Obama’s Three Hard Choices in the Middle East

by Charles Naas

The first steps in righting US policy and actions in the Middle East are recognition and acceptance of what we have wrought and what we can or cannot do to alter the current political realities. Clarity is required above all.

The first Gulf war in 1990 led by President H.W. Bush made strategic and economic sense. Saddam Hussein apparently aimed to exert decisive control over Arab oil production and policy and was perfectly prepared to destroy fellow Arab states in the Persian Gulf as he started to do in Kuwait. The president was able to pull together one of the most effective military and politically diverse alliances imaginable. The participants shared the cause, and his long-time friendship with regional leaders and personal integrity were essential in drawing together such a mixed alliance. Although he left some anti-Hussein Iraqi elements in the lurch, he promptly got out and brought the troops home. He maintained his basic aims of inflicting serious loss on Iraqi forces and driving them back to Iraq. He firmly resisted the urging of many to fight on to Baghdad and try to overthrow Saddam.

The second Gulf war was politically an abomination–organized on fallacious (to be polite) reasoning, hubris, and ignorance of the history, feelings, and policies of the peoples of the region. The decision received little support from the area’s leaders and lit the flame of Arab sectarianism that had been simmering since the Iranian revolution. Iran had suffered hugely in its eight-year war with Iraq and was determined to see a formation of a Shi’a government in Iraq. Iranian-organized Iraqi militia prominently opposed US and Sunni forces. We have deplored and resented the actions of these militias, but it would be a step toward clarity of thinking to ask whether Iran or the US has the most to gain or lose from developments in Iraq? Which one has a long border with Iraq? Which country was leading an active policy of economic sanctions and keeping Iran in a sort of purgatory?

The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) caught our intelligence agencies and think tanks off guard and we have been playing catch-up but without fresh thinking. We had been quite comfortable with the very informal alliance of Israel and the Arab monarchies. The latter had resigned themselves to accepting the facts of Israel’s survival for the present and turned to their own fears of Iran and issues of domestic unrest that by and large they have handled with force against religious and ethnic minorities. We sold the most modern arms to Arab states and they kept–with the one exception–the petroleum flowing. This bargain aided our arms industry above all.

The US can offer little to resolve the sectarian divisions that are 14 centuries old. We have no role in the struggle within Islam over Quranic or Hadith interpretations and which of the four main legal systems is appropriate. It is up to the Sunni leadership and that of the several Shi’a strains of Islam to find the paths of mutual respect and acceptance. But these issues may never be resolved, at least not in our lifetime. We simply must learn to live with these differences as best we can except when the results are the creation of many terrorist factions that may pose a limited threat to us.

Obama’s Gambit

President Obama from the very beginning of his first term made clear that he believed that planned withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan were in our long-term interests. This judgment has had the natural result that regional countries pay less attention to our policies and turn more and more to their own concerns. Yet they turn to us for the continuation of aid and political backing that they now consider their due. The administration—in particular the National Security Council—has reacted feebly to the major changes that have altered the politics and in due course the maps of the area when the Sykes-Pico decisions are buried for good or ill. Except for the marathon negotiations with Iran and Secretary Kerry’s travels we hear little about the possible recommendations or activities of the State Department.

Does the Policy Planning Staff still exist? Relations with the NSC, State, and the various intelligence agencies seem moribund. Are we thinking about what the map of the area may look like in a decade or more and how the United Nations can help get us through the crisis?

Particularly worrisome is that the so-called allies of yore have ill served us-or themselves– and are refusing to recognize the threat to their very existence posed by IS and others such as al-Nusra. There is no evidence that the NSC or Policy Planning Staff have been encouraged to think outside the box in dealing with our allies. Did anyone suggest that when the Israeli ambassador plotted with the Speaker of the House to invite Netanyahu to lecture us and embarrass the president that the ambassador be declared persona non grata and that a high official declare at the same time that we are committed to Israeli security but not that of the Likud. Israel contemptuously ignores us vis a vis settlements and Gaza. Turn-about is fair play and would have been dramatic evidence of increasing irritation and of a new sheriff in town.

A New Middle East Alignment

Why did we promise the Saudis intelligence information to abet their bombing in Yemen? It was clear to all that the bombing arose from a misplaced Saudi belief that they were engaged in a struggle with an important Iranian proxy. The result is chaos in yet another Islamic country, widespread civilian losses, the destruction of unique and cherished infrastructure, and the unleashing of al-Qaeda in Yemen. We should have made clear to the Saudis and Emirates that IS and al-Qaeda-Yemen are their and our principle enemies and that their continued provision of money and recruits to extremist groups is unacceptable.

Turkey is a special case. The usually pragmatic Turkish leaders have been infected with a bad case of Ottomanism and the glories of the empire centuries ago and is helping IS further strengthen itself via open borders. Practically all new recruits from the US, Europe, and Asia get to IS-controlled territory via Turkey. It’s time to let Erdogan know that the NATO partners expect cooperation against the common scourge or that we shall urgently restudy our ties with his country.

