George W. Bush, Barack Obama (Credit: AP/Reuters/Jim Young/Yuri Gripas/Adel Hana/Photo montage by Salon)
It is all there now for us to see. Decades of cynical, poorly devised policy in the Middle East, vacant of any principle our indispensable nation purports to advance, return as we speak to bite our president and his foreign policy cliques on their backsides. The shambles that now ensues serves them right, absolutely.
With the sudden ignition of smoldering hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia last weekend—the Iranians managing this more correctly than the Saudis—at last the veil drops to expose the gross duplicity, not to say stupidity, of Washington’s alliances in the region. At last we can talk about the unclothed emperor. And it is our responsibility to do so.
One would never argue that the chaos into which the Middle East now descends is all President Obama’s doing. It is not, by a long way. The music simply stopped on his watch, and it is he who is left to grope for a chair. No solicitude and no empathy, however. The bitter reality is that our hope-and-change president, as a drone-addicted assassin signing death warrants on a routine basis, bears as much responsibility for the messes he now confronts as any of those predecessors who shaped them.
If there is a single moment that crystallized all that has been wrong in America’s conduct across the Middle East for many decades, it came at the weekend, when the administration’s spokesmen could not bring themselves even to comment directly on, to say nothing of condemn, Riyadh’s purposely provocative beheading of a prominent Shiite cleric, a principled critic of the regime, last Saturday.
Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, took as few words as he could get away with to say nothing whatsoever. When John Kirby, the dim bulb who fronts for the State Department, noted only “the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions,” one knew the hypocrisy and bankruptcy of American policy in the Middle East were both perfectly intact.
Numerous readers have written over the months to assert that I assign the U.S. too much responsibility for the Middle East’s violence and turmoil. This is my form of exceptionalism, they suggest. There is a long history of abuse and inhumanity in the region that has nothing to do with America, I am reminded.
It has never been my intent to argue otherwise. The new regime in Riyadh, to take an example readily to hand, beheaded 47 people last weekend against the Obama administration’s vigorously rendered advice. And I agreed with Kirby, weirdly, when he told journalists after the executions, “Real, long-term solutions aren’t going to be mandated by Washington, D.C.”
My problem—ours, indeed—is that Kirby is a liar to suggest State, the White House or anyone in the defense and intelligence bureaucracies believes this to be so. The hands-off pose, the shrug of the powerless, is default position when the going gets too patently sordid. And that is all it is. No, I will not step back from my contention that the U.S. is the primary author of the disorder and deadly hostility that now engulf the entire region.
One could go back to prewar decades to trace the roots of Washington’s errors and lawlessness in the Middle East. We leave this to the historians for now. For my money, the ridiculous soufflé the Obama administration has made of Middle East policy began to collapse last August, when a Marine general—not a diplomat—negotiated and signed an accord certifying the Erdoğan government in Turkey as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
Wrong times a hundred. By last year the U.S. had been using Turkey to convey weapons to the imaginary “moderate opposition” fighting the Assad government in Syria for three years. But it had been plain for nearly as long that the proto-fascist Erdoğan intended to turn this policy to his own purposes, which no one of any decency could countenance.
Seymour Hersh’s pieces in the London Review of Books have been revelatory in this context. In April 2014 he gave persuasive evidence that, in an attempt to frame Assad, Erdoğan provided extremist Sunni militias with the crudely concocted poison gas that exploded in a Damascus suburb the previous August. In his latest piece, Hersh documents the Pentagon’s many failed efforts to pull the administration off its obsession with developing a coup in Damascus and recognize Islamic terrorists as the threat that matters in Syria.
“The assessment was bleak,” Hersh writes of a classified document the Joint Chiefs brass sent the White House in 2013. “There was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the U.S. was arming extremists…. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria.”
One cannot agree more heartily. At this point, the alliance with Turkey represents a festival of cynicism our media flatly refuse to describe in any detail or with any substantive accuracy. It is the height of naiveté to think Washington does not understand the perverse uses Erdoğan makes of it.
The ink was not dry before the Turkish president took his new pact with the superpower as license to make war against the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Syria and Iraq and pursue a Sunni nationalist agenda while assisting the Islamic State all but overtly in its campaign to destabilize Damascus. Unequivocally, this guy—who favorably cited Hitler as a political model just a few days ago—takes his place in the long line of repellent dictators the cliques in Washington almost always prefer to democrats.
