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America’s spiteful foreign policy Its plan for the Middle East has been corrupted by petulant party politics

Partisan politics could destroy the Middle East (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)

Partisan politics could destroy the Middle East (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)


July 26, 2021   5 mins

If you want to see what’s required to invade a foreign country, look no further than your garden: it contains everything you need to know about “grand strategy”.

Before planting a single bulb, you need time and patience to learn about the different types of terrain, shrubs and climates. Only after you have acquired that foundational knowledge can you decide what you wish to grow. But even then, it’s all too easy for the vagaries of the weather to wreak havoc on your plans, for you to lose faith and pull the plug. Yet failure isn’t guaranteed; with a bit of persistence, your original target could still be reached.

Consider the US government’s attitude towards Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty years since 9/11. It has invested so much in terms of lives, injuries, morale and money on its campaigns in the Middle East. At the same time, paradoxically, it has learned an extraordinary amount. More was achieved than met the eye. But just as green shoots were beginning to emerge, America gave up.

Joe Biden appears to be pivoting away from almost every key decision made by his predecessor, for no other reason than the fact that he was a Republican. US foreign policy, which should be a long-term strategic investment, is falling victim to the perennial inter-party struggle between the Republican and the Democratic Parties.

It was not always like this. In the late 1940s — a period now so remote that few living Americans can remember it — the US was starting to face the full extent of the Soviet threat. The new President, Harry Truman, took a far harder line towards Stalin than his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. But until the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, both Democrat and Republican administrations opposed communism.

Yes, fellow-travellers and spies still existed. But largely there was a remarkable degree of bipartisanship, and its importance should not be overstated. Across the world, every political leader knew that the US would continue to pursue a consistent foreign policy, no matter who was in the White House. If the Soviet Union intervened anywhere, the United States would seek to thwart its efforts.

Intellectually, too, this bipartisan support for the broad contours of US foreign policy made it easier for those abroad — friend as well as foe — to predict how America would act in a given situation. This helped reduce the chance of a catastrophic miscalculation. Certainly, some presidents were “tougher” on communism than others, but a new administration did not rip up a previous administration’s policies out of spite.

So when did it all go wrong?

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama set a precedent when he declared his intention to reverse the key foreign policy decisions of the George W. Bush Administration, promising “to remove US combat troops [from Iraq] within 16 months, leaving behind a residual force with limited responsibilities”. The effects of this withdrawal are well-documented — the most serious being the rise of Isis.

Eight years later, Donald Trump responded by resolving to do all he could to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — which was portrayed by top officials in the Obama Administration as their biggest diplomatic achievement. And four years after that, Joe Biden indicated he would reverse key foreign policy decisions of the Trump Administration, particularly with respect to Iran and Saudi-Arabia. The Biden Administration has also decided to not only pull out of Afghanistan — prioritising haste over competence — but also to resuscitate the Iranian JCPOA deal, despite unrelenting provocations by the Iranian regime.

Indeed, the end of bipartisanship was all but confirmed in May, when White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered a scathing verdict on the Trump Administration’s efforts in the Middle East: “Aside from putting forward a peace proposal that was dead on arrival,” she said, “we don’t think they did anything constructive, really, to bring an end to the long-standing conflict in the Middle East.”

In reality, last August’s Abraham Peace Accords represented an extraordinary step forward for the Middle East. The UAE and Bahrain recognised Israel’s right to exist, and with it the need for Arabs and Jews to join forces against the existential threat posed by Iran.

As for this summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it should be noted that the country was far from stable when it was handed over to the Biden administration — though it was certainly not so dire as to justify a hasty withdrawal of the remaining US troops. Indeed, far more concerning for America’s security is another development over the past decade, something rarely noted in the American media: that is, the discernible leadership change that has occurred within several countries of the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf States.

For a long time, America’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries centred around the question of oil — and the vast fortunes the West hoped to extract from it. But during this period, US diplomats had to negotiate with men who, after making assurances, would then go home and do nothing. Combined with a frequently oppressive treatment of women, and widespread anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda, the Arab status quo was more threatening to American interests than supportive of them. Later, when confronted with their financing of jihadist groups, these “diplomats” would deny any involvement, no matter how strong the evidence.

