Our Remarkably Unfabulous Middle East Policy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 17, 2013

One of the best–and most depressing–analyses that I have seen regarding the recent Russian-American deal on Syria:

The United States and Russia have now averted U.S. military action against the Syrian regime for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Is the agreement reached by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov on September 9 a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration, or was it, as retired British ambassador Charles Crawford called it, “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began?”

While perhaps not as bad as Ambassador Crawford suggests, we agree that the outcome is one of the worst defeats for U.S. foreign policy in decades. We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realist who opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalists who supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

A halfway competent United States Congress, interested in doing its job, would call hearings and call out Secretary Kerry and others in the administration–including the president himself–for undermining a key American foreign policy interest. Oh, and perhaps newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post should come out with editorials demanding the resignations of people like Secretary Kerry, and anyone else who sold President Obama on the idea that accepting increased Russian influence in the Middle East is a good thing.

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