I'll start with a brief, naturally abbreviated and selective, narrative of some of America's late and ongoing misadventures in the Middle East since 9/11 and the GWOT:
♦ The GWOT
The US started the GWOT after 9/11 to go after Al Qaeda into Afghanistan, then took a detour to Iraq, witnessed, gleefully, how Saddam was executed, even though he was a mere bystansder to 9/11, but why bother. Victory! To make a long, sad story short, the US messed the place up for good, and then had to have Grand Captain David Petraeus 'do the surge' and preside over the US 'victory' over Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In the meanwhile, Afghanistan drags on, and on May 2, 2011, Bin Laden is killed in Abottabad. Victory!
♦ The US trying to ride the Tiger Arab Spring
The idea must been to end up at the 'right side of history' and not wanting to be seen as propping up authoritarians in the Middle East. One could also say the US mistook mobs on the streets for protest, and elections for democracy. Make your pick.
In any event, during the Arab spring the US eventually intervened in Libya, with US allies UAE and Qatar providing Jihadi shock troops, and European allies sending special forces and providing close air support. In October 2011 Ghaddafi is lynched, leaving HC excited with glee. Victory! Well, not really, if a stable country was the goal.
♦ ... just one more dictator and surely Freedom™ will reign!
Not content with just that, the US took aim at Syria and the US and their allies then funneled arms and Jihadis from Libya to Syria to continue the fight. They seriously underestimated Assad's staying power. As a result the US, incapable of a to reset once 'regime change' has been uttered, habitually doubled down on support and diatribe as the civil war escalated under a continuous influx of foreign money, arms and fighters - courtesy of Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and the US.
Because of serious rebel setbacks, and the disturbing emergence of ISIS, an offspring of that very same Al Qaeda in Iraq that was suppoosedly defeated by Petraeus in the 2007 surge, Petraeus in 2015, straight faced, suggested arming Al Qaeda to fight Assad ISIS, irrespective of the fact that many of these folks had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri (the butcher of New York and that other guy behind 9/11) and who would probably, if one dared to ask, say that Osama Bin Laden was a martyr and a hero.
♦ Strategic Incoherence
So, Al Qaeda, the killers of 9/11, made it from nemesis to ally in just a decade, with the general fighting their offspring in 2008 proposing to arm their successors in 2015.
How to better capture the utter strategic incoherence that afflicts US policy at the moment?
Because the guys who killed a couple thousand Americans during 9/11 and afterwards, and a couple thousand Iraqi Shia (no saints either but immaterial to this point) are good guys now that they have started killing Syrian soldiers and civilians, in scores? They have changed their target but surely retained their attitudes. And the general who fought Al Qaeda in Iraq wants to arm them in Syria so they can kill Syrian Army and ISIS fighters? Can the US, after that, seriously claim to have won the GWOT?
And the Russians (Putin, bad!) are evil for fighting the same sort of Jihadis, who have, by the way, killed a couple thousand Russians since the First Chechen War and have created a Caucasus Emirate, (to neocons: freedom) fighters of which have sworn allegiance to ISIS and went to Syria. The Russians are fighting the Jihadis of the various stripes which every sane person would describe as a common enemy, and in fact do the US a favour by going after people who still think that 9/11 was a great idea - only to be petulantly scorned by the US.
♦ US allies vs US interests
If all of this doesn't makes sense, that's because it can't, and there is a reason for that:
US clients pursue interests that are diametrically opposed with US goals and the US doesn't have a coherent policy, with the neocon/neoliberal/R2P wings infighting with the residual realists. In continuity with the Bushmen before them, they also fancy the idea of global benevolent hegemony and the American civilising mission to remake the world in its own image. Also, they are limited in their freedom of movement, which the conduct of three key US allies illustrates:
- Turkey - Turkey has successfully leveraged denying the US the use of Incirlic AB in negotiations with the US, and has gained US consent for attacking ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Turkey then proceded to attack Kurds while ignoring ISIS The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are one of the more effective US allies engaged in fighting the ISIS' marauding Islamists. Turkey apparently disaproves, and undermines US efforts best they can.
Specifically, Turkey betrayed the US build Division 30 of the Unicorn army to the Jihadis just to make sure the US won't have an independent force on the ground and made a point of not bombing ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra or Ansar al-Sham - all three of them Al-Qaedaite Jihadis.
The Turks fight US allies, and support US enemies in Syria and makes sure that the US won't succeed in their counterveiling pursuits.
- Saudi Arabia - The Saudis, habitually eshewing physical exertions, went out of their way to hire Jihadi mercenaries, offering money and arms to pretty much anybody wanting to go fight in Syria under the banner of Jihad. For the war in Yemen, the have hired mercenaries from Africa, and Colombia.