For said cliques it is the Cold War redux with the Turks, as the generals at the Pentagon suggested. Once again Washington recruits Turkey as a spear-carrier in its great-power game—previously against the Soviets, now against the Russian Federation. The bitterest truths are now evident: 1) no post-Cold War administration has yet proven capable of new, 21st century thinking of even the most basic kind, and 2) in consequence of 1) Obama has been purposely ineffectual against the Islamic State these past 18 months because he has refused to abandon plans to topple Assad so as to push Russia decisively out of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.
Humanitarian angst? Wasted lives, the worst suffering on the planet in our time, the shock-horror of Assad’s alleged cruelties? These have nothing to do with what Washington is up to in Syria, and the alliance with Ankara stands as evidence of this.
We must consider the downing of a Russian jet in late November by Turkish pilots flying American-made F-16s in this context. After Obama delivered an almost humorously hypocritical defense of this wildly irresponsible act—“Turkey, like every country, has a right to defend its territory and its air space”—Washington and its clerks in the corporate media made this incident disappear but quick. We have since been treated to a media blackout as brazen as any since the coup in Ukraine two years ago next month. And when you consider the facts available in non-American media, it is no wonder.
There has been fulsome coverage of the Turkish incident in the Russian press, needless to say. Before offering even a brief summary of it, this: One may accept it at face value or question it, but there are no grounds for dismissing it or ignoring it altogether, as our media have, simply because the assertions made are Russia’s. They deserve scrutiny and further investigation at the very least, and they have had neither.
Most interesting is the “why” of the incident. What lay behind President Putin’s blunt charge that the downing of a Russian plane while it was flying an anti-terror mission in Syria was “a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists”? I find the answer in one simple fact: Russian jets, it is not to be missed, had begun targeting convoys of trucks carrying oil into Turkey just before the Turks took one of them out of the sky.
Moscow has practically gushed with evidence and accusations since shortly after its Su-24 went down. Putin, at a press conference with French President François Hollande, showed reconnaissance footage of truck convoys and strikes against oil-storage facilities in Raqaa, the Islamic State’s declared capital. Hollande, roused by the attacks in Paris at the moment I describe, assented as Putin spoke:
“Vehicles, carrying oil, [are] lined up in a chain going beyond the horizon,” Putin asserted . “Day and night they are going to Turkey. Trucks always go there loaded, and back from there—empty. We are talking about a commercial-scale supply of oil from the occupied Syrian territories seized by terrorists. It is from these areas and not any others. And we can see it from the air, where these vehicles are going.”
Other reports alleged that this activity is not the doing merely of middlemen operating on the Turkish-Syrian border. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev alleged “direct financial interest of some Turkish officials relating to the supply of oil products refined by plants controlled by ISIS.” It soon emerged that the chain of beneficiaries may well run up to the presidential palace by way of Erdoğan’s son and son-in-law: Between them, they run Turkey’s largest energy-trading company and the energy ministry.
There is no need to take the Russians’ word for this, although I find the evidence presented in Moscow persuasive, and the activities of Erdoğan’s family members are a matter of record. David Cohen, Treasury’s undersecretary for financial intelligence, had already made the Russian case in October—a month before the matter got as hot. Cohen put the Islamic State’s income from oil sold directly or indirectly into Turkey at $1 million a day.
A few days after the incident, I had a lengthy note from a very well-placed source with extensive interests in, and therefore knowledge of, European investment and commodity markets. What he or she wrote fits like a glove with what had then begun to emerge. Here is some of it, in the form it arrived. The oil prices stated obtained at the time:
For more than 2 yrs I have heard from contacts in Turk,—contacts among people who would know about such things—that the oil was delivered to the Turks and that it was then run through the system, with some of it entering the pipeline which carries crude to the Medit coast for then delivery to W. Europe… I am told that there is a handsome profit of around 15$/bar on this—that is, for example, they buy it from Daesh [the Islamic State] through middlemen at a discount of 30$ and then, “cleaned,” it hits world markets at 45$…. The trade runs on the basis of this 15$ spread. If it is, say 25K bar/day, that = 136M$ for yr (15x25Kx365). So it is not just small change. I understand that the money goes through Turk and Qatari banks. Once the oil is “cleaned,” they don’t even need to launder it through Qatari banks, or any other banks. I further hear that much of the proceeds are then recycled into real estate in W. Europe. So if you are draining off 136M$/yr and, say, you leverage that 2:1, as is typical for commercial real estate, that would mean that after 3 yrs, you are running a 1.2B$ real estate portfolio….
