Since the United States invaded Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, and began an era of major military operations in Southwest Asia and the Middle East, “what next” has been sometimes posed, but never adequately answered.
To this day, it is not possible to define what the US would realistically like to see happen in the region. Instead, it has limited itself to tactical steps (e.g., degrade and destroy al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) or Mission Impossible, the total remaking of essentially alien societies.
Direct terrorist threats to the US from Southwest Asia and the Middle East have substantially declined, but efforts to create a New Afghanistan and New Iraq have almost totally failed. The cost: many thousands of Americans killed along with many more locals, tens of thousands maimed, and three trillion dollars and counting.
The US has committed several key errors, some out of lack of knowledge, some out of the felt need to respond to external events, and some in misguided response to the desires of US partners in the region.
After 9/11, the US chose not only to extirpate those responsible for the first attack on the continental United States since 1814, but also to overthrow the Taliban regime, occupy the country, pull in all 27 other NATO allies to help, and try—but fail—to create a New Afghanistan. Then in 2003, a small group of advisors around President George W. Bush leveraged popular reaction to 9/11 to invade Iraq, one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in US history.
The results have to be seen as having made the late Osama bin Laden the most powerful—or at least the most consequential—person in the world so far in this century.
With the invasion of Iraq, the US blundered into the midst of civil war in the Middle East. It overthrew a Sunni regime that dominated a Shia majority population. Most of the troubles the US now faces in the Middle East flow from that fact. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have sought to “redress the balance,” in particular by getting the US to overthrow the minority Alawite (Shia) regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But in deciding at least in principle to do so, Washington never asked the question “What next?” and the linked question “Cui bono?” (“Who benefits?”). Or if it did pose these questions to itself, it never adequately answered them, certainly never in public.
Thus the United States became an active party in a Sunni-Shia civil war, first unwittingly on the Shia side (invasion of Iraq) and subsequently on the Sunni side. It has also been supporting the geopolitical interests of states that oppose Iran, among other countries, which are competing for power among themselves, thus double-binding the US in support of others’ regional agendas that should mean little or nothing to the United States and its interests.
Meanwhile, radical Islamist fundamentalists in a number of Sunni states poured ideology, money, and arms into Syria, as well as elsewhere in the region. Among other things, these terrorist-promoters have fostered the killing of US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. It is not apparent that either of the last two US administrations has done anything effective to stop this flow of death from supposedly friendly Gulf Arab states.
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) seemed to catch the US by surprise, in what was an intelligence failure equal to that before 9/11. It was, however, a logical outcome of tolerating the spread of Islamist fundamentalism, along with money and arms to support it, plus calling for Assad’s overthrow without considering the likely consequences. Then came the beheading of two American journalists (now followed by the beheadings of a Briton and a Frenchman), which spurred President Obama to what is now major military action to “degrade and destroy” IS and to renewed US direct engagement in a Middle Eastern conflict with an almost completely unknowable outcome.
This has made the masked terrorist who carried out the first beheadings the second most powerful person so far in the 21st century.
The emergence of Pure Evil is a “special case” and imposes a moral imperative to act, though not just by the United States. But even if there is nearly universal repugnance to IS and its grisly business, and a united effort to expunge it, each and every country and sub-national group in the region is calculating its own interests and opportunities and what it can gain for itself from the willingness of the United States to act.
In its efforts to counter IS, which Obama put most clearly and dramatically in his speech last week to the United Nations General Assembly, the United States, among other things, has thus become even more fully immersed in the interlocking regional civil wars of Sunni/Shia and geopolitical competitions. “Exploiting America” has returned to the fore across the region.
In the process, the US will step up arms supplies to so-called moderates in Syria, in the hope that they will turn these weapons just against IS and not against Assad. Yet the question “What Next?” following Assad’s overthrow still goes unanswered. Indeed, the likely result would be a mess even worse than the current one, certainly an intensified Syrian civil war and its spilling over elsewhere even more than now. At a Senate hearing this month, three US Senators posed this problem to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey. In response, they more or less waved a magic wand and said that such a diversion of weapons from the counter-IS battle to the counter-Assad battle would not happen.
Meanwhile, the United States seems uncertain on whether or not to welcome Iranian support in countering IS, and appears to change its mind on an almost daily basis. As with Syria’s Assad, the US has major issues with Iran, in particular the time-bound negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program as well as Iran’s continued hostility toward Israel. Here, too, the US is failing to ask and answer the relevant questions about the key US security interests in the region.
Life is unfair, as John Kennedy said, and it is unfair that the US is expected, by one and all, to take the lead in trying to sort out the spreading mess in the heart of the Middle East. But if it is even to begin getting things right, within the limits that anyone, in or out of the region, can get things right, the United States has to create a clear set of goals and methods. These must include backing off on trying to overthrow the Assad regime until it is possible—if it is possible—to work toward a process whereby all groups in Syria, including Alawites, will have some sort of guarantee that they will not be slaughtered in a situation of complete chaos.
These goals and methods have to include a stop, a full stop, to the export of ideology and hate, money and arms, from the Sunni states to IS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists. They have to include greater participation in the Middle East by America’s NATO allies and the European Union against terrorism and its causes, in politics and economics if not in military action. To paraphrase Robert Browning on Heaven: “Or what’s an alliance for?” They have to include a reasonable approach to what we must hope is the concluding phase of the nuclear talks with Iran, plus Iran’s adoption of a reasonable foreign policy, while understanding that it will never be fully accepted back in the world unless it stops certain collateral efforts, as in the Israeli-Palestine conflict where Tehran has no legitimate national interest.
At the same time, the US has a right to ask Pakistan to stop activities that decrease the chances that Afghanistan will have a chance to succeed as a nation after the US and NATO radically reduce their force engagement at the end of this year. The US has a right to ask the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to stop his efforts (paralleling those by some of the Gulf Arab states) to cause the nuclear talks with Iran to fail.
The day has passed when regional parties, purporting to be friends and allies, can ask the United States to sort out their problems while offering little or nothing in return—or even making matters worse for America.
At heart, the Obama administration needs, finally, to seriously answer the question: “What Next?” along with the connected questions “What For?” (that is, “What are our real interests?”) and “How, over time, can we get there?” Until these questions are answered to the best of the administration’s ability and until it acts upon the answers, Osama bin Laden and the masked IS butcher will continue to be the 21st century’s two most consequential people.