How 2013′s partisanship hurt us abroad, as well as at home

By David Rohde
January 2, 2014

The furious partisan debate that erupted this week after a New York Times investigation questioned the central tenet of the Republican assault on the White House regarding Benghazi was a fitting end to 2013.

The lengthy article revealed that the State Department and CIA’s intense focus on al Qaeda caused officials to miss the threat posed by local militias. David Kirkpatrick’s reporting showed that Libya’s rebels appreciated the U.S. support in helping oust Muammar Gaddafi, but were strongly influenced by decades of anger at Washington’s support for dictators in the region.

Militants gained strength from Syria to the Sahel over the course of 2013. Republicans and Democrats, however, remained focused on winning their daily messaging battle in Washington.

Neither the American left nor the right has offered a serious strategy for how to respond to the emergence of new types of militant groups across the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s approach consisted of trusting unchecked CIA drone strikes and NSA eavesdropping to secure the United States. Republicans used the region’s instability as a cudgel to beat the president with.

Here are three of 2013’s most troubling developments in the Middle East — and Washington’s perfunctory responses that were a disservice to all Americans.

BENGHAZI’S MEANING: As Amy Davidson correctly noted in the New Yorker this week, Washington’s response to months of investigation on the ground in Libya and Egypt by Times reporters Kirkpatrick, Suliman Ali Zway, Osama Alfitori and Mayy El Sheikh quickly devolved into a useless debate over the term “al Qaeda.”

Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — eager to undermine Obama administration statements that core al Qaeda has been weakened — insisted that the group involved in the attack “claims an affiliation with al Qaeda,” as if that was the same as an actual relationship with core al Qaeda’s remaining leaders.

Fox News commentator and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer dismissed the story as an effort “to protect Hillary [Clinton].” Fox News terrorism analyst Walid Phares absurdly argued that Kirkpatrick was “known to side with Islamists.”

The broad message from the left, meanwhile, was that the United States only makes things worse in the Middle East when it acts there. On MSNBC, Karen Finney said the story exonerated the Obama administration because it found that a fake Hollywood video mocking the Prophet Mohammad did, in fact, help spark the attack.

Isolationists on the left and the right argued that any military action — particularly one carried out by the United States — was destructive.

What was lost when each side cherry-picked conclusions that fit their worldview? The Libyan people’s increasing hatred of militias, both jihadist and tribal groups. In November, Libyans outraged by rising lawlessness drove militias out of Tripoli. Libya’s weak central government, however, lacks the properly trained security forces needed to assert control.

Libya’s first democratically-elected prime minister — a pro-Western moderate — asked in June for American and NATO forces to help train government security forces. Washington’s response? After five months of talk, the United States agreed in November to train 6,000 to 8,000 Libyan soldiers at a military base in Bulgaria. This paltry effort will not be nearly enough to aid Libyans who oppose militancy.

U.S. and NATO military forces should not enter Libya — a move we know from past experience will strengthen jihadists there. But a far larger training effort should be mounted outside Libya.

THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD: In 2013, the biggest gamble in the region was the Egyptian army’s decision in July to violently crush the Muslim Brotherhood and remove that nation’s first democratically elected president. The military-dominated government seems to announce each week a new crackdown on the Brotherhood and other critics. But it is not clear that the use of force is working.

The Egyptian military campaign against the Brotherhood has now killed more people than the Iranian government’s 2009 crushing of the “Green Revolution.” Yet Cairo has failed to stop regular demonstrations by the Brotherhood. It has also failed to halt a series of car bombings by Islamic extremist groups that are urging Brotherhood members to take up arms.

The stakes in Egypt are enormous. The crackdown could succeed — or drive tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of conservative activists into the arms of al Qaeda. Republican and Democrats’ reaction to these developments? Collective silence.

The Obama administration should suspend all U.S. military aid to Egypt and stop embracing the Saudi fantasy that autocrats are the region’s low-risk, cure-all. Over the long-term, autocrats foster instability and economic stagnation — not stability — in the Middle East.

SYRIA: 2013 will be viewed as the year that President Bashar al-Assad turned the tide in the war in Syria. As Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman detailed in a Wall Street Journal story this week, “all-in” military support from Iran and Hezbollah allowed Assad to retake crucial territory.

The Obama administration, however, blinked.

