22 Aug 2014

Why US foreign policy is like ‘smoking without inhaling’

Almost exactly one year ago President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were contemplating the bombing of the Assad regime from the air after a particularly nasty chemical attack had pushed Damascus on the wrong side of Washington’s red line.

The military intervention failed, of course, after parliament in the UK voted against it and Moscow rode to the rescue with a face-saving plan to requisition all of Syria’s chemical weapons.


Twelve months later Washington is once again contemplating airstrikes against Syrian targets. But this time it’s not the Assad regime in the cross hairs but its enemy, the so called Islamic State.

In Damascus they probably can’t believe their luck. In one year America has gone from threatening the regime’s survival to ensuring it. While waging all-out war against his own people, Assad has always claimed that the real enemy were jihadi extremists. It seemed like an excuse at first. Now it has become another one of the region’s many self-fulfilling prophecies.

Supporters of President Obama’s caution over air strikes last year will say that his instincts were right: even if Assad was a monster, he is not as bad as the Islamic extremists and will eventually try to prevent Syria from becoming a failed fragmented state.

Opponents of President Obama will say we are reaping the consequences of a weak American policy.  It attacked Assad from the sidelines but left him in power while refusing to arm the “moderate” civic opposition that sought better governance and rather than an anti-western Islamic caliphate.

Cowed by its bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and a waning public appetite for any intervention, Washington, to borrow a phrase from the Clinton era, resorted to smoking without inhaling. The result was a vacuum which has now been filled by IS, described by the secretary of defence as a far bigger threat to America than al-Qaeda. It’s enough to make you weep.

The words of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and decorated soldier, about Iraq come to mind. Echoing the warning from one of America’s best-known interior design chains about its products, he famously once said: “You break it. you own it!” This is still true today three years after President Obama came good on his first election pledge to withdraw all American troops from Iraq.

America has entangled itself in a web of its own weaving. It has yet to make sense of a policy that is dictated by conflicting instincts: a desire to do good and promote democracy, a need for regional security, which has on the past relied on the enemies of freedom, and a public that can’t see the point and has lost its tolerance for casualties.

The result of this noxious triangle are unpleasant choices. America, for instance, may end up having to do deals with Assad to contain IS. A positive unintended consequence may be another deal with Shia regional power Iran. The unintended consequence of that could be upsetting old ally the Sunni power Saudi Arabia, who could help to fund or even arm the caliphate. We can guess but we don’t know for sure.

The growing Sunni/Shia divide has become another level of complexity in the region’s game of deadly three- dimensional chess. Or to put it simply: to America the Middle East is like a balloon. If you squeeze it in one corner it will bulge in another. You just can’t be sure where.

Follow @mattfrei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei

6 reader comments

  1. John Kearins says:

    2 quick points .
    I keep hearing and reading that IS is worse than Assad thus the prospect of the Rifkind favoured realpolitik solution (I still remember Rifkinds less than glorious contribution to the Bosnia war). I don’t think many could match the death toll and industrial level brutal torture of Assad. iS would have to be in power for years to match him.
    The implications of what Saudi Arabia has funded is with us now. It’s not a question what they might fund in the future , we are baring the brunt of their actions today without a word of criticism from USA or UK governments.

  2. Philip says:

    Though I appreciate Colin Powell’s opinion, past experience suggests that foreign intervention makes things worse. perhaps it’d be better if the US put their weight behind the UN and allowed them to lead in trying to resolve problems in this region which between us, we in the West have messed about with long enough. IS is a creature, at least in part, of the West’s creation because of our previous interventions and rhetoric. The UK should also be focusing on supporting the UN and dealing with our multifarious problems here at home, rather than being the doggy-like assistant to the world’s policeman, a position that is neither dignified nor wise.

  3. anon says:

    lots of probs accessing your webpage today,

    wasnt sure whether to post this re Mr Hammonds Comments today, re dealing with Assad, why not do this, get rid of IS, then get rid of him, which would be easier if working alongside him, but not in a bad way, and might well save his life and that of his family in the long run as well as many lives? surely someone needs to step on the gas now with all this, speed iwill save lives, caution will cost them. as for the disgusting images posted by IS, it is I’m sure having the opposite effect to that they intended.
    re also Mr H’s comments about supporting Assad being coutner productive, perhaps replay the interview today by the BBC with the new iraqi FS

  4. Gerald Payne says:

    This seems a remarkable fact and context free post. surely Obama is a much bigger monster than Assad. He is not carrying out extra judicial killings by drone. He is fighting a war against western and Saudi backed proxy creations of with IS is one.No mention here of why there is a Shia /Sunni divide. No mention of US/UK war crimes in Iraq for instance. But of course Frei knows this and is why he has his job.

  5. Alan says:

    Deeply misleading article. Was it proved that Mr Assad used chemical weapons or that Turkey supplied the rebels for their use? Wasn’t Brazil, South Africa, India and a host of other nations opposed to US airstikes, not just Moscow? Isn’t the US and UK supporting Al Queda in Syria? Didn’t Mr Powell purger himself by lieing about WMD in Iraq? Why must the US continue it’s war against the Middle East? Isn’t it rather coincidental that Syria needs to be invaded? Al Queda has been proven to be a created terror force to enable western/Saudi/Israeli aims. ISIS comes just in time to further the profiteering. Not in our name.

  6. John says:

    Brilliant piece. Summed the middle east up perfectly, the analogy to the balloon masterful.

Comments are closed.