The Saudis are doing much the same thing in Yemen as the Turks do with regard to the Kurds. They bomb the Houthis for rejecting Saudi Arabian viceroy Hadi. Saudi paranoid thinking assumes that, as Shia, they must be allied with Iran to do such a dastardly thing. Be that as it may, the Houthis certainly were allied with the US, against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - proud scions of the scum that murdered thousands on 9/11 and the folks who bombed the USS Cole. To add injury to insult, the Saudis make a point of not bombing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penuinsula.
Just like Turkey, the Saudis fight US allies, and support US enemies. The US facilitate the Saudi onslaught against Yemen anyway, likely because if they objected, that would, given Saudi Arabia's temperament of late, probably carry the risk of the Saudis disallowing US the use of bases in the kingdom.
- Qatar - The Qataris have distinguished themselves as one of the most active funders of Jihadi groups worldwide, right with the Saudis. They are not happy with the Russians going after the groups they sponsored to fight Assad, and have threatened to escalate their support, send troops, probably in an attempt to gain leverage over the US.
The Israelis have demonstrated how this gambit might work: I'm going to really bomb Iran! Hold me back, hold me back! I will only stop to do so when you give me a, b and c ... that'd be my hunch at least.
♦ US dependence on bases for empire
And so, the ironic result is that the guys who are funding, training and arming the common, headchopping, atrocity-comitting and opportunistically cannibalistic Jihadi enemy - the Turks, Saudis, UAE and Qataris - are allies, while the folks (Putin, you devil!) who are fighting America's enemies are enemies.
Judging by their assent to their client's excess at US expense, the US apparently feel that they have no choice but to endure such policies because their nominal allies, even when they pursue diametrically opposed policy goals, threaten the US with denial of the one thing the US empire relies on - and that is the use of overseas bases in these allied countries to 'project US power'.
That is a sharp sword, and it underlines one peculiar aspect of the US empire - that it is in part about voluntary client participation. In return for protection, the US adopt as their own political goals of its clients, and exercises hegemony in return, providing stability. In a sense, US empire is, certainly in its self-image, is providing an international public service - national security.
With forward presences denied, US influence (to a large extent relying in military to military relations and US military proconsuls enjoying greater influence than ambassadors) is reduced, and US reach and leverage will be diminished.
♦ US dilemmas
At the roots of it, it has nothing to do with US or alleged Obamaite fecklessness, and everything to do with the US having to cope with the effects of the destruction of Iraq that Bush inflicted on the rest of the world. It is, so to speak, America's cardinal sin and we will suffer the baleful consequences for a long time.*
It has also meant that US allies no longer need their protection against Iraq, even though they have now set their sights on Iraq as the next big threat and want the US to continue its isolation. But the US, is unwilling to adopt that client policy as their own, seeking instead an accomodation of and with Iran. The reason for that is obvious:
The disappearance of Iraq has led to Iran gaining freedom of action which in turn has compelled the US to recognise that fact and to come to terms with them. The US had to do this, since the alternative, waging war against Iran, would have been a blunder even dumber than destroying Iraq and would likely have led to lawlessness raging from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean (not to mention a serious overextension of US forces). Only moon howling lunatics like Bomber McCain or the Neanyahoo may relish that thought.
Beyond the madness, the neocon opposition to getting friendly with Iran is largely rooted in the understanding that this will lead to US loss of influence and leadership with America's traditional allies in the region, but they avoid adressing the question whether adopting these particular political goals of the allies is actually worth it. Is it? Is aiding Saudi Wahhabi supremacist and hegemonic designs worth it? Is aiding Erdogan's Islamist-Panturkish designs worth it? Is it?
American independence from its volatile clients comes at a price the Obama administration is not yet willing to pay: The simple fact is that the US as an empire is dependent on the consent of its local allies for the use of the overseas bases that the US relies on for power protection. The Turks have played and fully leveraged that with the denial of use of Incirlic Air Base until Turkish demands were met, and likely, the Saudis and Qataris play the same card, or threaten to.
♦ Client paralysis
The US as a result finds itself in the unpleasant situation to have to cling traditional clients like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and last but not least Israel - for lack of a better idea. Successive administrations have maneuvered the US in a position where she is barely able to extricate herself from even those client policy goals that the US leadership has understood very clearly to be detrimental to US interests.
These alliances have, for all practical purposes, put the US into foreign policy straightjacket. Obama is trying to wriggle himself free, at great difficulty. He tries to accept the changes in the regional balance of power that emerged as a result of the destruction of Iraq, and her allies resent and oppose it. Alas, that genie is out of the bottle, deal with it.
Perhaps it is time to cut through that knot?
* The destruction of Libya has already spread chaos in West Saharan Africa, which will also be a problem that is to stay with us for some time.