Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tactical Knee-Jerks Undermining Long-Term Strategy

The US is crushing its own Middle Eastern policy with foolish tactical maneuvers. In Syria and Pakistan, the US is launching strikes to try to solve some of its cross-border problems, killing insurgent leaders and trying to create an atmosphere of fear for insurgents across the border--the US is trying to convince them that 3 miles across the border is no longer a safe zone where they can operate freely.

But the short-sightedness of these operations is frustrating. In Pakistan, anti-American sentiment is high and growing. Any hope for NATO-Pakistani military collaboration against the Taliban (particularly now, as Pakistan finally launches an assault against militants in its northwest) has been crushed. The US is going to be sticking around a very long time in Afghanistan, whether we like it or not. When its biggest problems are in Pakistan, it must either work with the Pakistanis or send the entire army in--but a halfway policy is foolish; it neither gains much military advantage, nor does it foster collaboration that would be critical to victory. If we were collaborating, we could make airstrikes in Pakistani territory with Pakistani ground intelligence--it would be hailed by the government as an effort conductive to stabilizing its regime. But attacks without permission force the government into an anti-US stance, because its sovereignty has been violated repeatedly.

Attacks on Syria are even more foolish. Syria is not a weak state, and its influence matters. The US is right that Syria can't completely control its border, but nor can the US control its own with Mexico. After more than a year of Westernization by Syria, this attack is hurting that process seriously. Syria is likely to be more skeptical of such Westernization, due to a lack of trust in Western powers. The US can't afford to radicalize Syria by violating its sovereignty--and if it does, it should at least make some PR efforts by apologizing.

In particular, while the US is negotiating its stay beyond December with Iraq, it does not help itself by showing Iraqis that the US will use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks on its neighbors. The US is not just justifying current anti-American sentiment, but bringing loyalty to question among Iraqi parliament members that are thinking of voting for the security pact.

Life is going to get a lot tougher for the US in the Middle East unless it quickly tries to revere the trend in perceptions.
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