More Meddling in the Middle East: Challenges Between Civilian and Military Engagement

Leaks and more leaks coming from the White House. The recent disclosure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's memo to the National Security Advisor, and in turn meant for President Barack Obama in reference to Syria, is crucial. It is about time that administration officials start asking President Obama what the policy is in Syria.

As Reuters reported, Secretary Hagel warned the president that the "Syria policy was in jeopardy due to its [the Administration's] failure to clarify its intentions toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad." The Pentagon and the commanding military officers tasked with the mission of putting together a rebel force to fight the Islamic State (IS) are grappling with what may be a completely illegal mission under an international law. Established during the founding of the League of Nations and later the United Nations (UN) in 1945, it names the state as the central actor and sole subject of international law. In other words, diplomatic relations can only be conducted between states, militias and insurgencies don't count.

Once the United States builds this "militia," does the U.S. hand the fighters over to the government entity, Syria's notorious dictator Assad, which is what a train-and-equip mission in any sovereign country would demand under international law and the very person the United States says is responsible for the death of thousands and would like to see deposed or do they thank them only to see them as adversaries in a future life -- see Afghanistan.

Like it or not, the mission to train Syrian troops to fight IS gives Assad an upper hand. It allows Assad to claim involvement in the campaign against IS by allowing U.S. intervention. He remains sovereign while the U.S. is still figuring it out.

Of course, contrary actions never stopped any regional or hegemonic power from absent-mindedly distributing money and weapons to dangerous groups of individuals that eventually become global terror organizations or, in the case of IS, regional groups wielding genocidal actions at anyone who opposes them. All things considered, it is no wonder the Pentagon is asking the White House to flesh out this policy.

The U.S. is once again intervening in the Middle East with no plan, no idea, no clue and no thinking about how to shape this into a positive outcome. The Obama administration and its Congressional enablers are de facto putting this country and our military leaders in a dangerously precarious position. Our military is not only being tasked with a near impossible mission, it is now being used as a pawn in the sea of incompetence and unaccountability.

Meaning once again, the U.S. is waging a military intervention without utilizing its civilian planning, diplomatic, conflict-resolution, and I could go on, resources. The president preferred to bypass them all and employ a "special envoy" or retired military general to manage the civilian side. John R. Allen, although a decorated four-star U.S. Marine Corps general and an excellent officer, is not necessarily known as a seasoned diplomat. Our civilian experts, led by the president, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor need to be doing the policy work, which, with all due respect, is much different than a military mission.

If these administration officials are overwhelmed or unable, President Obama has time to begin a more long-term effort by identifying seasoned diplomats, academics, and experts on this region to do the job. People who labor, not for notoriety or political purpose, but to define and implement a comprehensive U.S. policy in the areas controlled by IS.

IS itself may not be a direct threat to U.S. soil. It is, however, a significant destabilizing force globally, as, indeed, a destabilized Middle East can shake the rest of the world. The United States, also known unto itself as the "exceptional nation," will always intervene, and has already intervened, repeatedly. Once and for all, the outgoing Administration can make it right.

Today, United States global influence has dwindled and amounts to little. Its partners are turning away. Turkey, a NATO partner, has declined to lend its support in the battle against IS. Others, France, Germany, and Britain, have their own interests and offer minimal, if any, sustenance to the effort. Even the Gulf States and Israel, more "close" allies in the IS debacle, are undermining efforts by financing and arming groups in Syria they feel might serve them. Furthermore, the U.S. diplomatic relationship with weighty regional players like Iran, Russian, and China is marginal at best.

All this has to change. Not just because the world is becoming even more globalized and interconnected, but also because problems now and in the upcoming centuries must be tackled by multiple players, not just one. Moreover, national interests are unimaginably complex. Currently the United States is doing nothing more than swatting flies. This country can and must do better.

Global cooperation and political solutions are the only things that will bring stability and rid the Middle East of strong extremist competitors. The West owes it to the people of the region. Constant colonialism, interference and support of malevolent regimes by the West have added to the current rise in anger and the ability for groups like IS to gain popularity. If the West does not recognize its complicity in the rise of such organizations, then it should just give up and give in.

Merely cutting supply lines, shutting borders, using intelligence on group movements and the like, as the U.S. has been doing, are short-term fixes. Using the local population to take the lead, as the U.S. hopes to do, is the right move forward; however, no one group supported solely by airstrikes will facilitate victory. To calm this storm, nations must stop doing business as usual and start engaging for a lasting change.

This means facing some hard political realities. Ones like finally pressuring the commencement of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, ceasing excessive weapons sales to the Egypt, Israel, and Gulf nations, confronting Gulf support of extremist elements and opening diplomatic and economic relationships with Iran. It is doubtful that once the U.S. is focused and international parties are aligned that IS and other extremists can survive.

This could take a while, and in no way will it be easy. However, military solutions have done little. Each forceful intervention has led only to a more unpredictable and inhumane place.

The Middle East needs governance, starting with law and order, democratic, economic and social support. The last things these countries need are more weapons. Hard decisions and fortitude from world leaders are essential.

The world can sit by supporting the status quo while an enormous humanitarian crisis continues to swell and the region unravels in violence. Alternatively, it can choose another way by exhibiting leadership and creating an enduring policy refusing to support dictatorships of all forms, ridding the region of unnecessary weapons and supporting once and for all a comprehensive, decisive, and consistent regional peace instead of a piecemeal one. This is the only way to eliminate the space where IS and others like it can strive.

The U.S. has an unprecedented opportunity to make strategic regional change. Hopefully it will not be another opportunity lost. It is time to outline a detailed, adaptable, long-term strategy with a well-defined end state. The goal must be comprehensive. The true changes will come from an all-inclusive decision to engage and become proactive in revising and implementing an even handed, well thought-out policy in the Middle East.