Today’s leaders in the Middle East are quite different, whether in the UAE, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. This is especially true when it comes to their key advisers, many of whom have been educated in Britain and America, and seek a future in which a more humanist, pluralistic Islam emerges to challenge the fundamentalists. Financing radical Islamist ideology abroad — to say nothing of jihad — is no longer on the agenda. Instead, the focus is on developing the framework of a modern economy.

But to do this, Middle Eastern governments are fighting a number of opposing power dynamics in their own societies, including jihadists, Wahhabis and traditional tribal interests. All of this takes time. Nevertheless, one can see that real change is happening, particularly in terms of the role of women.

All this and more is now being undone by the Biden administration — and the result will not be that Americans sleep more peacefully in our beds. Rather, if the jihadists regain control of Afghanistan, or if violence escalates in countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, neither Europe nor America will be spared the consequences. Any additional instability in the Middle East will produce an enormous refugee flow, as happened following the rise of Isis and the collapse of Libya following Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow.

How can this be avoided? Well, America’s eventual success in the Cold War surely proves that foreign policy needs to be a long-term effort. Strategy cannot be made on the campaign trail. If US policy is reversed every four or eight years, America is bound to lose — with the Chinese Communist Party being the main beneficiary. For in mixing elements of capitalist efficiency with authoritarianism, the CCP benefits from a long-term geopolitical outlook and strategy.

Beijing is already exploiting the power vacuum in Afghanistan, while in Pakistan Chinese influence has succeeded in pressuring the prime minister to downplay the horrific mistreatment of the Uighurs. In the Middle East, too, the CCP is wooing governments with the familiar offer of investment in infrastructure with no political strings attached.

Under such circumstances, what country in the world would decide in favour of a strategic alliance with the US? If every incoming American administration gleefully shreds the foreign policy of the Administration that preceded it, why would its strategic adversaries not exploit this vacillation to their advantage?

After forty long years, the consistency of Cold War containment ultimately brought victory. The subsequent inconsistency of America’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is having the opposite effect. And under Biden, that shows no sign of changing.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also the Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her Substack is called Restoration.

Ayaan

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Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago

Elides one key point, which is that Trump had already committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan. Just reading the above, you’d assume he was all for staying. Quite a serious omission that unfortunately undermines confidence in the rest.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Trump’s suggestion that the US might withdraw from Afghanistan was also knocked back by one senior military figure. Which begs the question: why has the US military changed policy on Afghanistan?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

Critical Theory is how you invade a foreign country. Its aim is to weaken, demoralize and suppress the potential of a generation of young people. If I was a hostile foreign power and I wanted to invade a country without lifting a finger, I would fund critical theory initiatives in order to corrode a society and crush any future collective resistance. Critical theory is the curriculum for a defeated nation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Julian Farrows
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I did like the gist of the article, sort of the ‘You Break It You Bought It’ realpolitik.

The problem is the above article covers a vast range of situations, and they each need different responses, and as the writer says, the Politicians are not up to that, and making it worse is the reversing policy every change in Party. I would like to discuss each situation, but it would just be TLDR.

So I just respond to “The new President, Harry Truman, took a far harder line towards Stalin than his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt.” Trueman gave us The ‘Trueman Doctrine’, and thus NATO (with Greece and Turkey), you could say FDR gave us Communist East Europe as it ended up.

Being a military history buff I would say FDR was up to no good with Stalin. It is just a personal Conspiracy theory of mine, But basically… FDR wanted Russia to take East Europe to break European Power. (As he also insisted on Europe decolonizing immediately, thus breaking much of the European economy, (and wrecking the Colonies unfortunately, as they were not ready to be self governing)) (I think FDR was sick of European wars, and wanted it to become the age of USA)

FDR resisted all the pleading from Churchill to invade Greece (Instead USA/French invaded Marseillaise in a completely pointless invasion (Operation Dragoon)) to put an Army up the Balkans, and into Southern East Europe, and so block Stalin from that direction. (and block German Oil) I also think FDR slowed Patton to allow the Russians to take more of East Germany and East Europe.

