The Nexus and the Olive Tree

The White House needs to tune out the dramatic events of Syria and Libya and focus on America's strategic goals in the region.

Henry Kissinger has frequently observed that two of the key challenges of conducting foreign policy are learning to distinguish between urgent and important matters, and then devising techniques to keep the urgent from driving away all consideration of the important. In other words, the volume of pressing work is so great that officials sometimes fail to answer key strategic questions because they are too busy answering the telephone.

With the constant stream of news coming from the Middle East these days, Kissinger's observation is more important than ever. The world -- including, undoubtedly, no small number of U.S. officials -- is currently captivated by the death throes of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya. Just last Thursday, Aug. 18, however, Washington's attention was focused 1,300 miles to the east, on the travails of a completely different dictator, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was called upon by Washington to step aside. And of course, in the weeks and months before that, the foreign-policy community was focused like a laser on Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa. 

Today, naturally, the urgent questions U.S. senior leaders are asking include: How can the United States encourage Libya's rebel movement to adopt an inclusive, transparent system of government? How can the international community prevent a bloodletting of revenge killings in Tripoli? And, looking to Damascus, who will work with Washington to oust Assad, and what is the best method to exploit fractures in his regime?

Pressing though these questions may be, they must not be permitted to drive out deep consideration of the most important challenges faced by U.S. foreign-policy leaders. These are: What are America's overarching strategic goals in the Middle East? And what role does its Syria policy play in achieving them?

In other words, we must go back to basics. This highly inconvenient moment is exactly the right time to do so, because the call for Assad's removal represents the final disintegration of the strategic paradigm that had guided Washington for the last two-and-a-half years. Constructing a new model, though not urgent, is of the highest importance.

President Barack Obama's administration came into office guided by a comprehensive critique of George W. Bush's "war on terror." After 9/11, Bush had adopted a very broad view of the strategic threat facing the United States, defining it as "nexus": the convergence of state sponsors of terrorism, terrorist groups, and weapons of mass destruction. This approach, as the Obama administration saw it, led to strategic overreach. Lumping al Qaeda together with states that had no clear connection to Osama bin Laden's organization mired the United States in a pointless and costly war in Iraq, while also fostering a highly adversarial relationship with many other countries, Iran and Syria being the two most notable cases. The nexus doctrine branded these states as pariahs.

For its part, the Obama administration certainly recognized that Tehran and Damascus were hostile and deeply problematic actors, but it also observed that these regimes had good reason to feel threatened by al Qaeda. U.S. policy, therefore, should seek to exploit the potential overlap in interests. In addition, Iran and Syria seemed to be unnatural allies. It was the Manichaean template of the Bush administration, the Obama team believed, that had forced the two powers together. The smarter play was to pry them apart, by wooing Damascus away from Tehran.

Bush had fallen into a trap laid by bin Laden. By taking up a fight with so many Muslim adversaries simultaneously, his administration had inadvertently corroborated the core narrative of al Qaeda, which presented the war on terror as a war on Islam. At the same time, the excessive coziness, as the new administration saw it, between the Bush team and right-wing Israelis only further affirmed the narrative by making the United States appear as the key indirect enabler of the oppression of the Palestinian people

Obama revamped American strategy with this critique in mind. His overarching goal was to construct a new narrative of Muslim-American friendship. This effort began in earnest with the June 2009 Cairo address, titled "A New Beginning." In the speech, the president emphasized that "Islam has always been a part of America's story" and promised to do his best to resolve points of friction in the relationship, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While working to redress Muslim grievances, Obama simultaneously sought to demilitarize relations between the United States and Muslim countries. The first step in this effort was replacing the overly broad war on terror with the concept of a limited conflict focused solely on al Qaeda. This narrower definition did lead to a troop surge in Afghanistan. However, as compensation for this intensification of military activity, the new vision simultaneously encouraged a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. What's more, it also opened the door to diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. In the heartland of the Middle East, the United States was now telling a story of conciliation.

This new narrative of partnership required Muslim co-authors. However, one of Obama's early efforts to find a partner was rebuffed. Immediately before the Cairo speech, he headed to Saudi Arabia, where he sought King Abdullah's cooperation in revitalizing the Arab-Israeli peace process. Obama was surprised to find King Abdullah preoccupied with another problem: the rise of Iran. Tehran's regional influence was growing, and the regime was on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon.

What, King Abdullah asked, was the American strategy? Obama had no good answer and, therefore, missed an early opportunity to establish a strategic accommodation with the most influential Arab ally of the United States.

The president had much better luck recruiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a co-author. Erdogan's résumé was tailor-made for the role. No stooge of the Americans, he had impeccable Islamist credentials. Even better, Turkey was now something of an anti-imperial regional power. It had refused to participate in the Iraq war, and it had embarked on a newly independent policy in the Middle East. The brainchild of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, this policy celebrated the intention of Turkey to have "zero problems with neighbors" such as Iran and Syria, while still maintaining close relations with the United States. This stance amounted to a kind of nonalignment that aimed to establish Turkey as the Middle East's mediator in chief. Ankara, unlike Riyadh, was actually eager to play a role in the Arab-Israeli peace process and to intercede between the United States and Iran and Syria. This zeal to be an Islamist middleman supported Obama's three key goals: adopting a newly modest American demeanor, reducing tensions with the radical states, and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite this promising résumé, Erdogan has failed as the co-author of a compelling new narrative. A Turkish mediation effort between Israel and Syria was already in trouble by the time of the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which left nine Turks dead at the hands of the Israelis. Meanwhile, Turkish initiatives with respect to the Iranian nuclear program have produced no successes. If anything, they have needlessly complicated international efforts to stop the Iranians.

