June 29, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - If America Is Still at War a Decade from Now...


If America is still at war in the greater Middle East a decade from now, as Fareed Zakaria warns in one of This Week’s Reads, it will not be from an absence of the opposite intention. Two presidents in a row have run and won while opposing the Iraq War. On the campaign trail, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump made it clear that too much American blood and treasure had been spilled for too little gain.

Intention was also backed up with preparation. Once elected, both presidents sought to pivot away from the Middle East -- to Asia in Obama’s case and back home in the case of Trump’s “America First” policy.

Today, it seems neither intention nor preparation were sufficient, however. During the Obama administration, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Iran all remained front and center in US foreign policy. So far, the Trump administration looks even less effective than its predecessor at focusing beyond the greater Middle East. Indeed, if America is still fighting the same wars in 2027, it will be because the intervening decade looked pretty much like the last two weeks.

• On June 13, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the United States is “not winning” in Afghanistan, and there is a widespread expectation that several thousand more troops will join the nearly 10,000 US forces still there. 

• On June 18, Iran launched a ballistic missile into Syria. The spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said it was a message to both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

• The same day, the US Air Force shot down a Syrian aircraft near Raqqa. Russia responded by saying it would now treat US aircraft in Syria as potential targets.

• On June 23, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states sent a 13-point ultimatum to Qatar. Secretary Tillerson weighed in two days later, imploring the nations to talk the problem out.

• On June 27, the White House warned that Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria was preparing for another chemical weapons attack, adding that the United States would inflict a “heavy price” on Assad if the attack went forward.

Each of these events required White House time and energy to respond. Try to recall any series of events in East Asia or Europe that received similar attention in the last dozen or so days.

“One of the greatest challenges that faces every American president,” President Obama’s national security adviser Tom Donilon explained in 2011, “is to ensure that events of the day do not become cascading crises that crowd out the pursuit of our nation’s long-term strategic priorities and interests.” This sage advice from Donilon was contained in a Financial Times oped Donilon wrote to mark the end of Obama’s trip to Australia and Indonesia. In retrospect, the trip was the high-water mark of the administration’s rebalance toward Asia.

Fast forward four years. “It never felt like we pivoted away from the Middle East,” a senior Obama White House official said in 2015. “About 80 percent of our main meetings at the National Security Council have focused on the Middle East.”

Donilon and the rest of the Obama administration knew going in that the Middle East could eat up time and energy better spent elsewhere. Yet being forewarned of this danger was, in many cases, not enough to prevent it. Nor, it appears, was the outcome a lesson learned by the administration that followed. 

Most of all, then, if America is still fighting the same wars a decade from now, it will mean that the United States is chronically at a loss when it comes to learning from the past while implementing a long-term strategy that prioritized our core interests in Europe and Asia over those in the Middle East.

The United States Is Stumbling into Another Decade of War

​Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

The United States is falling headlong into another decade in the greater Middle East, one that could be even more destabilizing than the last, writes Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post. US military involvement in the fights against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in Afghanistan, and now in Yemen are escalating. But during the 2016 campaign, Zakaria writes, Trump made several notable and measured comments about US involvement in the region going forward. It is time to revisit that more cautious mindset, Zakaria advises the president.

The Long-Term Cost of Saudi Succession Shake-Up

Bruce Riedel/Al-Monitor

The elevation of 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman to next in line for the throne has raised more questions than it has answered about what comes next in Saudi Arabia. “The young prince is poised to inherit a kingdom under stress at home and abroad,” writes Bruce Riedel in Al-Monitor. While the succession is unlikely to be challenged, low oil prices, an ongoing war in Yemen, and simmering tensions with Iran all mean that establishing a stable succession plan is not the same as establishing stability.

