Toward Geopolitical Disengagement: Uncertain yet Desirable
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 14 Jan 2019
13 Jan 2019 – This was published in Middle East Eye on 30 December 2018, and is here reproduced with some modification. Humility in assessment is necessary as what we see tends to be partial and incomplete. Radical uncertainty is the appropriate interpretative outlook, which means that the future could break either bad or good. For a region that has endured so much suffering and abuse, I offer fervent wishes that we will be surprised by hopeful developments during coming months. Already the shakeup of regional politics and perceptions due to the Trump withdrawal move is ambiguous in its implications, but seemingly leading in the positive direction of U.S. political disengagement, and an end to the delusions of being ‘a force for good.’
Ever since the World War I travesties of Sykes/Picot and the Balfour Declaration, the Middle East has been the scene of geopolitical rivalries and unfolding nationalist narratives that veered uneasily between extremes of tyranny and chaos. A second post-Ottoman milestone was crossed in 1956 when the United States displaced its main European allies, the UK and France as the principal manager of Western interests in the region, which at the time centered on the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union, safeguarding Western access to Gulf oil and trade routes, and sustaining Israeli security. A further phase emerged after the ending of Cold War geopolitical bipolarity. This was soon followed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which supplied the pretext for a series of disastrous interventions in the name of counterterrorism.
Then came the uprisings of 2011 consisting of a series of popular movements displacing several authoritarian regimes, followed by an array of foreign interventions, proxy wars, prolonged strife, and massive civilian suffering throughout the region. One result of these anti-authoritarian uprisings has been a surge of counterrevolutionary violence and intensified repressive tendencies. Beyond this, U.S./Saudi/Israeli extreme hostility toward Iran has threatened for years to explode into a regional war of great ferocity.
Into this maelstrom of violence and disorder, the ascent of Trump to U.S. leadership two years ago seemed a huge dump of oil on these already raging fires in the Arab world. Such apprehensions were quickly realized: giving the green light to the Saudi/UAE ultimatum directed at Qatar, going all out to help Israel impose an apartheid state on the Palestinian people, and building a war mongering alliance with Riyadh and Tel Aviv to produce some sort of final showdown with Iran. And worst of all, remaining complicit in the Saudi intervention in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe that has pushed over 17 millions Yemenis to the brink of starvation.
As the world has learned, often painfully, Trump is the least predictable and most irresponsible political figure ever to govern in the United States. On the home front, his policies have been ideologically coherent, leaning far to the right on such varied matters as immigration, trade, taxes, law enforcement policies, and respect for constitutional guidelines. On foreign policy, there has been Trumpist bluster and erratic behavior, but nothing very disruptive other than perhaps the Jerusalem embassy move, that is, until the sudden announcement of the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria a few days ago, to be followed by reducing by 50% the combat presence of American forces in Afghanistan.
This Syrian move has shaken the national security establishment in Washington, and supposedly further undermined confidence in America’s global role among NATO allies and, above all, upset Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this case, Trump overrode the unanimous advice of his hawkish advisors and ministers, failed to consult with allies, and justified the withdrawal by misleadingly claiming the defeat of ISIS. The magnitude of the government crisis was signaled by the announced resignation of General Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense, and underscored by his letter condemning the president’s approach in all but name. This letter of resignation was immediately treated as scripture by Democrats, as well by such stalwarts of liberalism as CNN and the NY Times. It even led several Republicans to at last step forward to denounce Trump’s new Syria policy, contending that it betrays the Kurds, rewards the Russians and the Assad regime, and is red meat for the undefeated ISIS legions.
Assuming that Trump does not pull the rug out from under his own initiative, it certainly merits deserve a more balanced consideration, and quite likely a favorable assessment. The American military presence in Syria was always problematic, too modest to be a game changer, but significant enough to prolong the Syrian agony. With respect to ISIS, it may not be defeated, but the main players in Syria at this point—the Syrian government, Russia, and Iran all have strong immediate incentives to carry the fight against ISIS to a successful conclusion. We cannot know what Turkey will do with respect to the Kurds operating close to its border in northern Syria and supposedly linked to the armed struggle movement of the PKK centered in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq. We can hope that Erdogan gave Trump some assurances when they talked of foregoing an escalation of anti-Kurdish military efforts and the Syrian Kurds and their allies among the Turkish Kurds will on their side explore deescalating options.
