Engagement vs. Retreat – Learning the Right Lessons

By Stephen Buck

(Ed. Note:  From 1965 to 2002 Steve Buck served at 8 posts in the Middle East, including Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war (1986-88) and Consul General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1996-1999). From 1999-2001 he taught Middle East issues at the National Defense University.  His retirement work included teaching the Middle East at  universities in the Washington D.C. area, and serving on the Editorial Board of the Foreign Service Journal.)


The “Peace Process” is again on life support, Russia has invaded Crimea and massed troops on Ukraine’s border, Iraq and Syria are disasters and Afghanistan likely to become one. It is easy to see why 85% of Americans are glad we have left Iraq and will soon do so in Afghanistan.

Inspired by the “New Frontier” and Kennedy’s call to go forth

Inspired by the “New Frontier” and Kennedy’s call to go forth

Fifty one years ago President Kennedy speaking at our graduation inspired me to turn down a lucrative offer from the then Standard Oil Company and choose a diplomat’s career as a Foreign Service Officer. I was inspired by the “New Frontier” and Kennedy’s call to go forth and make the world a better place. His assassination and Vietnam undercut, but did not destroy that belief.

Before our invasion of Iraq I wrote in this space that doing so would destroy one of the last things we had going for us in the Arab world, that we had never invaded an Arab country. Alas, we have done that and more – Abu Gharaib, Guantanamo, black sites and waterboarding, the head of NSA lying to Congress, the soon to be released report on unnecessary and counterproductive CIA torture, etc.

From this it would be easy to conclude that the U.S. has become “exceptional” only in its foreign policy incompetence, or worse, and that the best answer is to retreat from the world, particularly since now we supposedly are becoming independent of the oil that has been a major factor in our involvement in the Arab world.


Click to enlarge map

Calling for more common sense

Then Consul General Buck on mountaintop in Saudi province.

What is to be Done?*

In 2000 a president managed to get elected who drank his way through Yale and a Vice President who left Yale for disciplinary reasons when confronted with facts ordered the CIA to find “intelligence” to get  us into a wholly unnecessary war.  There should be ways to ensure this never happens again.

“The effects of our inaction in Syria… will be far worse
than the blowback from funding
fundamentalist ‘freedom fighters’ in Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan – Taking out al-Qaeda and Bin Laden were valid goals. Turning this with mission creep into trying to create a unified nation state in a country traditionally ruled by tribal factions was not.

Our military is designed to win wars, not to govern. Invading the most nationalistic country in the Arab world and then being surprised that the Iraqis did not want us to stay has shown that.  A strategy of “leading from behind,” as in Libya, is the better route. Libya is a special case because Qaddafi destroyed all independent institutions, so it will take time to produce a functioning country. We can and should quietly be doing more in Libya. The U.S. Navy’s recent recapturing a hijacked tanker carrying Libyan oil is a good example of limited and effective use of U.S. military force.

Arab Spring – Tunisia is turning out well, with an Islamist majority sharing power with secular opposition leaders.  Tunisia never had and we never supported its having a strong military. Egypt alas has fared far worse, with our funding the generals being an integral part of the Camp David accords. Now we must live with another general/president for life, one who is doing everything to exacerbate secular/islamist divisions.

Syria – When Assad turned to violence against peaceful, secular Syrian calls for change, we could have organized a no-fly zone coalition that could have covered a 50-mile or larger area south of Turkey, preventing many deaths and much destruction. Instead we foolishly focused on ousting Assad, when it is the Alawite generals, not one man, who rule. Assad will be around long after Obama is gone, and the effects of our inaction, both in terms of deaths, casualties, refugees and producing terrorists will be far worse than the blow back from funding fundamentalist “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan. Like it or not, on Syria we will need to deal with Iran and Russia.

Israel/Palestine – Kerry has done his best. Whatever happens next, we need to disabuse ourselves of myths, particularly that 1) “they’ve been fighting for thousands of years “ (the conflict only dates from after the British permitted Zionist immigration less than 100 years ago), and 2) “only the two parties can settle it.” This can only happen if the two parties are equal. Israel is the Goliath and the Palestinians a very puny David. At a minimum, Israel should be paying for the occupation of the West Bank, not the U.S. taxpayer, and the U.S. should deduct from USG assistance to Israel the amount Israel pays for illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, as George H.W. Bush did. Most Israelis who buy homes in West Bank settlements do so for economic, not ideological reasons.

A need for more reality An Israeli bulldozer uproots an olive tree on the Palestinian West Bank

Settlement reality: An Israeli crane uproots an olive tree on the occupied West Bank.

Boycotts of firms linked to the settlements may be the most effective way to make settlements less attractive. Israeli commentators are recognizing this and more and more American denominations are supporting BDS (Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions). This worked against apartheid and what Israel is doing on the West Bank is apartheid, as Jimmy Carter courageously wrote before being muzzled by outraged contributors to his center.

“’Leading from behind’ is not a sexy strategy,
but it is a very good, proven one.”

“Pivot” is not the answer. A grand strategy is.  Obama may have wanted to “pivot” to Asia, but the Middle East is not going to go away anytime soon. Its geography, between Africa, Europe and Asia, is not going to change, and even if the U.S. becomes “energy independent,” Saudi Arabia will remain the only swing producer and 18 million barrels per day of oil critical to the world’s oil price and supply will still be going through the narrow Strait of Hormuz

Obama is absolutely right in focusing on a diplomatic solution with Iran, and in fencing off Iran as well as the nuclear dossier with Russia from the current spat over Ukraine.

“Leading from behind” is not a sexy strategy and it is a very good, proven one. In many ways it is what the British did in running their empire, often relying on local potentates who supported British interests.  This is not, in the present day, about supporting puppets or dictators.  It is about the criticality of context. Iraq was a disaster because the ideologues who championed invasion refused to even consider Iraq’s powerful nationalism and long history of resisting occupation.

As my old prof and boss at the State Department Henry Kissinger pointed out in an excellent recent op-ed piece, we might be in less of a mess on Ukraine if we had paid more attention to the fact that Ukraine has been in Russia’s sphere of influence for several centuries. This does not mean Ukraine, or more parts of Ukraine, becoming part of an expanded Russian federation. It does mean that that Ukraine is very much Russia’s “back yard” at a time when Moscow is trying to reassert its power. After 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine, including American intervention in Latin American countries more distant from us than Ukraine is from Russia, we should not spend too much time claiming the moral high ground. We should be thinking of concrete ways, overt and covert, of countering what Putin is doing on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

We don’t need to retreat. We just need to be a bit smarter. Less chest pounding and ideology, more reality.

*Some may recall this as the title of a pamphlet by Lenin many of us read in a Yale poli sci course.

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