Obama had vowed to punish Assad for any chemical weapons attacks. Yet the president held off on air strikes or fully arming the rebels, citing fears of getting embroiled in another Mideast conflict.

The result is a conflict in Syria that could drag on for years. Assad can hold much of the country, but not all of it.

Jihadists, meanwhile, are taking control of the opposition. Thousands of militants from Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have flocked to Syria. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 European citizens and dozens of American citizens have joined the fight there as well. An unknown number are being radicalized.

Some of these jihadists will likely return home, as it becomes clear that Assad will not be toppled in 2014. The Obama administration is gambling that CIA drone strikes and NSA surveillance will somehow hold them at bay.

More likely, the blowback from Syria will resemble that of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Jihadists from that conflict sparked a decade-long civil war in Algeria that killed 50,000 — and, of course, carried out the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama administration’s only remaining leverage in Syria is its economic sanctions on Iran, Assad’s primary military backer. Any nuclear agreement with Iran that involves a reduction in economic sanctions should include Iranian support for a peace settlement in Syria.

The chances of Washington agreeing on such a strategy are low. Our political elite was so deeply divided in 2013 that we could not define a common enemy. We turned a blind eye to the revival of Mideast authoritarianism. And we fashioned no plans for how to respond to Syria becoming a new Afghanistan.

The damage that Washington’s partisanship wrought on domestic affairs in 2013 was chronicled daily in the media. Its destructive impact on the Middle East — and our national security — will emerge for years to come.

 

PHOTO (Top): An interior view of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which was attacked and set on fire by gunmen September 11, 2012, in Libya, September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Demonstrators hold a message during a rally to condemn the killers of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, in Benghazi September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad run during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in the Alleramoun labs area of Aleppo, December 29, 2013. REUTERS/George Ourfalian

4 comments

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This article should come as no surprise to anyone actually paying attention. My stance has been from the start: Not supporting Syrian militants (FSA) would only serve to provide an opening for even further radicalization…demonizing the majority of Libyans as radicals instead of stepping up to help them restore order would weaken any government trying to assert control.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Our policy is no longer one of propping up despots. We are more about destabilization of the entire middleeast, which is implemented by pretending to support popular uprisings and regime overthrows while not getting involved directly. This is primarily a refocusing because of the changes in oil and energy recently. We are not as dependent as we once were on middle eastern oil or oil in general and a stable, relatively high oil price actually gives businesses a more consistent environment in which to plan capital investments. We don’t care about peace or justice or democracy, we care about money, and now the money is no longer in military occupation, despot selection and commodity hoarding. It will be in energy alternatives that don’t require huge political and military support. But don’t worry, we will always be fighting a war from here on out so that the military industries are still very profitable. Besides, the only thing that brings any value to our fiat currency is the military might to back it up. Warning to small countries thinking about dumping there dollars used to back their own currency, are you sure you don’t have terrorists? We think you have terrorists.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

I don’t think we actually have any foreign affairs policies anymore, unless they have something to do with trade. The USA is no more, we are now the USCA and corporate America really isn’t interested in social, political, or military foreign affairs. That leaves their political puppets with no real direction at all. I don’t see how any foreign country can deal with the USCA anymore. We’re like negotiating with a crowd one at a time.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

The POTUS failed to act in Syria because he is unwilling to assume any political backlash for the decisions that he alone is responsible for. He copped out–when he stated he was willing to act, and then backed down when the polls showed the American public has severe reservations about any military involvement in Syria.

You can blame the right, but you cannot diminish the failure and incompetence of this President and his SOS Clinton. The POTUS could not even pull the trigger to send a few jets in (see Bill Clinton in Bosnia) to “fire for effect” on the military in Damascus. Also, no leader in his right mind would ever communicate his intentions in advance placing our pilots at risk.

SOS Clinton used this jobs merely to educate herself on foreign policy for a Presidential run in 2016–but one cannot overlook the unmitigated failures in Eqypt (supporting the Muslim Brotherhood), in Libya, and the abandonment of our (questionable) allies in Saudi, and the Israelis. There is no one remaining in the Middle East that can count on this President to back them up. His capitulations to the Iranians will only ensure they become a nuclear power. So much for leading from behind, and the unprincipled platform of engaging our sworn enemies on equal terms.

Like everything else this guy has touched–it will literally take years (decades?) to unscrew the damage he has done to this country–domestically and internationally. After five years, he owns it regardless of whom he might seek to blame.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive