Haviland Smith: America’s inconsistent foreign policy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Haviland Smith, of Williston, a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East.

Successful bilateral foreign policy has historically required a level of predictability on both sides. Without that, both sides are running blind and disaster becomes far more likely.

During the second presidential primary debate, candidate Donald Trump criticized Mike Pence for supporting the concept that the U.S. bomb the Syrian military if Russia and the Assad regime continued to strike civilians. Hillary Clinton had just called for a no-fly zone in Syria. Pence and Clinton wanted America to police violations of the international rules of warfare. Trump, by contrast, wished to ignore them and is explicitly on record as not favoring the world police role for America, which he has now undertaken in Syria.

The administration says the real issue is poison gas, but is poison gas so bad that by contrast it makes killing people by other means perfectly acceptable? Why has our new president not retaliated or even spoken against the killings by other means of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, most emphatically including children, who have already perished in their civil war?

We have now been involved in a 16-year undeclared war in the Middle East which began with our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Americans have learned a great deal about the region during those years. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that we are no longer admired and respected in the region. That change in attitude has come about primarily because of our military activities there and it follows that further military activity will only increase local hatred for us.

Where does the world stand when the American president is wildly unpredictable?


Our military presence there, even when we are clearly killing bad guys like the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS, has created a series of situations in which locals who once appreciated us have found it necessary to choose between us and our enemies. Far too often that choice has been dictated by the fact that the American forces are foreigners killing their countrymen.

We have learned that Syria is run by a minority (13 percent) Alawite (Shia) government and that the vast majority (75 percent) of Syrians are Sunni. We know that 85-90 percent of Muslims are Sunni, leaving the Shia in a tiny minority. We know there is no love lost between them and that they have a long history of conflict. What we are watching in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are bits and pieces of that old conflict, now often in the form of civil conflict within “countries,” created a century and more ago by Western imperialist nations, that really can’t survive without relentless internal repression or massive external help.

Picture yourself as a Syrian Alawite (Shia). You are the Shia with your finger in the dike of Sunni repression. You would do anything to maintain the status quo in Syria. The largest Shia country in the region is Iran. Iran has the same concerns about its existence as the Alawites in Syria. They are under the gun from the Sunnis. The Iranians do not intend to see another Shia-run country go down the tubes, so they are supporting Syria both directly and through Hamas and Hezbollah, their surrogates in the Levant.

Additionally, Russia has historical geopolitical designs that have persuaded them to support the minority Alawites in every way possible. After all, Syria is the only country in the regions that has provided Russia with a naval base and that is and always has been a critical consideration for Russia.

What we now have here in America is an elected president who, between the campaign and his incumbency, has changed his position on just about every issue with the possible exceptions of wealth and power. It would appear that he has little understanding of, or is persuaded to overlook, the critically important realities in the Middle East.

As unpleasant as that may be for those of us who are disinterested in participating in another Middle East ground war, that is not the real issue. The real and infinitely more dangerous issue is that foreign policy over the millennia has required consistency and some level of predictability on the part of its participants. What probably saved America and the Soviet Union from nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was that each side was, in the main, predictable and thus relatively understandable to the other.

Where does the world stand when the American president is wildly unpredictable? How will he be read by countries like North Korea, China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and others with actual and hoped for nuclear weapons? What will they do in such a new, completely changed environment?

What is said to have worked in business negotiations will not necessarily work in international relations.

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  • John Klar

    Good piece… It is important for Americans to understand the history and culture we are dealing with in Syria and the Middle East. Syria has brutally repressed Sunni insurgencies for decades, often killing tens of thousands in days: the nature of the killing (gas) is a qualitative difference only. We must not make shallow judgments based on shallow comprehension of the region….

    • Jon Corrigan

      Shallow judgments and shallow actions are all we’ve done for decades – that’s worked out really well – hasn’t it?

  • Pete Novick

    “All in all, considering the difficulties that Middle Eastern countries have inherited and the problems that they confront, the prospects for Middle Eastern democracy are not good. But they are better than they have ever been before. Most of these countries face grave economic problems. If they fail to cope with these problems, then the existing regimes, both dictatorial and authoritarian, are likely to be overthrown and replaced, probably by one variety or another of Islamic fundamentalists. It has been remarked in more than one country that the fundamentalists are popular because they are out of power and cannot be held responsible for the present troubles. If they acquired power, and with it responsibility, they would soon lose that popularity. But this would not matter to them, since once in power they would not need popularity to stay there, and would continue to govern—some with and some without oil revenues to mitigate the economic consequences of their methods. In time even the fundamentalist regimes, despite their ruthless hold on power, would be either transformed or overthrown, but by then they would have done immense, perhaps irreversible, damage to the cause of freedom.”

    – from the essay, Islam and Liberal Democracy, by Bernard Lewis which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1993:


    “So America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”

    – from a speech given by President Obama on June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt

    • Jon Corrigan

      Meanwhile, in the real world, Erdogan will now become dictator for life in Turkey.

  • Steve Baker

    I would say to the writer of this opinion piece, our predictability has gotten us in the predicament we are in. We could go down the long list of the hotspot the CIA missed and problems caused by the CIA worldwide.
    This sounds nothing more than Mark Maguire writing an op ed about the benefits of drugs in baseball.