Sunday, October 18, 2015

Commentary - Kissinger on America's Middle East Foreign Policy

Reading Henry Kissinger's OpEd in WSJ, one gets a clear sense of disappointment for someone who erected the edifice of America's Middle East policy in 1970s. Kissinger's claim is this policy architecture lasted for over 4 decades. He does not name President Obama in the OpEd but it is clear that he faults Obama Administration for the collapse of this policy architecture. But he is bit selective here. A major component of his policy architecture was Israel Palestine conflict. Oslo Accord was the natural evolution of the policy framework which Kissinger helped to erect in early 1970s; no doubt. But in the end Israel Palestine problem has remained unsolved and is showing every sign of going the way of South African Apartheid regime. There is no 'good end' there with what Israeli and Palestinians are following. Kissinger's Middle East architecture never delivered Israel Palestine peace in the end; he got peace noble prize for a failed cause; his policy of bringing America on Pakistan's side in Bangladesh war was morally corrupt, in the end completely wrong and the world has moved beyond the foreign policy of a super power which engineers coups in other countries. May be all these failures of Kissinger's approaches have chastised him in not naming President Obama in his critique. Nevertheless, such presumptuous tone of the OpEd - "what did you do to my intelligently crafted policy" is unwarranted. It is because such a tone makes Kissinger to miss many more obvious points in the current quagmire of Middle East. His deep understanding of the subject clearly brings up holistic and historical perspectives as well as many insights. But it still seems like he is missing the forest for trees. 

Core of Kissinger’s argument is two fold: 
- America’s current Middle East policy has resulted in America going away from our traditional Sunni Allies in the region and 
- Realpolitik demands that to defeat ISIS and its terrorism, America needs to learn to live with Assad regime. 

In Kissinger’s thinking, Iran Nuke Deal is the culprit for sowing doubts in minds of our Sunni Allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Gulf States. When Kissinger argues that Nixon China rapprochement cannot be a model for Iran Nuke deal, it is clear that he is not ready to pay the price – concerns among Sunni Allies that America is propping up Shiite power Iran. But what Kissinger ignores is, not doing the deal was not an option for USA when the entire Europe, Russia and China all were warming up to open business with Iran. Obama's Iran Deal is a way of retaining the 'say' of America on Ayatollah's nukes when rest of the world wanted to move on. Admittedly there are implementation challenges, but Kissinger is not talking about those with any insights.

Next, Kissinger essentially echoes Vladimir Putin's line - defeating ISIS is the main job, Assad can come later. The reality is Obama Administration has acquiesced with this policy implicitly already.[1] Nevertheless, the kind of atrocities Assad regime has committed and is still doing; it is untenable for any democratically elected leader to accept legitimacy of the Assad regime. We are in the 21st century where the world is more intertwined, fully wired and propping up brutal dictators is not easy for any democratically elected world leader. We are not living in Kissinger's world of ignored telegrams; we are living in the world of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram

Kissinger stays away from tactical aspects of Syrian war and that is wise. Whether to give antiaircraft missiles or antiaircraft guns to Syrian rebels (but which ones?) in addition to antitank missiles or to establish no fly zone next to Turkish border or to support Kurdish attack on Raqqa via air force; all these choices are going to increase American entanglement in the Syrian quagmire and Obama Administration’s reticence is understandable there. However, Kissinger does not talk any longer term principles which American Policy needs to follow as few other commentators are arguing

Kissinger talks about the federal architecture of Syria and Iraq when the current war ends. But to talk about all that without mentioning Kurds, who can become America's crucial ally; is just not credible. Kissinger's analysis offers some insights, like how America is at odds with practically each and every player of the Syrian theater; but overall his analysis is unlikely to provide much policy prescriptions to Obama Administration than what they must be thinking already.


[1] - Actually Obama Administration paid dearly for this policy of not actively seeking ouster of Assad. When it embarked on ill-fated program of training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS, it did not find much takers because Administration was insistent on not taking arms against Assad. For all Syrian rebels, Assad is the first enemy and Obama Administration failed in anticipating that fact. From Administration perspective, danger of American Arms in hands of ISIS and al-Nusra Front were real; potentially causing some serious damage. Besides, it is possible that while Administration was closing the nuke deal with Iran; it did not want to antagonize Russia’s ally Assad explicitly since Russian node for the nuke deal was always essential.

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