What we can be encouraged by, especially if account is also taken of the withdrawal of half of the American combat contingents in Afghanistan, announced just one day later, is that Trump seems to be giving substance to his long deferred campaign promise to end foreign interventions and give emphasis to restoring the quality of life in the United States. If this is indeed the case then it is bad news for the Saudi and Israeli hawks. They expected Trump to lead this most unholy of alliances to the gates of Tehran, maybe not by military means, but at least by intensified forms of coercive diplomacy and a variety of destabilizing tactics. Trump has deservedly earned a reputation for habitual inconsistency, or for staying the course once a policy comes under fire. At least for the moment, it would seem that the Syrian withdrawal, even if slowed down by deep state pushback, is best understood as part of a larger political disengagement from failed military adventures in distant countries at great cost and almost no political results. If this happens, it will be a major defeat for the ‘bipartisan consensus’ that promoted U.S. global militarism ever since the end of World War II as the twin sibling of neoliberal globalization.
All and all, what emerges is certainly not a pretty picture yet there are grounds to be more positive than the strongly negative reactions of the political elites in America and Western Europe. The disavowing of foreign military intervention by the United States is long overdue, given the record of political failure and the trail of suffering left behind. Yet more important, and undoubtedly not part of any coherent revision of grand strategy by Trump, is the possibility that a reduced political engagement by the United States in the Middle East will encourage regional moves toward moderation, self-determination, and co-existence. Such disengagement would allow the realities of a post-colonial Middle East to break freer of the shackles of geopolitics. Even the Israeli leadership might feel encouraged over time to reconsider their approach to the Palestinian national movement, and shift their focus from seeking an apartheid victory to envisioning a political compromise that presupposes the true equality of both peoples with a single secular democratic state.
The context of the Syrian withdrawal is also consistent with the drift of several recent regional developments. First of all, the grotesque murder of Kamal Khoshoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has made it less feasible than before to join hands with the leadership in Riyadh, and solidify the anti-Iran alliance with Israel and the United States. As well, the dreadful Saudi intervention in Yemen, undertaken with American support, has already caused massive suffering, and threatens to produce what is already being called the worst famine in the last hundred years. Moves at a Stockholm Conference of the parties agreed on the establishment of a UN presence to open the main Yemeni port at Hudaydah, handling 80% of food imports. If this initiative holds it would be a hopeful step back from the brink of a worsening humanitarian catastrophe. If this de-escalation gains momentum it would likely reinforce the sense of geopolitical disengagement that is now associated with removing American troops from Syria, but might also encourage ending US complicity in the Yemen War.
These conjectures about a possibly better future for the Middle East in 2019 are beset by profound uncertainties. Aside from Trump further giving way to militarist counter-pressures, there is the possibility that he has at last crossed the red line of reluctant acceptance by the Republican Party facing its own lose/lose future. Such a dilemma could translate into a determined effort to force Trump from presidential power one way or another. He would then be replaced by the current vice president, Mike Pence, seemingly an ideological colleague on the home front, but unlikely to buck the national security establishment on its core global posture, namely, an unshakable belief in the benevolence and efficacy of American military power. Pence would be freed to produce a foreign policy that was both independent of Trump’s 2016 campaign for the presidency and not twisted to such an extent to satisfy Israel’s ambitions.
There are also disturbing alternative futures for the Middle East in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal. These include a surge of ISIS terrorist attacks in Europe and North America, a bloodbath in Syria as Damascus consolidates its victory in the civil war, and a major Turkish offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria. None of these developments can be ruled out, and if occurring, would alter for the worse what we can reasonably hope for in the region as 2019 unfolds.
Yet for the first time in the 21stCentury it is possible to envision positive developments in the region as reducing the level of violence and turbulence. Even if these moderating developments occur, the situation throughout the region still has a long way to go to achieve peace, stability, humane governance, and justice.
As well, prospects are bleaker than ever for a sustainable peace for Israel and Palestine. Hardliners are in firm control in Israel, with a seeming resolve to carry the Zionist project in its most expansive form to a victorious finish. Although such an outcome is implausible, what is likely is a hardening of the apartheid structures oppressing the Palestinian people as a whole and an even more embittered resistance and increasingly militant global solidarity movement.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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