POTUS in the Middle East

by Joshua H. Liberatore

After his obligatory visit to Europe, bastion of traditional alliances and site of important G-20, NATO, and European Council summit meetings, POTUS made a short but significant sweep through Turkey and Iraq. These visits capitalized on his early tonal gesture of granting his first exclusive, post-inaugural interview to an Arab news network whose name is difficult to pronounce and whose content therefore flies beneath the mainstream American radar. POTUS’s first appearances in the Muslim world, on the contrary, were very much on the media radar, in some circles provoking wild and irrational speculation about his intentions and global posture. But, as usual, the details were more nuanced.

I have now spent a week traveling through Europe. And I’ve been asked, “Are you trying to make a statement by ending this weeklong trip in Turkey?” And the answer is, yes, I am trying to make a statement. I’m trying to make a statement about the importance of Turkey not just to the United States but to the world. This is a country that has been often said lies at the crossroads between East and West. It’s a country that possesses an extraordinarily rich heritage, but also represents a blend of those ancient traditions with a modern nation state that respects democracy, respects rule of law, and is striving towards a modern economy. (April 6, 2009)

In both his joint press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and his formal address to the Grand National Assembly, POTUS made sure to extend a warm sense of gratitude and affinity to this key, strategic ally. As the fabled “crossroads” where East meets West, historical homeland to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, with a legacy of both cosmopolitan tolerance and brutal repression, the complexity and symbolism of Turkey’s national narrative suited POTUS’s diplomatic enterprise very aptly, allowing him to articulate some policy priorities that distinguish him from previous administrations and, perhaps more importantly, offered a chance to shore up ties with a crucial Muslim-majority ally.

Now, finally, we share the common goal of denying Al Qaida a safe haven in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The world has come too far to let this region backslide and to let Al Qaida terrorists plot further attacks. And that’s why we are committed to a more focused effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaida. That is why we are increasing our efforts to train Afghans to sustain their own security and to reconcile former adversaries. That’s why we are increasing our support for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that we stand on the side not only of security, but also of opportunity and the promise of a better life. (April 6, 2009)

As for those recent “efforts” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, POTUS is right that the U.S. needs as many capable and savvy partners as it can muster in order to achieve its ever broadening and increasingly nebulous security goals. At the risk of harping on the issue, it must be mentioned that the U.S. military’s reliance on Predator drone attacks to target the best-hidden and most tenacious militants in the craggy badlands of Waziristan in the Tribal Agencies along the Afghan-Pakistan border is proving to be at once dismally inadequate and violently inaccurate. Precision-guided weapons, featuring the best in military video-game technology – technicians firing remote missiles from command centers in Nevada – turn out to be very blunt instruments indeed. The 60 drone attacks launched since January 2006 boast an impressive 6 percent success ratio: 14 “suspected” Al Qaida targets killed and 687 civilians dead, an astonishing proportion of them women and children. Ironically, human intelligence assets on the ground – thanks to friendly Pakistani and Afghan informants – are largely responsible for the 14 successful “hits” in this spectacular display of state-of-the-art, postmodern tech-warfare. Militant to civilian kill ratios in Iraq are not much better, unless 15% amazes anyone as a staggering achievement in precision weaponry, and even that figure assumes that all adult males killed were “insurgents,” an outrageous stretch. If ordinary Iraqis are statistically three times more likely to be killed in a U.S. air strike than by a crude roadside bomb, is it any wonder that our efforts are not popular?

I know there have been difficulties these last few years. I know that the trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained, and I know that strain is shared in many places where the Muslim faith is practiced. So let me say this as clearly as I can: The United States is not and will never be at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical, not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people. (April 6, 2009)

Turkey is a country that has permitted, though begrudgingly at first, U.S. armed forces to use both its airspace and several ground bases to facilitate the war in Iraq. Turkey is also a country with a restive Kurdish minority bordering the “liberated” Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan; thus, Turkey has a vested, continued interest in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the maintenance of basic security, avoidance of sectarian civil war, and territorial contiguity in its newly democratic neighbor. But that doesn’t mean the American invasion and occupation are popular there. Like the Iraqis and the young American soldiers sent to fight them, average Turks, no matter how disgruntled, are stuck with the war for now.

I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot and will not just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully; we will bridge misunderstandings; and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world, including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know because I am one of them. (April 6, 2009)

Turkey also enjoys U.S. support for its dilatory European Union membership-bid (France and Germany oppose it), not to mention the billions of dollars in annual aid that make it the third-largest single recipient of U.S. funds, behind only Israel and Egypt. As a longstanding member of NATO, Turkey has also contributed troops to the U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, as obligated by Article 5 mandates (i.e. “an attack on one is an attack on all”). For all these reasons, Turkey was a natural staging ground for POTUS’s induction into the veritable mine field of Middle East diplomacy, albatross around the neck of many an American president.

