In an article published today in Al-Arabiya, Hisham Melhem devotes his main attention to the idea that the Middle East is becoming “less Arab” in a way that helps to explain a commensurate adaptation of U.S. policy.
[T]he U.S. sees a diminishing Arab influence brought about by the erosion of the state system, lack of political legitimacy, decades of autocracy, and the rise of identity politics that is fueling an unprecedented sectarian bloodletting on a wide front stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
In this new, not necessarily brave or promising Middle East, where non-state actors like ISIS and Hezbollah are challenging century-old state boundaries, the U.S. finds itself compelled to cooperate and rely more on non-Arab actors, like Iran, the Kurds and to a lesser extent Turkey, to solve what seems to be the intractable problems that the Arabs themselves have created over the years, and yes, made worse with a little help from the U.S. and some in the neighborhood.
Melhem reveals himself to be unaccountably of two minds about this phenomenon. An action that is “compelled” is not a blameworthy action. Yet, by the end of the piece, Melhem blames the U.S., and specifically President Obama, for doing what Melhem has just finished saying the U.S. or Obama has no choice but to do – thus Melhem’s verbally self-entangled inversion of his own thesis, describing U.S. policy in Syria as “Obama’s stubborn refusal to accelerate the demise of the Syrian regime.” All of the facts and forces compelling the U.S. to act in one way, and not in another, are immediately converted by this phrase into the inexplicable perversity of one man.
There may be a rational U.S. interest calculation, or even a higher justification for America from the American point of view, in favor of somehow “accelerat[ing] the demise of the Syrian regime,” but Melhem has described an alternative calculation that he himself concedes is compelling. If Melhem’s analysis is correct, then an anti-Assad realist would in turn be compelled to take it into account. Some anti-Assadists seem to hope instead that a continual recitation of the depredations of Assad or of his Iranian and Russian sponsors will sufficiently move Americans in a way that they have not yet served to do. Broadly speaking, this argument points to moral assumptions that would finally or most fundamentally justify U.S. policy both from the global and from the American perspective, but for complex reasons this argument has not or not yet sufficed: The unlikelihood of its success effectively defines this period in American foreign policy. The closest anyone else comes to making an argument for a direct if narrower U.S. self-interest, the main alternative framework, is by making an implicit threat along debilitatingly familiar lines: That the U.S., by pursuing its current course of targeting its known and declared Sunni extremist enemies, inspires more Sunni extremism or, as Tyler Jess Thompson of United for a Free Syria put it yesterday, is “creating a generation of terrorists in Syria.” Depicting the entire Syrian population, or its Sunni majority, as ready to declare for and commit to terrorism does not, to say the least, encourage U.S. support for their cause, since there is little that the U.S. can do, short of a total and diametrical reversal of its post-Iraq stance toward the region, that would put Americans in a position to control the outcome of an “accelerat[-ed] demise” of the Assad regime, or, to use Thompson’s concluding words, to show “the Syrian people that America will lead them to security, stability, and self-governance.”
Rightly or wrongly, Americans are still dubious that the Syrian or any other Middle Eastern people will prove receptive to such leadership in whatever form, and especially through direct military intervention. We seem at least as likely to suspect that any serious and consequential effort to impose outcomes will achieve the identical vastly unwanted result. Until and unless the Syrians themselves give the U.S. a reason, or as much reason as diverse “non-Arab actors” are taken to have given, to believe that their prospects in combination with an American initiative are practical and worthwhile prospects – or that “this time it’s different” – America will remain subject to Melhem’s twin compulsions, both the one he recognizes, and the one he exhibits in reaction to the first. Yet we are still left exactly where we have been, with the U.S. and anti-Assad rebels operating on non-converging lines to incidentally contradictory effects, and no political and legal grounds for forcing the two lines together in the near term. Those scorning the U.S. and allied indirect and longer term approach to the Assad problem, including the support for the Kobane exception and the highly emblematic initiative to train an essentially new armed force – more as an eventual stabilization force than as an independent military actor – still need to demonstrate not only why more aggressive American action against Assad is any more likely to be successful, but also how it might become politically even possible. Melhem does a better job, despite himself, of arguing the other side.