David Ignatius’s wildly misleading take on West Asia diplomacy

The map above, showing UAE military bases in and around Yemen, is from The Cradle, an excellent news source on West Asian diplomacy.

I have long had a lot of respect for the work of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whom I first came across, briefly, when we both working as journos in Beirut in the early 1980s and whom at a personal level I like. His work is generally pretty smart and well-informed. And though he has long been eager to be close to the centers of power, especially at the highest echelons of the U.S. military and intel agencies, many of the opinion pieces he has written over the years that explicitly or implicitly conveyed the views of those officials did two helpful things: (1) They provided an informative view into the thinking of those officials. (2) They put the snippets of info he provided about those officials’ views into a generally smart and sometimes slightly critical context. (Though never quite critical enough for him to lose his access?)

Today, he had a piece in the WaPo that had neither of those qualities and that instead just seemed to be full of hyper-defensive and deeply misleading analytical blather. Lest anyone be tempted to think he is still a smart analyst and thinker, I thought I should comment on some of what he wrote, point-by-point.

I’ll comment, you decide, folks!

David’s textHC comment
Let’s talk about ending ugly wars. No, not the one in Ukraine, at least not yet. But those in the Middle East. Here’s a brief inventory, and it shows why American diplomacy remains essential in this vexed part of the world.Note that he takes it for granted that we shouldn’t talk about ending the war in Ukraine right now. Also, that he calls West Asia by its Eurocentric monicker, “the Middle East.” Sigh.
The Yemen civil war, one of the cruelest this century, appears to be inching toward a stable settlement — thanks to tireless mediation by U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking and concessions from Saudi Arabia…Wow! No mention at all here of the breakthrough diplomacy by the Chinese that—along with mediation by Oman and other local powers—achieved the ongoing rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran… Which is what has been allowing the deadly conflict in Yemen to move finally toward resolution. And no mention of Iran’s pro-peace role here, either. Once again, Wow!
National security adviser Jake Sullivan, after a phone call last week with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, “welcomed Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary efforts to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap for ending the war and offered full U.S. support for those efforts,” according to a White House statement.Oops, he somehow forgot to mention that throughout the preceding 8 years of the war in Yemen the United States had given considerable, ongoing support of various kinds to the Saudis’ deadly and hi-tech war effort there. And yes, this does matter.
The Syria civil war is, if anything, even more tragic… But this miserable conflict lacks a U.S. mediator or road map for resolution. Holy moly. He totally fails to mention here that for the past 12 years the United States has been one of the main motivators, supporters, financiers, and armorers of the ongoing war in Syria. Ever since Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s shrill declaration of April 1, 2012 that “Assad must go” (and actually, noticeably earlier than that, too.) So yes, the conflict in Syria has indeed lacked a “U.S. mediator”. It has not lacked a roadmap for resolution, though, since in December 2015 the UN Security Council adopted Res. 2254, which called for a ceasefire and a political settlement in Syria.
So Arab countries are moving on their own to make separate deals.The Saudi foreign minister was in Damascus this week for the first time since 2011. That’s a sign that countries are getting ready to freelance their own arrangements.Oh so patronizing! The countries of West Asia are not “freelancing” their own diplomacy. They are pursuing regionwide diplomacy in a complex situation involving many players (including Iran!) and most of them seem to be doing so in a smart and coordinated way.
Syria fatigue afflicts American policymakers… In place of a policy, we have sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad and refuse any normalization with him. The sanctions might make members of Congress feel better, and they give us a bit of leverage, but they do nothing to ease Syria’s suffering. This approach reminds me of America’s non-policy toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.There’s some truth to his first two sentences here. But saying the sanctions “do nothing to ease Syria’s suffering” is a (deliberately?) mendacious under-playing of the devastating suffering that the sanctions themselves have inflicted on Syria’s 23 million people. Most of the economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Syria over the past 44 years are quite unauthorized by the UN, which deems them to be “unilateral coercive measures.” These sanctions have been deployed by Washington with the deliberate goal of inflicting such harsh damage on the Syrian people that they would (theoretically) rise up and overthrow their government. As David notes, that did not work with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But for many years now successive administrations in Washington have continued to inflict this pain on Syria’s people—just because” hurting Syria’s people and their government seems to play well in Congress?
