Tag Archives: national security interests

The Sins of the Fathers…

In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran.  In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo.  When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities.  Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi.  As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north.  The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.

After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered.  When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”).  Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.

In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil.  The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet.  The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars.  The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.

In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria.  Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments.  By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum.  The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.  The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.

I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all).  I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad.  An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”

In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole.  The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises.  To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road?  The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad.  Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region.  These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.

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Do airstrikes serve Israeli interests?

Despite official silence, it is reasonably clear that the Israeli Air Force bombed targets in Syria twice since late Thursday night.  The putative reason for the attack was to prevent the transfer of Iranian long-range missiles to the Lebanese Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, and which started the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel.  This weekend Israeli fighter jets flew over Lebanon to shoot missiles into targets outside of Damascus, the capital of Syria.  Syrian State News reported the strikes and threatened retribution.  When US President Obama was asked about the Israeli strikes, he responded that Israel is entitled to defend itself by preventing the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, serving Israeli national security interests.

Leaving aside questions of international legality and morality, which rarely trouble militarily superior countries in relation to what they identify as national security issues, were Israeli interests served by these airstrikes?  The attacks were not subtle, and there is no pretense that anyone else carried them out.  The Assad government responded by interpreting the attack as a declaration of war, as Israel itself would have done if Syrian jets had used Jordanian airspace to bomb Israeli military installations near Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.  Syria’s Information Minister al-Zu’bi said the attack “opens the door wide open for all possibilities” in terms of retaliation.  Heads of most Arab states condemned the Israeli airstrikes, as did the Syrian National Coalition, which could gain from the weakening of Assad’s forces by the Israeli attacks.  Israel is perhaps hoping that this preemptive strike, like the one in Khartoum last October, will blow over in the international community.  Hezbollah certainly isn’t going to profit from whatever was destroyed in the attacks, and Assad is unlikely to expend energy on a retaliatory strike when he has his hands full with domestic troubles.

But in striking Mount Qasyun above Damascus, Israel has dramatically made the point that it can bomb the Syrian capital at any time.  This detail is unlikely to be forgotten by whoever emerges as the last force standing in the Syrian Civil War.  The number of Syrians who blame all the casualties of war on Assad personally mean that there can probably be no place for Bashar al-Assad in a post-war Syria.  Since he has vowed to “live and die” in Syria, the best possible outcome for Israel might be a partitioning of Syria between regions loyal to Assad and regions which elect a new government.  This would prevent any one government from mustering Syria’s full military power against Israel, as they would likely jealously watch each other first and foremost.  But instead of one Lebanon north of its border, Syria would have several Lebanons to keep track of.  But a stably partitioned Syria also seems to be a fabulously unlikely possibility.

Whatever government might replace Assad is likely to be worse for Israel.  If the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra takes over the country, they are unlikely to preserve the uneasy ceasefire between Syria and Israel which the Assad dynasty has observed for the last few decades, and might declare the Israeli government their next target.  A war between Israel and a newly radicalized “Syrian Islamic Republic” could draw in regional support from Egypt and perhaps Saudi Arabia as well, leading to a new Arab-Israeli war which could damage Israel more than the rockets destroyed this weekend.

A Western-backed secularist Arab government in Syria may be more inclined to be circumspect with regard to Israel, given shared allies in Western Europe and North America.  But there is unlikely to be any love lost between such a government and Israel, and it is more likely to work closely with the Arab League to oppose Israel in international politics, which Assad’s relative diplomatic isolation prevented.  The threat of a future Israeli preemptive strike on Damascus could encourage moving the capital of Syria further north to Aleppo (or what’s left of it after the war ends), and might encourage Syria and other Arab states to strike first and lethally in any future conflict.  The increased paranoia on both sides of the border is unlikely to facilitate regional stability and peace.

A failed state environment, similar to Somalia after 1991, might resemble the outcome of an al-Qa’ida controlled Syria with the advantage of reduced firepower but the disadvantage of less readily identifiable targets, and greater difficulty distinguishing which group may decided to target Israel at any time.

Given the potential long-term costs, I wonder whether Israel’s decision to conduct airstrikes in the region around Damascus will push their enemies towards more brutal violence, and thus whether Israel’s airstrikes have sacrificed long-term interests for short-term tactical goals.