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April 19, 2014

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Obama’s Middle East nightmare

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The sex scandal engulfing two of our top military and intelligence officers could not be coming at a worse time: The Middle East has never been more unstable and closer to multiple, interconnected explosions.

Virtually every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has had a Middle Eastern country that brought him grief. For Ike, it was Lebanon’s civil war and Israel’s Sinai invasion. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the 1967 Six-Day War. For Nixon, it was the 1973 war. For Carter, it was the Iranian Revolution. For Ronald Reagan, it was Lebanon. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq. For Bill Clinton, it was al-Qaida and Afghanistan. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq and Afghanistan. For Barack Obama’s first term, it was Iran and Afghanistan.

For Obama’s second term, I fear that it could be the full nightmare — all of them at once. The whole Middle East erupts in one giant sound and light show of civil wars, states collapsing and refugee dislocations, as the keystone of the region — Syria — gets pulled asunder and the disorder spills across the neighborhood.

Ever since the start of the Syrian uprising/civil war, I’ve cautioned that while Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia implode, Syria would explode if a political resolution was not found quickly. That is exactly what’s happening.

The reason Syria explodes is because its borders are particularly artificial, and all of its internal communities — Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians — are linked to brethren in nearby countries and are trying to draw them in for help. Also, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war against Shiite-led Iran in Syria and in Bahrain, which is the base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Bahrain witnessed a host of bombings last week as the Sunni-led Bahraini regime stripped 31 Bahraini Shiite political activists of their citizenship. Meanwhile, someone in Syria has decided to start lobbing mortars at Israel. And, Tuesday night, violent anti-government protests broke out across Jordan over gas price increases.

What to do? I continue to believe that the best way to understand the real options — and they are grim — is by studying Iraq, which, like Syria, is made up largely of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Kurds. Why didn’t Iraq explode outward like Syria after Saddam was removed? The answer: America.

For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade — that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin; we pulled out Saddam; we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shiite-Sunni contest for power. Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those U.S. troops in and along Iraq’s borders prevented the violence from spreading. Our invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time. After that Sunni-Shiite civil war burned itself out, we brokered a fragile, imperfect power-sharing deal between Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Then we got out. It is not at all clear that their deal will survive our departure.

Still, the lesson is that if you’re trying to topple one of these iron-fisted, multisectarian regimes, it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order. There is too little trust in these societies for them to do it on their own. Syria’s civil war, though, was triggered by predominantly Sunni rebels trying to oust President Bashar Assad and his minority Alawite-Shiite regime. There is no outside power willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire there rages uncontrolled; refugees are spilling out, and the Shiite-Sunni venom unleashed by the Syrian conflict is straining relations between these same communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.

But Iraq teaches another lesson: Shiites and Sunnis are not fated to murder each other 24/7/365. Yes, their civil war dates to the seventh century. And, yes, when they started going after each other in Iraq, they did so with breathtaking, nails-pounded-into-heads violence. There is nothing like a fight within the faith. Yet, once order was restored, Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, many of whom have intermarried, were willing to work together and even run together in multisectarian parties in the 2009-10 elections.

So the situation is not hopeless. I know U.S. officials are tantalized by the idea of flipping Syria from the Iranian to the Western camp by toppling Assad. That would make my day, too, but I’m skeptical it would end the conflict.

I fear that toppling Assad, without a neutral third party inside Syria to referee a transition, could lead not only to permanent civil war in Syria but one that spreads around the region. It’s a real long shot, but we should keep trying to work with Russia — Syria’s lawyer — to see whether together we can broker a power-sharing deal inside Syria and a United Nations-led multinational force to oversee it. Otherwise, this fire will rage on and spread, as the acid from the Shiite-Sunni conflict eats away at the bonds holding the Middle East together and standing between this region and chaos.

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. Excellent article Mr. Friedman, well thought out.

    Future, you really need to get back into the real world. Obama policies have nothing to do with people revolting against their own governments. As a matter of fact it was all of the previous presidential policies that are now knocking at Obama's door.

    A note to you paranoid conspiracy types, Hillary Clinton asked for funds to guard our embassies and the House voted down the bill, they didn't want to spend the money.

  2. And President Obama is floating Susan Rice's name as Secretary of State with the middle east in the worse turmoil in recent history. Who's dumber, Rice or Obama?

    CarmineD

  3. The middle east has been a powder keg since the beginning of time.It dosen't matter who is President the hate that has been in place forever will not change with a new regime.Be careful what we wish for,with regime change it may come back to haunt us. Imagine Iran with a nuclear bomb and a delivery system in place at this time.Israel has a lot o be concerned about for the safety of it's people and country.