Both ‘Operation Market Garden’ and ‘Operation Dragoon’ are why I think this;
“The original idea of invading southern France had come in 1942 from Marshall”. “It was supported by Stalin at the Tehran Conference in late 1943. In discussions with FDR Stalin advocated for the operation as an inherent part of Overlord, preferring to have the Allies in the far west instead of at an alternative landing in the Balkans, which he considered to be in his zone of influence”
“Operation Dragoon was controversial from the time it was first proposed. The American military leadership and its British counterparts disagreed on the operation. Churchill argued against it on the grounds that it diverted military resources that were better deployed for Allied operation in Italy. Instead, he favored an invasion of the oil-producing regions of the Balkans. Churchill reasoned that by attacking the Balkans, the Allies could deny Germany petroleum, forestall the advance of the Red Army, and achieve a superior negotiating position in postwar Europe, all at a stroke”

Churchill wanted UK and Europe to remain supreme in the world, FDR decided it was time tor USA. Stalin was a tool used. (so I think)

But history – it is never what it seems, like today, the world is Nothing like it seems. (I am a conspiracy loon). I would be interested to hear if any think this is a invalid theory, because WWII gave us the modern world.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I was awaiting your take on Market Garden with interest


Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Really it was that Ike gave Monty the main body of military resources to invade the Low Countries, thus stalling Patton’s mechanized drive on Germany.

If Market Garden had worked it was supposed to allow major ports and bridges to be brought to use and speed up the whole war, but to gamble on that, the incredible drive Patton was making had to be curtailed in favor giving material to Monty. Churchill did favor this, but I feel this was a Nationalist decision as he wanted British to be at the head of the charge.

I guess it just seems to let what is working work, and not changing horses mid stream is more prudent. ‘Market Garden’ was one of those dreadfully complex affairs where all the various components had to all achieve their goals. The goal was to consolidate and supply for the final push rather than Patton just keep on pushing as the Germans were in disarray.

I also think Patton was twice the solider Monty was, Money being steady and methodical, Patton always believing once you get the enemy stumbling keep up the attack full bore so he cannot recover.

“Rick Atkinson wrote that while “one-fifth of the Netherlands had been liberated 
 the rest would endure another nine months of occupation”, which resulted in 16,000 civilian deaths. Atkinson stated that the terrain captured “led nowhere”, and that the operation failed to achieve its objectives due to “an an epic c**k-up [of] poor plan[ing] with deficient intelligence, haphazard execution, and indifferent generalship””(Market Garden)

“Patton’s troops beat Montgomery across the Rhine by one day. (despite Patton being sidelined for months) Patton celebrated the victory by stopping on a treadway bridge his men had built and relieving himself into the river.“The pause that refreshes”
.” The general told the troops around him. News of the crossing made it around the world. In Washington, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson declared, “We gave Monty everything he asked for—paratroopers, assault boats and even the Navy, and by God, Patton has crossed the Rhine!””

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The pottery barn rule was first used by Colin Powell. It sounded good and was pretty useful in getting liberals to go along with modern colonialism.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

“The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible Exit Strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?”

The last question was NO because the perfidious French and their German Bi* ch*s would not go along with the UN and all the rest of the free world, and so emboldened Saddam, and also the terrorists/warlords who stopped the nation recovering. (Paul Brenner lost the peace though, as surely as MacArthur in Japan won it.)
The doctrine says 100% of national resources should fight the war, never have a ‘Limited Action’ again. (And ROE must be totally on the American side, this is something the British have really bad times with, weak and soft ROE which make a mess of it (see Basra)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

“getting liberals to go along with modern colonialism.”

I think you fail to understand that concept.

David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Your “conspiracy theory” is very plausible. Insecure countries often need patrons and make good client states.
I often think that middle-east policy has been driven by this. The British and French hoped to control the middle-east post WW-1. What if the non-sensical Sykes-Picot borders were deliberately intended to create weak states lacking natural coherence and security? In a similar vein, it made no sense for Britain to cede control of the Golan (which dominates the Galilee) from the Palestine Mandate to the French Mandate of Syria in 1923, unless it was to reduce the security of any successor client state.
After WW-2, the USA was the predominant western power, filling the vacuum left by an exhausted Britain. Again, policy actions often made no sense, if the aim was to promote stability and security.
For example, in 1956, Dulles effectively indemnified Nasser for the consequences of his own bad behaviour, by forcing Israel, France and Britain to withdraw without any meaningful correction of Egypt. Britain and France were uncompensated for theft of the Suez Canal, and Israel had to repeat the exercise in 1967, when Nasser again blockaded the Straits of Tiran (through which all Israel’s petroleum imports had to pass).
In our day, does the State Department find a pushy Iran useful for keeping allies in line? Sunni Saudi Arabia is very afraid of Shia Iran’s ability to foment trouble amongst its Shia minority which happens to be concentrated in the oil producing region.
Can’t help feeling that “divide-and-rule” is policy doctrine.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Barnett
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

The Dulls Brothers left whole wakes of mess behind them – remember Mosaddegh, that was their action.

