars and not starting new ones. If you are not doing anything, you have fewer headaches and fewer failures as well. But in reality, that does not speak to America’s global leadership, nor does it really protect our vital interests down the road.

In a world where weakness is strength, relying on the KSA and Qatar to safeguard American interests indeed makes sense. Perhaps conservatives misunderstood Obama all along. He never lied; he told the truth all along. It’s a better world with a smaller America.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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