  4. Mr. Chapline I must agree with your choice (and mine) of Gen. Colin Powell as Sec. of State. He would be a much more logical choice than Susan Rice. He also would be a much better choice for Sec. of Defense than John Kerry.

    I also must agree with your assessment of any military engagement in the Middle East. Let us insure first that we have a problem that affects the US before committing US military.

    Mr. Branco I also must agree that what is happening in the Middle East is not a product of the Presidents policies. Now that said it is possible that certain things are happening as a result of a "perceived" position of the US currently. Perhaps.

  5. Powell is out. Never happen. He's enjoying restoring old Volvos and spending time with his wife and family in retirement.

    CarmineD

  6. rusty57 - "A note to Vernos, funding wasn't the problem in Libya."

    A note to rusty57, it was part of the problem. Along with the other 20 plus nations running rampart at the same time.

  7. Mr. Chapline I was taken aback by Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama but as I remember that is exactly why you and I served in the military. To preserve that choice to everyone. Mr. Powell will have to do a lot more than that for me to lose respect for him.

    To be honest, what is going on in the Middle East right now, as we are reading all of this, scares me. I have just read that Morsi stated that Egypt will respect the Egyptian/Israeli treaty is comforting for the time being.

  8. Mr. Chapline I don't disagree but I thought I would say that about Morsi, perhaps in some sort of delusional wish, I don't know.

    Also, I have been saying ever since Mr. Powell was removed from the Sec. of State job that I wanted him to run for President. I also would support him (almost) unconditionally. What I currently see with the unconditional support of our existing President is scary. No one is that perfect. No one!

  9. If we police, they pay...up front.

  10. "The point is, Carmine is apparently incapable of looking past his partisan political beliefs."

    Bull BChap. Powell is enjoying retirement. Has nothing to do with his politics or mine. BTW, his lovely wife suffers from depression and his public life put a strain on her and their marriage. Another reason he will not get back in.

    CarmineD

  11. Obama is too busy to perform as Commander In Chief. Too busy scheduling day-time tv appearances to listen when terrorists attack our consulate. Too busy covering it up to get back to Israel. Too busy "looking good" after Super storm Sandy to GET ANYTHING DONE.

  12. Thomas Friedman is always well informed, and I find myself agreeing with most of his assertions. I am sure tired of the Right finding only items to pick on about the Obama administration. We should stand firmly with Israel, but also we should support the moderate voices in the Moslem world. The Moslem brotherhood is the conservatives of the Islamic world.

  13. Looks like we might be dragged into another unfunded war in the Middle East. There is always the "savings" from leaving Afghanistan! Plus there is the benefit of feeding the military-industrial complex,

    Budget cuts elsewhere and higher taxes? We will feel the pain one way or another.

    However, it might be delayed if the Israeli's elect an non-hawk leader in the upcoming elections.

    Wouldn't it be interesting if we switched sides to guarantee we keep getting oil at cheaper rates than Europeans.

    That might be more critical due to the increasing competition with China for oil. The contracts are already being signed.

    Here is a 11/5/2012 cost comparison of some countries, converted to price per gallon in dollars, including taxes.

    Belgium.................7.65
    France....................7.19
    Germany................7.76
    Italy........................8.54
    Netherlands..........8.59
    UK..........................8.26
    US..........................3.81

    There are lots of issues related to supplying us with oil, including politics. How far we go may depend on how much debt we are willing to incur in protecting countries for our own need for oil.

    We could just sop up all the oil in our own deposits, deplete reserves. However, it is not renewable or infinite, and once it is gone that's it.

    If China takes our place in buying oil from the Middle East, we have little chance of a cheap reentry into the market.

    IMO, oil is on par with drugs. We are dependent, and we will do whatever it takes to get it. Plus, we want a discount.

    At some point, there could be some real pressure to choose which side we are on, with oil availability and prices at issue, and that might include political pressure by the public if prices and scarcity increase.

    How far will moral loyalties go, if they ever really existed?

    There is a solution, like the cute little all electric (3.6 cents per mile) 62 mile range Mitsubishi i-MiEV. No gasoline needed. Plus there are environmental benefits.

    There will be improvements, and charging stations in the future, I am sure.

    Oil problems is another reason why a high speed rail system is necessary in the US. The XpressWest of the Southwest Network will be great and the connections to other rail systems will expand the places one can travel.

    High speed rail will need to be for freight as well, because when we are in sight of depletion and no access to foreign oil, air and truck freight will have a priority.

    I only hope that we can spend taxes on necessities for our people & our country rather than in wars.