The right role for the United States in Syria is easy to describe but exceedingly difficult to execute. First off, we have a moral obligation to help the Syrian Kurds — who nobly fought and died to destroy the Islamic State — find a place in a future federal Syria.Syria’s Kurds did help in the fight against the Islamic State. So did Syria’s own central government forces, though for some reason he fails to note that here. But let’s also not forget that the emergence of the “Islamic State” in northeastern Syria, as a spillover from northwestern Iraq, was a direct result of the brutal and sectarian policies that the huge U.S. military occupation presence in Iraq imposed on Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. In Iraq, the U.S. occupation worked hard to impose an ethno-sectarian “federal” system which was exactly what helped midwife the birth of ISIS. Now, David’s diktat for Syria is that it should have a “federal” system, too. Here’s an idea: How about Americans butt out and let Syria’s own people decide how to govern themselves?
Also, another big piece of missing info in that paragraph: Namely, any mention of the fact that the U.S. has a small but capable military force actually inside northeastern Syria to this day, where it protects its Kurdish allies and U.S. oil companies as they illegally siphon off large quantities of Syria’s oil.
America’s Syria agenda includes more than our Kurdish allies. Neighboring Arab states (and Israel) need help reducing Iran’s military power there… Why should it be America’s responsibility to “help reducing Iran’s military power” in Syria or anywhere else? Saudi Arabia and most other Arab countries have been considerably improving their relationships with Iran in recent months; and the current improvement of their relations with Syria is an outgrowth of that. Presumably in their ongoing diplomatic discussions with Tehran, these Arab states have been articulating their own concerns and working with the Iranian government to have them addressed through co-operative and reciprocal threat reduction? Why do they need Washington to butt in to this rapprochement process, in Syria or elsewhere?
Turkey needs reassurance about the security of its southern border; refugees need a way home; Assad, the presumptive victor, doesn’t deserve help with reconstruction, but Syria does. And our agenda won’t be complete without the release of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and Post contributor who was kidnapped there in 2012.Yet more misleading (and missing) information here. Crucially, David makes zero mention of the fact that Turkey has been holding a chunk of land in northwest Syria under occupation by its own military for many years; and it has also been providing protection there to Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian oppositionists. So yes, Turkish-Syrian relations do need to be radically improved. But let’s also bear in mind all the actions Turkey has taken against the Syria’s government and people since 2011 and its continuing occupation of Syrian land and resources.
Plus, by far the biggest lacuna in David’s description of the tangled situation inside Syria: He makes zero mention of Israel’s still-continuing occupation of the Golan region or of the shameful fact that Washington, under Biden as under Trump, continues to recognize Israel’s quite illegal annexation of Golan. Also, Israel has been mounting very frequent missile attacks against targets deep inside Syria for many years now. This, I submit, is a fact of far greater impact on the future of Syria than the 2012 kidnaping there, by hands unknown, of freelance journo Austin Tice.
[In Lebanon] The United States can help by backing the presidential candidacy of Gen. Joseph Aoun, head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, a clean, apolitical symbol of the nation and its aspirations. Hezbollah doesn’t like him, but many Lebanese people do.Whoa, just unabashed imperial meddling here. David Ignatius gets to pick a president for Lebanon!
This moment is about settling quarrels. The Saudis, with Chinese help, are normalizing relations with Iran. The UAE has stopped feuding with Turkey and Qatar. The Arabs (holding their noses) are reviving relations with Assad.Here, finally, in his penultimate paragraph, David makes his first mention yet of China’s impressive diplomacy in West Asia… (Also, how does he know that the Arabs are “holding their noses” as they reconcile with Pres. Asad? Maybe he is also “holding his nose” as he reconciles with them? After all, few of those other Arab leaders are paragons of rights-respecting good governance, and their interventions in Syria have inflicted extremely grave damage there over the past 12 years… )
China gets credit for brokering the Saudi-Iran deal. But, really, the animating force in the region is the UAE, the architect of “no-problem” foreign policy.Oh, way to go in your attempt to minimize the impact of China’s diplomacy, David! … And then, the description of the UAE as being “the architect of ‘no-problem’ foreign policy” is so off the mark as to be almost hilarious (if not also really, really tragic.) The pugnaciousness the UAE has shown in Yemen and elsewhere in recent years has, as I’m sure you know, led many other pundits in Washington to refer to it as “little Sparta.”
The Biden administration is rediscovering diplomacy, too, after decades of American wars in the region. We’re brokering deals with Iraqis, Lebanese, Emiratis, Kurds, Saudis and maybe, eventually, some Syrians, too.The Biden administration “rediscovering diplomacy”? You’ve gotta be kidding! I guess this is another desperate bid by David to make the case that China is not the only smart and well-connected power in West Asia. I could go through these nations that David lists one-by-one and show how stunningly unsuccessful and asleep-at-the-wheel U.S. diplomacy has been towards it. Let me just mention one: The fact that recently, despite strong entreaties from Washington, the Saudis agreed to partner with Russia on enacting cuts in their oil production in order to keep the prices high. Way to go, U.S. diplomacy!
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