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.