It is time to stop kidding ourselves that the overthrow of Assad will be a significant development. More likely is the continuation of a bloody struggle between the various factions that control some bits of territory in that country. The current turmoil in Syria will in due course reconcile itself, and a no-Assad Syria may be no improvement to our geopolitical needs. Forget the training and arming of the so-called Syrian “moderates.” The UN effort to bring about a modicum of national understanding, although unsuccessful so far, is worth continuing. The possible waste of some diplomats’ time is an acceptable cost.

Iran may be of help in Iraq and Syria. There is a similarity of immediate interests, if we can escape from the so-far successful campaign to belabor Iran about its alleged involvement in terrorism and terrible human rights policy. We continue to deplore its government’s actions and past history, especially with the Iranian-created militia in Iraq. We continue to deeply resent the hostage-taking. They in turn still resent the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh, the assassinations of their nuclear scientists, severe economic sanctions, and cyber warfare directed against their nuclear facilities. It is crucial that we let previous quarrels lie dormant and concentrate on current threats to the interests of both.

In sum, it is time to face a new Middle East alignment as painful as that might be and stop dithering. The fight against IS will likely require at some point substantial ground forces along with ramped-up air power. The US faces roughly three strategic choices, each with variations.

Three Difficult Choices

We can continue the current military program of aid and training to Iraqi forces, with adjustments now and then like the president’s recent decision to send 450 more trainers. A variation to this choice is to place spotters for our aircraft up front with Iraqi units and to add Special Forces with these Iraqi formations. Iraqi troops have so far proven unable to expel IS from key Iraqi cities and territory. Even with success, we and they would still need to consider the IS positions in Syria and the other religious and historical factors tearing the region apart.

Or we could ignore the popular national weariness with Middle East conflict and the very complex nature of the chaos. With the support of a hawkish Congress, we could send several American divisions back into the cauldron to try again to find the magic answer to regional stability that has eluded us so far.

Finally, the regional states have been playing a game of chicken with us about who will fight this civil war of religious sectarianism for them. So far we have accepted, in part only, their apparent belief that the president will not be able to bear the sight of IS successes and not send major US forces. It may be the time to accept the old advice, to fish or cut bait and to stress with them that their future is more directly impacted than our’s and that full participation, including their ground forces, is expected. Otherwise, we shall start again the process the President enunciated years ago on US withdrawal.

Is the present NSC ready to look beyond the domestic travail of new proposals that push the envelope of current truisms and think creatively about how best to use our assets to safeguard our interests? Is the NSC structure as presently constituted able to do this? I am not optimistic. How many staff members have had extensive experience on the ground in the Middle East?

The administration now seems tired and rightly so with the great divisions of opinion on how the country’s domestic and foreign policies can best serve our nation. I too am sorely divided. I am dubious about the present administration’s ability to cope with our foreign challenges but fear what the next administration might look like. Its long learning process might contribute to a further deterioration in the security environment in the Middle East.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.



  1. I always look forward to the commentary by Messrs. Naas and Precht on matters relating to the Middle East, given their extensive experience- which was acquired at a time when the Foreign Service may not have been as heavily politicized (or crippled by ideological thinking) as it is today. However, there are a couple of points in this article that I might question.

    First, many now believe that Saddam Hussein was mouse-trapped into the 1990 Gulf War. He had been weakened economically by the first Gulf War – the Iraq-Iran War- and may well have thought that as America’s proxy in that war and his relationship with the CIA from the inception of his dictatorship, that the US would support his expanded access to the Gulf and invasion of Kuwait- and it did not help that Ambassador Glaspie’s responses to his questions about what the US would do if he pursued that plan appeared to endorse it- especially if, as some also believe, she herself was set up by Bush and Baker. Whether or not one subscribes to the above, the mouse-trap theory gains credence from the fact that Gorbachev himself was able to obtain an agreement from Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, but that logistically a withdrawal would have required several weeks instead of the ‘three days’ that Bush/Baker demanded and held to with the result that an unnecessary war was prosecuted in the initial stage of what has become the utter destruction of Iraq over the past 25 years- or more, if one includes the Iran-Iraq War.

    Second, ISIS (and Al Qaeda) were in part our own creation (and the creation of our allies – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan, Israel, and the Western European powers in NATO) and our own President and then-Secretaries of State and Defense (Clinton and Panetta) and National Security Advisors (Donilon and Rice) and Director of Policy & Planning (Anne-Marie Slaughter during the Clinton term) and CIA Director were not caught unawares- but planned the whole mess that is now creating such fear and chaos- beginning with Libya and spreading to Syria and, later in a mutated form, to Iraq (though in Iraq, ISIS is said to include elements of the Baathist military from Sadaam’s regime that went underground, and to be seen by the locals in the Sunni areas as a counterweight to a corrupt and vindictive Shiite government in Baghdad). No matter how clandestine all of this may have been when it began, in order to keep our involvement out of sight, it is no longer ‘plausibly deniable’.

