Too often in the United States, when responding to international crises, we equate “doing something” with “doing something military.” In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush gave a traumatized American public two options: either we go to war, or we let the terrorists get away with it. Faced with that choice, it’s hardly surprising that a vast majority of Americans supported war.
But when there are no military solutions—which is most of the time, including on September 12, 2001—the alternative is not nothing, but active, nonmilitary engagement. Diplomacy becomes even more important. President Obama has repeatedly said there is no military solution to the overlapping conflicts in Syria and Iraq. He’s right—but now he’s surrendered to an unholy alliance of neocon armchair warriors, liberal interventionists and pundits (some in the pay of military contractors who stand to benefit from more war; see Lee Fang on page 4), all whipped into hysteria by the media after the gruesome beheading of kidnapped journalists.
Aside from the call for more humanitarian aid, Obama’s strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State (IS) tilts strongly toward the military. Even worse, a major plank in that strategy—$500 million to train and support so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels—could actually help IS, since many rebels have sold it arms or abandoned them to IS in the face of the latter’s onslaught. The only militarily significant non-IS rebel forces in Syria now are extremist jihadis like the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front. As we go to press, members of Congress from both parties are raising objections to deeper involvement in the Syrian war, which Senator Dick Durbin called “a dog’s breakfast of violence and terrorism.”
Just as disturbing is the president’s evasion of his legal and constitutional responsibility to seek congressional approval for what he says will be yet another open-ended Middle East war—one that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, now admits may require US ground troops after all. Too many members of Congress, fearful of the electoral consequences of a vote, have joined him in that evasion by pushing to postpone debate until after the fall elections. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is proposing a smart resolution—echoing one passed overwhelmingly by the House in July—calling for debate and a vote on the “statutory authorization for any sustained United States combat role in Iraq or Syria.” The resolution points out the illegitimacy of White House claims that congressional war authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 can be applied to this conflict, and it sensibly calls for a comprehensive, multilateral approach to the crisis, with referral to the UN Security Council.
As Phyllis Bennis argues at TheNation.com, what’s missing from Obama’s approach is an explanation of why the current crisis demands a political solution, as well as the kind of diplomacy needed to get there. There are four key diplomatic steps Obama should take:
First, Washington must put serious effort into changing the sectarian political dynamics in Iraq. The new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, talks a good line about creating a more inclusive government, but Parliament—under pressure from Shiite militias—has rejected his nominees to run the defense and interior ministries. Those are the agencies responsible for most of the repression against Sunni Iraqis, including mass arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and the indiscriminate bombing of Sunni areas. Many Sunnis back the Islamic State, despite its extremism and violence, because they see it as the only force capable of challenging the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Without a wholesale change in that government, Sunnis will see a US bombing campaign as part of a sectarian alliance with Shiites and Kurds against the Sunnis.
Even though the United States gives a significant amount of aid to the Iraqi government, Washington has less influence in Baghdad these days than does Iran. This exposes another major flaw in Obama’s strategy: his refusal to acknowledge that close cooperation with Iran is crucial in the struggle against IS. Washington and Tehran must forge a partnership to press Abadi to form a more inclusive government. Although Iran is itself predominantly Shiite, Tehran is justifiably worried about the growing instability in its next-door neighbor, resulting from the years of Shiite sectarianism in Baghdad under Nuri al-Maliki. It is therefore a good time to broaden the US-Iran nuclear talks to include discussion of a “grand bargain” between the two that addresses all the regional crises.
Second, instead of a new coalition of the killing, President Obama should forge a coalition of the willing to use political, diplomatic and financial pressure to undermine the Islamic State’s power. Such a coalition would be far broader and far less fragile than a military alliance, since many regional governments have their own limitations on military action. Turkey, for example, knows that supporting US-led airstrikes could threaten the lives of several dozen diplomats and their families now held hostage by IS, but Ankara could take stronger steps to prevent rebel fighters from crossing into Syria from Turkish territory, and it should block the export of oil by IS across its border—now a major income stream for the terror group.
Washington will also have to push its allies among the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, to stop financing and arming the Syrian rebels and to do everything they can to block private donations in their kingdoms to IS and other extremist groups. (A September 13 report in The Hill might have made congressional support for arming and training the rebels more difficult. The magazine stated that “moderate Syrian rebels and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had reportedly struck a cease-fire deal…[and] agreed to a non-aggression pact in which they promised not to attack each other.” Even if that pact turns out to include only some of the dozens of rebel groups, it raises anew the specter of US arms ending up with the IS and US-trained fighters doing nothing to oppose IS.)
Third, in addition to increasing its humanitarian assistance, the Obama administration should restart serious international efforts, brokered by the United Nations, to end the war in Syria. Everyone involved must be at the table: the Syrian regime; civil society inside Syria, including nonviolent activists, women, young people and refugees; the various armed rebels; the Western-backed external opposition; and the regional and global players supporting all sides—the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and beyond. That could also give the administration a chance to partner with Russia on Syria policy, building on the successful joint effort over the past year to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. It could even help to lessen tensions with Russia over Ukraine.
Finally, an arms embargo on all sides should be on the long-term agenda. This obviously isn’t something that could happen right away. But discussion about why it’s necessary should begin tomorrow. The United States has no leverage and no legitimacy in pressing Moscow and Tehran to end their support for the Assad regime in Damascus as long as Washington and its regional allies arm and train anti-Assad rebels. The Gulf States have no reason to stop arming rebel factions as long as the United States ignores its own domestic requirements under the Leahy Law and the Arms Export Control Act to stop arms sales to known human rights violators in foreign militaries. A viable arms embargo will be enforced by all sides or none.
And once it’s on the agenda, an arms embargo can become a step toward another crucial goal too often dismissed as impossible: a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with no exceptions. Such a move would begin the process of inspecting and ultimately eliminating Israel’s powerful but unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. It would also confirm and enforce the nonmilitary nature of Iran’s nuclear power program, and it would end the propensity for WMD acquisition in too many countries in the region. This would be a fitting coda to a hard-fought and likely years-long diplomatic process.