Need a Strategy for the Middle East
By John McCain
New York Times
October 24, 2017
WASHINGTON — Clashes this month between elements of the
Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters around
Kirkuk are deeply troubling, in particular because of the United
States’ longstanding friendship with the Kurdish people. These clashes are
also emblematic of a broader, more troubling reality: Beyond our tactical
successes in the fight against the Islamic State, the United States is still
dangerously lacking a comprehensive strategy toward the rest of the Middle East
in all of its complexity.
This is the unfortunate legacy that the Obama
administration left for its successor. President
Trump’s call this month for a broader strategy to confront Iran’s
malign influence across the Middle East was an encouraging indication that the
administration recognizes the problem.
But just days after that speech, reports surfaced that Qassim
Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds
Force, was near
Kirkuk, preparing military advances on Kurdish positions by Iranian-backed
Iraqi militias to augment the broader efforts of Iraqi security forces. When
those advances came, some Iraqi forces, according to reports, fought with
equipment that had been provided by the United States.
This is totally unacceptable. The United States offered
arms and training to the government of Iraq to fight the Islamic State and
secure Iraq from external threats — not to attack Iraqi Kurds, who are some of
America’s most trusted and capable partners in the region.
For decades, the United States’ alliance with the Kurds
has protected them from attacks, both from within and outside Iraq, while
furthering American national security interests. In the past few years, the
Kurds have become even closer allies, fighting alongside the United States
against the Islamic State.
Let me be clear: If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish
people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the
United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our
longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.
The clashes in Kirkuk are symptomatic of a deeper problem
that the United States has failed to address for many years: Both within
countries and between them, the regional order in the Middle East is rapidly
collapsing. American power and influence is diminishing there, largely because
over the past eight years the United States has withdrawn from the region. The
resulting vacuum is being filled by anti-American forces.
While the current administration, like its predecessor,
remains singularly focused on defeating the Islamic State — which is, of
course, essential — our adversaries are taking advantage of us everywhere
In Iraq, the United States seems to still be basking in the
feeling of victory after the
liberation of Mosul this summer. Meanwhile, Iranian forces are working
to sow discord inside Iraq, as we saw in Kirkuk; maneuver Iraqi politics against
the United States; and turn next year’s election into a strategic setback that
drives American influence out of the country.
Across the border in Syria, the Assad regime, backed by
Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and an array of militias, has retaken most of the
country, including many eastern areas that the United States has identified as
strategically important. The future of Syria is being determined by force on the
ground with little American initiative.
A web of Iranian proxies and allies is spreading from the
Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, threatening stability, freedom of navigation
and the territory of our partners and allies, including with advanced
conventional weapons. Iran itself continues to test ballistic missiles, menace
its neighbors and use its sanctions relief windfall to harmful ends.
Our Arab allies are absorbed in a
diplomatic dispute with Qatar in the face of far more pressing threats.
And behind all this is the shadow of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is
re-establishing itself as a regional power broker actively hostile to American
interests — and wholly unconcerned about human rights or civilian life.
This is a complicated and confusing set of problems, to be
sure. But Americans need to understand the greater challenge: The Middle East is
vitally important to the future of international security and the global
economy, both of which benefit the American people. And right now, a network of
anti-American groups — at times working together, at times on their own — is
trying to drive American influence out of the Middle East and to remake the
region in ways that are contrary to our interests and values. They are doing so
by supporting terrorists and militias, subverting and intimidating our friends,
displacing us diplomatically, and deploying and distributing military technology
that makes it harder and more dangerous for the United States to maintain its
If we keep sleepwalking on our current trajectory, we could
wake up in the near future and find that American influence has been pushed out
of one of the most important parts of the world. That is why Americans need to
care about what is going on in the Middle East right now. That is why we need to
stick with our true friends, like the Kurds. And that is why, now more than
ever, we need a strategy that lifts our sights above the tactical level and
separates the urgent from the truly important.