Two Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, Feb. 2, 2018, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott
Steven Cook makes some shockingly bad recommendations for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:
At the same time, Washington needs to make a commitment to the security of its friends and allies, even if that requires a certain amount of stomach-churning moral compromise. If these countries share the broad interests of the United States, then it is important for Washington to support them in word and deed. And that does not just mean selling them “beautiful weapons” as U.S. President Donald Trump famously remarked during his visit to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2017. It means making hard decisions like accepting and supporting the Turkish position not just on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but also their affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has served as Washington’s principal ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. This would, in turn, require the deployment of more American troops to Syria [bold mine-DL] to hold the line against the Islamic State and to deter Iran.
It also means restoring military assistance to Egypt despite the brutality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, and giving the Israelis a green light to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves from Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon [bold mine-DL, obviating the need for Israeli leaders to constantly seek Moscow’s assistance and reassurances. And finally, it means using American military force to destroy the capacity of the Iranians and the Houthis in Yemen [bold mine-DL] to threaten the security of Saudi Arabia, thereby allowing the Saudis to extract themselves from a debilitating conflict. Leaving the Saudis to bleed in Yemen is not just a strategic gain for Tehran, but also for Moscow, which would be only too happy to see Washington’s primary Arab ally stuck there and in need of a lifeline that U.S. policymakers are too ambivalent to provide.
For those keeping score at home, Cook wants to send more Americans into at least two wars and possibly more, he wants the U.S. to back more Israeli wars against their neighbors, and he wants the U.S. to do this to make sure that our clients don’t fall into Moscow’s orbit. It’s as if Cook tried to think up the worst possible policies for the U.S. and the worst justification imaginable. If that was the goal, he has succeeded.
Cook says, “If these countries share the broad interests of the United States, then it is important for Washington to support them in word and deed.” That raises two obvious questions: do these states still share our “broad interests” and does supporting them have to mean giving them carte blanche and indulging all of their worst behavior? I submit that most of the clients in the region that Cook wants the U.S. to embrace more closely have interests that are increasingly diverging from ours, and their usefulness as clients has also diminished significantly. However, even if they do still share our “broad interests,” it is one thing to “make a commitment to the security of” certain states and quite another to encourage them in their most reckless and destructive behavior. Cook is calling for the U.S. to do the latter.
Giving Israel a “green light” to rain down death and destruction on Lebanon and Syria may be giving the current Israeli government what it wants, but it is far from obvious that this is the best thing for Israeli and regional security. It’s important to bear in mind that allowing them “to do what they believe is necessary to protect themselves” means endorsing air campaigns that will in turn provoke a great many missile attacks on Israeli cities. Israel could very well find itself fighting a much larger version of its unsuccessful 2006 Lebanon war. Needless to say, the effect of a new war on Lebanon would be disastrous for that country.
Restoring full military assistance to the Egyptian dictator presumably won’t lead to any new wars, but it is nonetheless the wrong thing to do. By all rights, the U.S. shouldn’t be providing any military assistance to Egypt because its current government came to power through a coup. Even if that weren’t the case, Egypt is no longer valuable enough as a client to warrant the amount of military aid that the U.S. provides them. Instead of worrying about “losing” Egypt to another patron, it is long past time that the U.S. reconsider what it gets out of the arrangement with Egypt that requires continued support for an increasingly repressive dictatorship.
Current U.S. support for the war on Yemen is already indefensible and harms our security interests. Escalating the U.S. role in Yemen and using our forces to attack a country that our government has already helped to bomb and starve for three years wouldn’t just be a “stomach-churning moral compromise.” It would be absolutely despicable. It would also be foolish and unnecessary. It is not our government’s responsibility to take over the unnecessary wars that our clients start, and it would be wrong and pointlessly destructive to intensify a conflict that has already caused enormous suffering. The best way to bail the Saudis out in Yemen is to stop providing military assistance and to pressure them to accept a compromise that allows them to end their intervention before it drags on any longer. Intensifying U.S. involvement in this war makes no sense for U.S. interests, and it would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis that is already the worst in the world.
Besides being illegal, putting more Americans in harm’s way in Syria is risking a major conflagration for no good reason. The longer that the U.S. maintains an illegal military presence in Syria, the greater the danger that there will be more clashes between U.S. and pro-regime forces, and that could lead to direct conflict with Russia. The downside of cultivating and intensifying a rivalry with Russia in Syria of all places is huge, and there would appear to be no benefit for the U.S. in doing so. Accepting Turkey’s position on the YPG would mean treating the Kurdish group as terrorists and acquiescing in Turkish attempts to destroy them. This is particularly distasteful because the Kurds in Syria have been one of the only groups willing to fight ISIS in support of U.S. goals. The U.S. shouldn’t still have any forces in Syria, but we certainly shouldn’t be sending more so that we can let Turkey kill one of the only groups that has been on our side.
The policies Cook recommends are terrible, but the reason he gives for doing these things is even worse. He is claiming that if the U.S. doesn’t do these awful things it will “hand parts of the Middle East over to Moscow.” That grossly exaggerates Russia’s ability to “take” these parts of the region, and it overrates the importance of the region to the U.S. Suppose for the sake of argument that the U.S. is in danger of “losing” some of these states to Russia’s orbit. Is that worth sending more Americans to kill and die in wars in Syria and Yemen? How many, and for how long? Cook would have the U.S. engage in multiple unnecessary wars for the sake of keeping bad clients happy and out of Moscow’s orbit, but the clients simply aren’t worth that much to the U.S. and we should continue to modify our relationships with them accordingly.