“Surely Treasury knows all this,” concluded my source, whom I have known for more than 25 years. “Eyes wide shut!”
Given I cannot name this source, let me apply the same criterion to his or her information that I suggested for the Russian accounts just summarized: You can take it as it is or not, but you cannot leave it without investigation unless you are into chicanery: The implications are simply too large. But we have had none and heard nothing.
Within a day or so of the Su-24’s downing, Sigmar Gabriel, vice-chancellor in Angela Merkel’s coalition cabinet, exclaimed thus in an interview with DPA, the German press agency: “This incident shows fir the first time that we are dealing with an actor who is unpredictable…. That is not Russia. That is Turkey.”
Gabriel was right about the revelatory aspect of the Nov. 24 events. The American alliance with Turkey makes no sense whatever if you take the administration’s word that it earnestly desires to defeat the Islamic State and restabilize Syria. But it makes perfect sense if, with 1979-80 Afghanistan in mind, you look past all the lies and conclude that, now and probably into the future, Washington finds extremist militias in Syria useful in its pursuit of another “regime change.”
I had an interesting note from a source in Moscow the other day, and I offer it as the take-home on this topic. Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict in late September, he or she suggested, has effectively put Washington on notice: There is to be no more “regime change” for the Americans without vigorous Russian response. My source’s reasoning is interesting, and suggestive of Moscow’s gravity on the matter: Between Ukraine and Syria, he or she said, Putin knows perfectly well that the regime the U.S. truly wants to change is his.
The Saudis, of course, are the other American allies in the Middle East in the cause of who can say what at this point, and suddenly this relationship, too, is exposed in all its abhorrent aspects.
I predicted in this space three autumns ago, when the just-elected Hassan Rouhani appeared at the U.N. to extend Iran’s hand westward, that any opening to the Islamic Republic was fated to shake loose all of Washington’s bedrock relations in the region. I was thinking, optimistically, of U.S.-Israeli ties, but correcting these will take much more time. The Saudi case, plainly, is upon us now.
I have no expertise in Saudi politics, but I wonder if the old alliance between Washington and the House of Saud might have survived the tensions caused by the success of last year’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran had King Abdullah not died a year ago next week. He was 90 and had been high in the Saudi political scene for decades. A tried-and-true relationship, based on Saudi oil and Washington’s silence in the face of the kingdom’s anti-democratic repressions, had been in place since the 1930s.
King Salman has proven to be a few things his predecessor was not since he acceded to the throne. He is 80 but seems to have the temperament of a hot-blooded youth—“more interested in action than deliberation,” as Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution told the New York Times the other day. He is even more nervous about Iran’s emergence as a regional power than Abdullah was, the nuclear accord having been signed seven months into his watch. And he is plainly more extreme in his intolerance of dissent at home and his determination to assert Wahhabist ideology, the radically conservative interpretation of Islam that now informs Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State.
In short, with Salman’s accession the longstanding Saudi component of American policy in the Middle East was bound to come a-cropper. And with the beheading last weekend of Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite critic of the Saudi regime, so it has with a resounding crash. One truly would not want to be on the Middle East desk at State or any White House adviser tasked now with keeping this relationship in place and explaining why the fatal flaws at its core from the first remain acceptable.
There is Riyadh’s false commitment to eradicating the Islamic State as a keystone member of the coalition formed against it. There is the criminally indiscriminate air campaign against Shiite Houthis in Yemen. Coalitions being the fashion these days, Riyadh announced just before the holidays that it had formed one of 34 Muslim nations to fight terrorism. The proposition reeks. Who can say what the Saudis mean when they say they are going to fight “terrorism” wherever it may arise? Some nations the Saudis listed among its ranks immediately said they had heard nothing about it. Even if we take the membership count at face value, it is 100 percent Sunni.
