Contrary to conventional wisdom, the world should hope for the election of Donald Trump next Tuesday. American policy has become a fetid morass in which ideology and influence-peddling jointly serve to insulate its leaders from the real world. It is not simply that America’s leaders are out of touch, but that they are in continuous touch with a fictitious construct of the world that excludes the possibility of policy course correction.
America’s policy elites are sleepwalkers, in the way that historian Christopher Clark described Europe’s leaders in August 1914 on the eve of the First World War. Five years and 500,000 corpses after the disastrous “Arab Spring” and the Libyan coup of 2011, the American elite still does not understand that today’s chaos in the Middle East is borne of American meddling. President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and the McCain mainstream of the Republican Party passionately believed that the Arab world had broken free of its tyrannical past and was en route to democracy. By destroying the old dictatorships, the United States simply opened the field to ethnic and sectarian war. Syria is in civil war, Iraq is close to it, and even Turkey is at risk.
Consider the excoriation of Trump by General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA during 2006-2009. Hayden denounced Trump as “Putin’s useful fool” in a Washington Post op-ed this week, writing that “Trump also echoes Putin when it comes to Syria and the Islamic State, or ISIS. Here he follows the Moscow line that we and the Russians have common purpose and that Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad (and Iran) are “killing ISIS.”
“Actually, they are not,” Hayden continues. “They are bucking up the Assad regime that, if anyone is keeping score, has killed more innocents than the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, have combined. And the attractiveness of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to Sunni Muslims is a direct byproduct of the depredations of the Assad regime — the regime that Russia saved from collapse a year ago.”
All of this is delusional. The reason Sunni Arabs supported the Islamic State is that the United States destroyed the only Sunni Arab state in the Levant and Mesopotamia, namely Iraq, and imposed a Shi’ite state (under Nouri Maliki) in 2007. The Sunnis revolted, and the American occupation under General Petraeus paid them hundreds of millions of dollars to bide their time. After years in which the Sunni opposition took the form of a non-state actor, namely al-Qaeda, ISIS declared that it was time to form a Sunni state, and made itself a magnet for Sunni support.
The Shi’ite militias led by Iranian officers whom the United States states backs against ISIS are just as brutal as ISIS itself. That is how confessional war is conducted in that part of the world. The “moderate Sunni Islamists” whom General Hayden and his successors at CIA armed from the Libyan stockpiles always were al-Qaeda with an alternate business card.
As I noted Aug. 9, General Hayden still believes that the United States should encourage Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to exercise power in the Middle East. He told me last year that he was disappointed that the Egyptian military had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi before it had a chance to devote itself to trash removal and other public services and transformed itself into a moderate political force. By arming “moderate” jihadists, Hayden and his CIA colleagues poured gasoline on the sectarian fires of the region. Major-General Daniel P. Bolger detailed the disaster in an excellent war memoir, Why We Lost, published in 2014.
It was obvious to anyone with an ear to the ground that Sunni insurgents would rally to the call of an Islamic State. General Michael Flynn, a career officer and lifelong Democrat who headed Defense Intelligence Agency during 2011 and 2012, tried to warn the Obama Administration that ISIS had become a major threat. His reports were ignored. As Flynn reported later, “I think they did not meet a particular narrative that the White House needed.”
Flynn is now Donald Trump’s main national security adviser, and his views are on the record in a 2016 book co-authored by Michael Ledeen. Flynn evinces no sympathy for Russia; on the contrary, he emphasizes Russia’s support for Iran as evidence of its ideological affinity to the Islamic Republic: “It’s the old nostrum: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Putin has declared the United States (and NATO generally) to be a national security threat to Russia, and ‘Death to America’ is the official chant of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both the Putinists and the radical Iranian Muslims agree on the identity of their main enemy. Hence, one part of the answer is surely that their alliance is simply the logical outgrowth of their hostility toward America. … The Russians and Iranians have more in common than a shared enemy. There is also a shared contempt for democracy and an agreement — by all the members of the enemy alliance — that dictatorship is a superior way to run a country, an empire, or a caliphate.”
This seems to me too simple. Russia (like China) has no Shi’ite Muslim population; its concerns for domestic stability arise entirely from Sunnis. The Shia are a natural ally, despite the fact (as Flynn and Ledeen note) that Iran has tried to make inroads among Russian and Central Asian Muslims. These were feeble and ineffective. To be quite fair to Putin, America’s blundering about the Middle East let the Sunni jinn out of the bottle that Saddam Hussein long had contained, and that is a threat to Russian interests. America’s errors forced Russia to take a major role in the region, whether Putin wants to undermine the United States or not. That is how Putin has explained his stance to foreign leaders with whom I have spoken. Russia has not forgotten how effective was America’s support for jihadists during the Afghanistan war of the 1980s. If Washington wanted to destabilize Russia, Sunni militants would be an effective instrument of subversion. To do so would be foolish and dangerous, in my view, but Moscow cannot rule out the possibility that the United States might do so at some time in the future (I do not think the Obama administration had any such thing in mind).
Putin also believes that Washington supported the February 2014 Maidan coup in the Ukraine with an eye towards eventual regime change in Russia. I do not know whether his assessment is correct, but the thought did cross the mind of some people in Washington.
Moscow has a number of practical reasons to make life miserable for the United States, quite apart from Putin’s ideological proclivities. Sadly, it has extensive means to do so. While the United States spent perhaps US$5 trillion in Iraq, Afghanistan and associated adventures, Moscow invested far smaller sums in air-defense systems that may be able to down American fifth generation fighters. Washington does not know how good the S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system is, and does not want to find out.
So comprehensive was their incompetence that it is hard to find a senior official of the George W. Bush or Obama administrations who was not mired in it. General Flynn, who was fired for challenging the official fairy-tale, is an exception. For the most part, America’s foreign policy elite has chosen to eschew responsibility for its blunders. Their reputations would be safe with Hillary Clinton, who after all is one of them. The circle of self-protection is drawn so closely that nothing short of an outsider with nothing to lose by the humiliation of the old guard could restore a modicum of competence to American policy.