The 56 Suez thing backed by the Dulls led Nasser and the formation of ‘Pan Arabism’ and so all kinds of wild stuff.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

I think the PS Treaty was a way two war weary countries could bring order to a vast area which had been savagely run by a decaying Ottoman Empire for centuries and was under developed. The Ottoman Empire had prevented leaders developing apart from the Hashemites who had ruled Mecca and Medina. The most effective ruler was King Abdulla( Hashemite ) of Jordan, supported by Glubb Pasha.
What is ignored is that when the parties are exhausted and a decision has to be made before everything falls apart and civil war starts, the least worst option is the best.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

When the USA had to deal with communism it was easy: it was black or white. Now there is a plethora of competing strands of Islam, geopolitical ( Russia, China, EU, etc ) tribal, religious, racial, trade and linguistic conflicts which to understand one needs to become fluent in the languages and have managerial /leadership experience in that country; just teaching English as foreign language or bar work is not enough. Undertaking a degree in foreign relations is not the same as being an ICS Officer who spent 20 years on the Khyber Pass.
The only westerner involved in politics who has an inkling of the complexities is Rory Stewart MP but compared to an old ICS officer, his knowledge is minimal. What counts is when a westerner has personal knowledge of three generations of persons family. When a westerner is talking to someone from Asia and they know the grandparents, then they have aquired a depth of knowledge. In Asia, politics is about family ties. The Westerner needs a genuine interest in other peoples culture.
The problem we have today is that there are no Gertude Bell’s, Freya Stark T E Lawrence or Col Dickson and his wife Hajjiyah Dame Violet Dickson( lived in Kuwait for over 60 years and knew 3 generations of the ruling family ). Freya Stark knew more about the Iranian mind than the Obama Administration.
If one wants to be a good gardener, the first thing is to admit to what one does not know, and then seek advice from those who have a proven track record of getting it right.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
2 years ago

I would have thought the big lesson from Vietnam was not to keep fighting a loosing war, not to throw good money and lives after bad. Two decades in Afghanistan was enough. And we should drop the silly neocon notion that if only countries would be more democratic and treat women more equally then they would become good friends and allies. It’s not spiteful foreign policy, it’s just more realistic.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I think we won the Vietnam war actually as China stopped trying to get more countries. The Ink-Blot theory of spread of Communism was real. Greece and Turkey were stopped from going Commie in the late 40s – 50s by basically paying Billions to buy them off (which led to harsh governments there) Japan was stopped by Land Redistribution, Korea S by a war (and if MacArthur had his way North too by using Nukes) all SE Asia, Vietnam stopped the ongoing spread of Communism as USA made it clear it would force the Communists into bankruptcy by endless war if they wanted to spread their system. (which basically is what was done to Russia in Afghanistan)

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

In Greece we sent in ex Special Forces such as Lt Col David Sutherland of the SBS to train the Greeks.
In late 1945 and 1946 Britain fought the Vietmin and nearly defeated them. What made Britain’s achievement possible was the experience gained fighting the Japanese in Burma and Malaya. In the jungle quality, not quanity is important.
Britain’s Vietnam War – YouTube
1968 USA is like 250 AD Rome, the upper middle and upper classes were no longer prepared to die for the state.
The USA no longer has a patrician class willing to die for the state and prepared to make the effort to understand other peoples which means living and working in foreign countries in order to apprehend their languages, history, geography,climate, religion, arts, industry,/commerce, characters, cuisine, music, marriage customs, etc.
Chinese Cultural Revolution stopped offensive operations. What bankrupted the USSR was Afghanistan and Star Wars.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

What price green shoots?
Fracking offers another insight into grand strategy implicit in that opening metaphor – if all of a sudden you discover you have a garden of your own, you don’t need to spend all your time and money tending someone else’s whether they want you to or not.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
2 years ago

There were no green shoots. Lol. Only death and destruction. This article is more neocon/neoliberal fantasy. Winning Iraq has been just around the corner since 1991!!!!! Arguably before that with “desert shield” embargoes, no fly zones, bombing were continuous until the full scale invasion. So 30 years in Iraq and 20 years in Afghanistan but boy…. victory just around the corner.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dennis Boylon