I know there are those who like to debate Turkey’s future. They see your country at the crossroads of continents and touched by the currents of history. They know that this has been a place where civilizations meet and different peoples come together. They wonder whether you will be pulled in one direction or another. But I believe here is what they don’t understand: Turkey’s greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide; this is where they come together, in the beauty of your culture, in the richness of your history, in the strength of your democracy, in your hopes for tomorrow. (April 6, 2009)

One thing Turkey is certainly at the center of is the quixotic U.S. war in Iraq, which is nowhere near over. And oh, how POTUS knows it! To a Turkish university student who asked about POTUS’s hopes for “peace at home, peace in the world,” he offered an unusually frank and sincere admission concerning the difficulty of his present position vis-à-vis that inherited imperial misadventure in Babylon:

States are like big tankers; they’re not like speedboats. You can’t just whip them around and go in a new direction. Instead, you’ve got to slowly move it, and then eventually you end up in a very different place. So let me just give you a few examples. When it comes to Iraq, I opposed the war in Iraq. I thought it was a bad idea. Now that we’re there, I have a responsibility to make sure that as we bring troops out, that we do so in a careful enough way that you don’t see a complete collapse into violence. So some people might say, “Wait, I thought you were opposed to the war. Why don’t you just get them all out right away?” Well, just because I was opposed at the outset, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have now responsibilities to make sure that we do things in a responsible fashion. (April 7, 2009)

Later that day, after the “town hall” Q&A session in Istanbul, POTUS made a surprise visit to those very troops in theater, at Camp Victory in Baghdad. The former POTUS often spoke of American troops as having “liberated more than 50 million Iraqis”; one day, historians may speak of the current POTUS as having liberated more than 150,000 American soldiers. And although that day of deliverance hasn’t yet arrived, POTUS received hearty applause when he reminded troops of the glimmers of light now visible at the end of the long, labyrinthine tunnel that their commanders have shuttled them through since March 19, 2003.

Point number two is, this is going to be a critical period, these next 18 months. I was just discussing this with your commander, but I think it’s something that all of you know. It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis. They need to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty, and in order for them to do that, they have got to make political accommodations. They’re going to have to decide that they want to resolve their differences through constitutional means and legal means. They are going to have to focus on providing government services that encourage confidence among their citizens. (April 7, 2009)

Of course, 18 months is not fast enough according to some, and too fast according to others. In fact, even the Iraqis seem divided on the question, though many took the recent sixth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s forced deposition as an opportunity to raise voices of protest concerning the sluggish pace of change under the protection of the benevolent American “tanker” and its sanctioned native deputies. Even POTUS’s top commander on the ground, General Ray Odierno, briefly spoke up against the timeline, citing a need for more – not fewer – troops given the recent uptick in violence. Later, he recanted, recalling, apparently, that POTUS is his boss. But neither internal nor external dissent seems likely to deter POTUS from sticking to his word on the withdrawal, over which Iraqi opinion never held much sway in the first place, despite strident declamations of “Iraqi sovereignty” issuing from American politicians, left and right. To Prime Minister Maliki, POTUS acknowledged his regret at the loss of life in recent bombings in Baghdad:

But we should not be distracted, because we have made enormous progress working alongside the Iraqi Government over the last few months. Overall, violence continues to be down. There’s been movement on important political questions. But we have been reminded that there’s more work to do. I communicated to the Prime Minister that we are strongly committed to an Iraq that is sovereign and stable and self-reliant. And as Prime Minister Maliki was already aware, we have committed ourselves to a strategy that ensures a orderly, responsible transition from U.S. and coalition security forces to Iraqi security forces. (April 7, 2009)

Despite POTUS’s noble intentions to do well by the Iraqis while offering praise to the battle-weary American soldiers, it’s hard to remain aloof to the fundamental paradox of his position, caught, as it were, between gradually removing, essentially, a supremely expensive police force and maintaining the necessary illusion that Iraq has somehow benefitted from going-on seven years of what is locally interpreted as an obscene, imperial occupation. Contemplating the probable mess that departing American forces will leave behind, beginning in August 2010 and culminating in December 2011 (not exactly “[whipping] them around” by any standard), one cannot help but recall those pellucid lines from a late chapter of a great American novel: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

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