    If we really had wanted to prevent the slaughter- or stop it now- we would have leaned on our allies to stop funding, arming, coordinating and otherwise facilitating it and imposed heavy sanctions if they didn’t (instead of trying to punish Iran and Russia). We would have also expanded the coalition to include Iran, Russia and China, and placed it all under the collective aegis of the UN. Instead, it is this layman’s guess that our conduct (or failure to turn off the spigot) is part of a larger geopolitical strategy- flawed as it may be- to contain Iran, force it into a political and economic strait jacket, exploit its oil and gas for the benefit of the West- and, ultimately, to prevent any chance of a viable Iran-Iraq-Syria-Egypt coalition from developing or attaching itself to Russia and China in a way that might lead a prosperous and independent future for those nations individually or collectively- since that would also jeopardize ours and NATO’s hegemony over the Mediterranean.

  2. Evidently there is no trust among the ME countries and none has any trust in the US foreign policy; all feel insecure and rather confused hence mostly playing by the roles based on short term policies. Mutual respect and dialogue with the ‘people’ of these countries have never interested the US policy makers. Domination and using these countries in its Cold War has always had precedence over the life and dignity of millions of the oppressed in the ME. Sadly the US is still dealing with the ME countries based on its 20th century strategies of containment and divide and role, using the regions’ despotic rulers as pieces on its foreign policy chessboard to maintain the US ‘interests’.

    With the outbreak of the Revolution in Iran and the confusion among the US policy makers in 1979 it was clear the US had no understanding of the suffering and demands of the Iranian public and their culture. Then came Reagan; had the Reagan Administration not encouraged and supported Saddam’s invasion of Iran in the 80’s, especially in 1988 with the deployment of chemical weapons against the Iranian army, Saddam would have fallen, and a Shia majority would have transformed Iraq in a much less violent manner than seen in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion and the country would not have disintegrated with millions becoming refugees and becoming a training ground for foreign forces. The US needed to have the anti-Communist post–Revolutionary Iran to contain the Soviet and to have Saddam to contain Iran, what happened to the ‘people’ in these countries was unimportant, failing to realize the US was not God on earth: it is the ‘people’ who are the source of legitimacy and it is they who would eventually decide by their actions, hence, given the absence of ‘dialogue’ and ‘mutual respect’ for the people of these countries, the vast majority being alienated and oppressed, the US eventually found itself in a confusing political turmoil as the most ‘hated’ in the ME.

    Preservation of ‘national interest’ does not have to be based on domination, subjugation or inhuman foreign policies. Given the US double standards and insincere advocacy of ‘democracy’ in the ME, for the people in the ME questions arise as

    1) To what extent the US policies in the ME contradict its Founding Fathers’ principles and to what extent the American ‘People’ are aware of the role they have been playing in endorsing/ implementing the US foreign policies in the ME: from the repetitive massacres in Palestine to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan?

    2) Why the only priorities the US critics speak of are always the outdated ‘hegemony’ and ‘national interest’: how many a crimes haven’t been perpetrated in the name of the American ‘national interest’!

    The root of hegemony and domination is the undeniable RACISM. How can the US expect to be popular in the ME while in the name of American ‘national interest’ continues to protect the regions’ hated despots at the expense of ignoring the ‘intelligence and the will’ of millions of the ME youths who are the very soul of the ME!?

  3. Mr. Naas: The USA is a strange ally of Israel. It engages in discussions with Iran that openly calls for the annihilation of Israel. After Hitler do you expect the Jews to idly slough off the statements made by Iranian officials that the the “destruction of Israel is non-negotiable?”
    If you want to call Shylock Bibi a “plotter” so be it. But Bebe will plot and do anything else, including embarrassing a hostile president in order to defend his people. The fact that you are a long way away from “the big white light” may be a cause for complacence, but think again the next time you fill up your tank of gas. Unless you want a repeat of the ’73 gas rationing.
    The US needs a stable partner/ally/base and in the Middle East that is only Israel. That is the reason that the elite 82 Airborne trains for desert warfare in the Sinai Desert under the pretext of being part of the UN Peace Keeping Force. Was it coincidence that the 82 was the first to be deployed in the Gulf Wars?
    If you want to belittle Iran’s contribution to terrorism or think you can trust Iran these days than that’s a big problem for you as an American and bigger for the world. Read the Koran to find out what Islam plans for you. ISIS, Shia, Sunni, Al Qaeda,etc. ad infinitum are different versions of the same song.
    Gaddafi didn’t get the idea until a missile flew into his bedroom window.
    Do your best to contain the devils and do your best to insure they don’t get weapons of mass mass destruction, because if they do world today’s terror will be peanuts.

Comments are closed.