The Saudi Shake-up Has One Goal: Drag the Country into Modern Era

Summer Said, Justin Scheck, and Michael Amon/Wall Street Journal

“Modernity has walloped Saudi Arabia,” the three reporters write in this excellent Wall Street Journal article. With the elevation of the young Mohammed bin Salman to crown prince, Saudi Arabia is trying to secure its future. From the outside, foreign crises would seem to occupy most of the Saudi leadership’s time. After all, the kingdom is involved in the Syrian civil war and in its ongoing war in Yemen. Yet, the reporters note, domestic challenges also weigh heavily on the Saudis. The kingdom is experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. Increasing employment is a major and difficult task ahead for the current king and new crown prince.

How America’s Friends and Enemies Have Adjusted to the Age of Trump

Edward Luce/Financial Times

“America’s friends would be more sanguine about the health of the world order if they saw Trump as an aberration,” writes Edward Luce in the Financial Times. “But he is more of a symptom -- albeit an alarming one -- than a cause of America’s retreat from its postwar role.” In this smart and perceptive essay, Luce convincingly explains how the United States is stepping back from the postwar international system which it was instrumental in creating and from which it has benefited enormously. In response, allies and adversaries are attempting to step into the space left vacant by America.

A Post-Brexit Europe Is Starting to Take Shape

Carl Bildt/Financial Times

With London on its way out, Paris and Berlin will determine how the European Union moves forward, the former prime minister of Sweden writes in the Financial Times. Paris, led by the new Macron government, is looking for the European Union to make much-needed reforms to spur economic growth. Macron may also launch a charm offensive to bring Rome and Madrid along in strengthening the union. Meanwhile, Berlin under Chancellor Merkel is focused on whether Paris can make its own reforms.

Britain on Its Own Will Count for Little on the World Stage

John Sawers/Financial Times

“I was fortunate to be a diplomat when Britain counted,” writes John Sawers, a former chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service. In this sharp and insightful column in the Financial Times, Sawers steps back from the nitty-gritty of a hard or soft Brexit to put his country’s exit from the European Union in the context of a century-long decline in Britain’s influence abroad. “If we can no longer help shape the world,” he concludes, “others will do it for us.”

Canada’s Trump Strategy: Go Around Him

Max Fisher/The New York Times

Canada has a “doughnut strategy,” and it has nothing to do with Tim Hortons. Instead, as Max Fisher explains in the New York Times, Ottawa is building relationships with American mayors, governors, and members of Congress -- leaving the White House as a “hole” in its new outreach. The strategy is part of a comprehensive plan to secure the nation’s economic future, even as Ottawa finds the current administration less responsive to allies’ cares and concerns.

Obama’s Secret Struggle to Punish Russia for Putin’s Election Assault

Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous/The Washington Post

This long, exclusive report in the Washington Post explains what the Obama administration did and did not do in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. “In political terms,” the reporters write, “Russia’s interference was the crime of the century, an unprecedented and largely successful destabilizing attack on American democracy.” The 8,000-word piece is an exceptionally detailed and revealing look into White House decision-making.

Where Trump Zigs, Tillerson Zags, Putting Him at Odds with White House

David Sanger, Gardiner Harris, and Mark Landler/The New York Times

Few would envy the army of responsibilities Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken on in his five months in Washington. Fewer still would deem his tenure an unequivocal success to date. Too much is still in flux. He has sought to reorganize and downsize the department -- a slow process with so many vacancies in senior positions. He has also attempted to inject stability and surety into crises in the Middle East and Asia, even as the president has responded with uncertainty, misdirection, and disruption. This report in the New York Times gives a detailed and worrying overview of what the former Exxon Mobil CEO has faced so far as America’s top diplomat.

The Dark Side of China’s National Renewal

Jamil Anderlini/Financial Times

On Friday, the Asia editor for the Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini, tweeted that his latest column had been ripped out of all the copies of his newspaper at the Beijing airport. This was the offending column, a thoughtful and nuanced look at what Chinese leaders mean when they call for the rejuvenation of “Zhonghua minzu.” The phrase is officially translated as the “Chinese nation,” but as Anderlini notes, it also contains a race-based connotation that could turn into something toxic as the country grows in power.


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