25
Sep

Winston Churchill once famously said that, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all of the alternatives.” He could have been speaking of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.

For six years I have criticized the administration’s policies toward Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East (mostly excepting its Iran policy). But since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June, at least where Iraq and Syria are concerned, I can find little to criticize and much to praise. The administration has reversed course in both countries, shifting from stubborn disengagement to smart leadership. Since the stunning ISIS offensive in Iraq in June, Washington’s moves have been uncharacteristically deft: promising greater military support to Iraq as leverage to effect political change there; providing air support and weapons to the Kurds to halt the ISIS offensive; launching a sustained air campaign against ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria; and deploying advisors and weapons to Iraq, to name a few.

The administration’s new approach has resulted in several important developments. Nouri al-Maliki was forced to step down as prime minister of Iraq. That country has a new, more inclusive government that’s committed both to fighting ISIS and accommodating the demands of its alienated Sunni community. Humanitarian tragedies have been averted at Mount Sinjar and Amerli. ISIS has been driven back from Mosul Dam and the approaches to Erbil. And many of the states of the region have signed on to the U.S.-led effort.

These are merely first steps in the right direction, but that in itself is an important achievement. When Mosul fell, the Middle East was plummeting into chaos. Today, at least in some key areas, it has started to pull out of that nosediveeven if it has not yet started to gain altitude. But there is one piece of the strategy that the Obama administration has not articulated and does not yet seem to be preparing for.

We must also start gearing up for nation-building, particularly in Syria.

 Both Iraq and Syria are classic intercommunal civil wars. ISIS is the symptom of that underlying problem, not the problem itself. And unless we stabilize both countries and end the civil wars there, we will never be rid of ISIS or the other threats to our interests in Syria and Iraq. As we have learned from both our successes and failures, healing civil wars requires a long-term process of nation-building. There is no way around that.

In Iraq, the framework of such a process is already in place, left over from the successful period of 2008-2010. Moreover, much of Washington’s heavy lifting already has been about how to get Iraq’s political leadership back on the path toward the stability and political functionality that were created back then. There are still many hurdles, and doing so will take a great deal of effort and luck, but it is of a different category entirely than what needs to be done in Syria.

Indeed, Obama himself recognized this unavoidable reality in his interview with Tom Friedman of The New York Times in August. The president said he learned from the Libyan strikes in 2011 that military intervention that was not backed by a major effort to build a functional state afterward would lead to chaos and new threats to American interests. In the interview, Obama seemed to be imply that this was one reason he didn’t want to intervene in Syria: because he was not ready to commit to such a program for Syria.

Well, the president has now committed to just such an intervention in Syria. Having done so, ensuring that the intervention turns out welland does not create more problems than it solvesmeans that he is also going to have to commit to nation-building there. Read more…

Kenneth M. Pollack is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Published on Sept. 24 in http://www.newrepublic.com/

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