We are to look forward to a first round of talks bringing all parties to the Syrian conflict to the table later this month. Look at this lineup: Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two hood ornaments Washington mounts to betoken a regional commitment to oppose ISIS, are hopelessly compromised—beyond retrieval, in my view. If the talks come off at all, and this remains a question, I predict a short-run circus with too many rings to count.
I can only wager on this point at the moment, but like a careful horseplayer I have a $2 saver on it: It could be that King Salman took off al-Nimr’s head last weekend as part of a strategy to scuttle the Syria talks, wherein Saudis are to sit opposite Iranians—if not before they convene, quickly after they do.
There is a certain consistency to Obama’s Middle East position, one has to say. It is perverse, but it holds: Ally with those subverting your cause—or the cause you declare, at any rate—and subvert those who are your natural allies. Russia and Iran qualify in this latter category, but let me restrict this commentary to those in the region.
The Iranians were clear as bells during the long negotiations on the future of their nuclear program. They were pleased to open the door to the West, having suffered decades of difficult isolation, but they had no intention of abdicating any of their rights under international law. Washington, in particular, was to have no room to make it up as it went along—suggesting as it did, for instance, that Iran had no right to enrich uranium because the U.S. had not conferred it.
Tehran reiterated this point within a month of signing the nuclear accord. Last August it announced completion of a new surface-to-surface ballistic missile, the Fateh 313. The point should have been clear. Since then, the Iranian military has tested the Fateh twice, and the point should have been clearer: We have enemies in the neighborhood, Iranian officials have explained incessantly. The need to maintain a modernized defense is self-evident.
I wondered from the first whether the Obama administration was up to managing the running consequences that were certain to emerge after the nuclear accord was concluded. It is not, we must now conclude. There is simply no dexterity in the thinking within the policy cliques. Russia and Iran, strange as this may sound to readers of corporate-owned newspapers, are natural allies across a range of shared interests. The United States is simply incapable of (1) understanding this and (2) making good use of opportunities.
To wit: In response to Iran’s missile tests, the Obama administration now threatens a new round of sanctions against the Iranians. The White House acknowledges that the tests do not contravene the terms of the nuclear agreement, and good enough it stays with the truth this far. Instead, it argues that the tests run afoul of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in 2010, wherein it was agreed “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”
Did Iran violate UNSC Resolution 1929 last fall? Given the language above it seems open and shut that it has, and Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador at the U.N., asserts this with the evangelical vehemence we have come to expect of her. The greater Power’s convictions, the warier one must be: The rule never seems to fail.
Read further in the document, please. Get to the part no one seems eager to mention, where it states that the U.N. “shall suspend the implementation of measures if and for so long as Iran suspends all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.” In plain English: Halt your enrichment operations and the sanctions declared herein will drop.
As all concerned acknowledge, Iran has shut down its centrifuges and shipped its uranium stockpiles to Russia, per the July accord. Ben Rhodes, who worked hard to get the nuclear deal done, was traveling with Obama in Hawaii last weekend and said this: “I would expect the Iranians to complete the work necessary to move forward with implementation [of the accord] in the coming weeks.”
Let me get this straight, Ben. The Iranians have now responded to 1929, which means they are no longer in violation of the resolution. They are in compliance with the nuclear accord, too, which means they are incapable of building a nuclear device, and this means, in turn, your president is prepared to begin lifting sanctions. At the same time, your president proposes to impose new sanctions because Iran has tested a missile capable of bearing one of the nuclear warheads it is incapable of building.
I think I have it right.
Hassan Rouhani does, this is for sure. On January 1 the Iranian president—he who lit the peace pipe three years ago and took many political risks to get the nuclear pact signed—responded to the suggestion that new sanctions were in the works by asserting their illegality under international law and ordering the Fateh missile program to be expanded and accelerated as quickly as possible.
He meant to say “Happy New Year,” surely, to all the “folks” in the Obama White House.
What a kettle of something more pungent than fish. I still contend that the confrontation with Russia, conjured from nothing and now the object of something close to national hysteria, will be the ugliest, most consequential feature of the Obama legacy on the foreign side. But the havoc in the Middle East this president has done so much to worsen is coming up fast.
Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.