The Republican Foreign-Policy Meltdown

Over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin vents frustration at the Republicans’ inability to advance and defend a coherent foreign-policy alternative to the Obama administration’s:

The reaction of some hawks on the right to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster suggests a refusal to recognize why Paul was so successful in garnering praise. They are seemingly unable to recognize the deeply held perception of many, if not most, of the American people that Iraq and Afghanistan were unsuccessful and that enthusiasm for the Arab Spring is misplaced. They have lost credibility with the American people and they need to both acknowledge that and strive to get it back.

Good for Ms. Rubin. But the retooling of Republican policy, if ever it occurs, will be painful, because our errors have deep and stubborn roots. Mitt Romney read the popular mood well enough to keep his mouth shut through the whole of the disastrous second debate on foreign policy, and to keep George W. Bush under wraps through the whole of the campaign. Apart from a general commitment to maintain American military strength, though, Romney advanced not a single new idea in foreign policy.

The problem is about to get much, much worse. Syria’s civil war has already spread to Iraq, as Al-Monitor reported March 10:

On March 5, Syrian militants reportedly affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked a convoy of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers near the Rabia border crossing in western Iraq. Forty-eight Syrians, mostly military, and nine Iraqi soldiers were killed. The Syrians had earlier received medical treatment in Iraq.

As Mushreq Abbas reported for Al-Monitor, the ambush at the border should not just be considered a  “military confrontation in the strictest sense of the word, but rather was an extension of the national turmoil on both sides of the border.”

The forces of Iraq’s Sunni Awakening, funded and armed by Gen. David Petraeus during the 2007-2008 surge, will be drawn into a regional Sunni-Shi’ite war that began in Syria but will extend to Iraq as well as Lebanon. I wrote in 2010 that “Petraeus’ ‘surge’ of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the ‘Sons of Iraq,’ or Sunni Awakening…Petraeus created a balance of power between Sunnis and Shi’ites by reconstructing the former’s fighting capacity, while persuading pro-Iranian militants to bide their time. To achieve this balance of power, though, he built up Sunni military power to the point that – for the first time in Iraq’s history – Sunnis and Shi’ites are capable of fighting a full-dress civil war with professional armed forces.”

The Sunni power incubated under Gen. Petraeus’ watch now sees in the Syrian civil war an opportunity to redraw national boundaries in the region. Again, from Al-Monitor:

The Syrian unrest in 2011 was enough to stimulate new ideas including changing the border. For the first time, religious calls emerged in support of redrawing the border to unify Sunni regions on both sides. In the meantime, fears increased among the Shiite authorities in Baghdad and southern Iraq, who were worried that Sunni areas in Iraq would transform into a stronghold for Syrian revolutionaries, or that Syria would transform into a stronghold for Iraqi Sunnis who oppose the Baghdad regime.

A trillion dollars and tens of thousands of casualties have turned Iraq into a sectarian powder-keg, with an Iran-allied central government supported by its Shi’ite majority confronting a well-organized and well-armed Sunni minority. No-one expected the spark to come from Syria. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, has nothing to say about that conflict. We do not want to let the heinous Assad regime continue to murder its own citizens, nor do we want to put advanced weapons in the hands of Sunni extremists who dominate the Syrian opposition, despite the best efforts of the West to foster a moderate government in exile.

Petraeus allowed the Republicans to claim a certain degree of success for the unpopular Iraq war. American conservatives idolized him. In 2010 he was speaker at the annual dinners of the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and Commentary magazine. Petraeus is gone, but the bill for his brilliance is just coming due.

Turkey has turned into a regional trouble-maker. As Halil Karaveli of Johns Hopkins SAIS warned in the New York Times on February 27th:

President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution….Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them.  Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria.

Washington’s embrace of Erdogan, though, began in the Bush administration. It was Bush who first invited Turkey’s Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erodogan to the White House, undermining Turkey’s secular parties. As Omer Taspinar of the Brookings Institution wrote at the time:

America’s advocacy of “moderate Islam” against the “radical Islam” in the Middle East worries Turkey the most. Turkey being portrayed as a model within the moderate Islam project has been conceived as a support for the moderate Islam in Turkey, thereby led to a clash between America’s approach and Turkey’s laic and Kemalist identity. Already alarmed over the landslide victory of Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republic’s laic reflexes have become overwhelmingly concerned with the “model” expression of the US, which allegedly promoted Turkey’s moderate Muslim identity. In the aftermath of his victory, Washington’s [December 2002] invitation to the AKP Chairman Tayyip Erdogan, who was not confirmed as a prime minister then, was perceived [by the Turkish intellectuals] as the weakening of the secular foundations of Ataturk’s republic by the United States.

The Bush administration and the mainstream Republican leadership went all in on the gamble that moderate Islam would bring democracy and stability to the Middle East, and turned the devious, erratic Turkish leader into its poster boy, with disastrous consequences. But the Republicans’ ideological commitment is so rigid that they have difficulty freeing themselves from the grip of what Charles Krauthammer inappropriately dubbed “democratic realism.” (In opposition to this, I proposed an Augustinian realism as the basis for U.S. foreign policy).

We Republicans now find ourselves painted into a corner. The public doesn’t trust us with guns. That’s why Rand Paul has gotten his fifteen minutes of fame (and if it turns out to be more than fifteen minutes, we are in trouble). It’s satisfying at one level to watch Rand Paul beat up Obama’s nominee for CIA director, but he represents a nasty brand of isolationism.

We nonetheless have to state the obvious: The only way to prevent Syria’s living hell from spreading to Iraq and Lebanon is to neutralize the main source of instability: Iran. Republicans should rally behind Gen. James Mattis, whom Obama fired as head of Central Command. Gen. Mattis told a Senate committee March 6 that sanctions aren’t working, and that Tehran “enriching uranium beyond any plausible peaceful purpose.” The United States should not only remove Iran’s nuclear program, but also destroy Revolutionary Guards bases and other conventional capability that the Tehran regime employs to destabilize its neighbors. And the U.S. should throw its full weight behind regime change. With Iran out of the picture, the local conflicts–horrific as they are–will remain local. I do not believe that either Egypt or Syria can be stabilized, but it is possible to limit the spread of their instability. The prospect of a prolonged Sunni-Shi’ite war in the region will be horrific past the imagining of most Americans. Secondary conflicts will erupt around it, including long-frustrated minorities like the Kurds, who have created a functioning de facto state in northern Iraq.

We Republicans have to cure ourselves of the illusion that we can engineer the happiness of other cultures with an inherent antipathy to Western-style democracy. Where the Muslim world is concerned, optimism is cowardice. And we have to persuade the American people that selective, limited military action against Iran will not draw the United States into a new land war.

If we fail, the world will change to our lasting disadvantage. For example: if Iran gets a deliverable nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia will ask Pakistan to deploy nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia as a deterrent. China has had a covert role in Pakistan’s nuclear program from the outset; if the United States fails to stop Iran’s nuclear program, China will have an urgent interest in a military presence in the Persian Gulf, and the means to accomplish it through nuclear proliferation. It is a nightmare scenario, but it is not improbable. We might as well tell the truth. To do that, we need to face up to it ourselves.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)