Meanwhile, Iran's behavior throughout the Middle East remains as threatening as ever, providing covert lethal assistance to its Iraqi proxies, to the Taliban, and to Assad's killing machine. U.S. government sources have even pointed to the existence of significant links between Tehran and al Qaeda. Little by little, Obama's view of the strategic threat has grown closer to Bush's concept of nexus.

With the call for Assad's ouster, Obama has almost come full circle. The crowning achievement of the Turkish "zero-problems" policy was supposed to have been the establishment of cooperative relations between Damascus and the West. No power worked harder than Turkey to bring Assad in from the cold. And no power encouraged Turkey in this effort more warmly than the United States. Whatever benefits the zero-problems policy may have provided to the Turks, it has done precious little for the Americans on the issues of deepest concern to them. Therefore, Obama's call for Assad to step down represents a tacit admission that the co-authored narrative of harmony and conciliation will remain forever unwritten.

What went wrong? At the deepest level, the problem was not an overreliance on the Turks. It was, rather, the faulty American assumptions that made Erdogan's zero-problems policy appear attractive in the first place.

At the heart of Obama's grand strategy was a mistaken definition of the strategic challenge. Now that the Arab uprisings have dragged the United States through a crash course on Middle Eastern realities, U.S. policymakers can more easily recognize the deepest drivers of politics in the region -- namely, the vast number of severe conflicts that set Muslims against Muslims. From a practical strategic point of view, there is no such thing as "the Muslim world." Any effort to write a narrative of cooperation with a thing that does not actually exist is bound to encounter severe difficulties.

The United States must therefore dispense entirely with grand strategies that seek to foster a conciliatory image of the United States and to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it should focus on the key challenge posed by the Arab uprisings: managing intra-Muslim conflict.

This requires returning to the question that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah first posed to Obama: What is the strategy of the United States toward Iran? At stake in Syria today is nothing less than the future of the Iranian regional security system. It should not escape notice that the Saudis, though hostile to the populist wave in general, have now aligned themselves against Assad. As much as they fear revolution, the Saudis fear the Islamic Republic of Iran even more, and they see the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to deal a severe blow to it. The United States should adopt a similar view.

The contest on the ground in Syria, obviously, has profoundly local causes. Nevertheless, the regional struggle between Iran and its rivals will play a significant role in shaping it. After Assad falls, a proxy war will erupt, with outside powers seeking to cultivate Syrian clients. Iran and Hezbollah will use the covert and brutal methods that they have honed in Lebanon and Iraq. They will preserve what they can from the remnants of Assad's security services, while simultaneously arming and training new proxies. They will kill off and intimidate those Syrians who get in their way.

The United States has a vital interest in thwarting Iran. To do so effectively, however, it must develop a serious and sustained regional containment strategy. The process of writing the new strategy begins, like before, in Riyadh and Ankara. This time, however, Obama should reverse his attitude toward the preferences of King Abdullah and Prime Minister Erdogan. The Syrian crisis offers a new opportunity to reach a strategic accommodation with the Saudis. At the same time, it should also force Washington to re-evaluate the Turks' no-problems policy. To date, this policy has worked to the net benefit of Iran and Syria and to the detriment of the United States. There is no reason to believe that it will produce a different result in the future.

Writing a new grand strategy is important, but not urgent. It can always be put off until tomorrow, "when things calm down." In the meantime, the phone is ringing. The world was treated to images of cheering Libyans retaking their capital on Aug. 21; the United States will surely be called upon to play a role in the messy political transition that will follow. The Aug. 18 terrorist attack in Israel has raised the specter of another Gaza war, while also escalating tensions with Egypt. And next month, the question of Palestinian statehood may well be taken up by the United Nations.

These and many other matters will soon fill up the calendar of U.S. officials. But if Washington is not careful, all these urgent issues will push aside consideration of grand strategy, precisely when it is needed most.



The Lost Lessons of Freedom

The march toward openness and democracy in the Soviet Union began under my great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, flowered under Mikhail Gorbachev, and has nearly been erased in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

"Berlin should become a free city," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev repeated in public and at home throughout 1961. It was my great-grandfather's habit; once taken with an idea, he never let it go.

"Parity" was his ruling diplomatic concept. If one side in the Cold War can do something, so can another, he reasoned. This was the logic he employed in sending rockets to Cuba in 1962: If America, the superpower, can have missiles in Turkey, right on the border of the Soviet Union, he reasoned, then surely the USSR, another superpower, must be able to do the same. Fifty years later, Russia, though a superpower no more and the Cold War long since dead, still adheres to this world-dividing concept. Vladimir Putin, president-turned-prime-minister and the main politician in charge, never fails to point out that his country (with its geography and natural resources just enough to make it great and powerful) should be on equal footing with the world most-industrialized countries -- and have the same international influence as the United States.

This line of thinking leads to policies that are dangerous for both the Russian people and global security. But to understand how it emerged, it's necessary to go back to the height of the Cold War in 1961.

Fifteen years after World War II, Berlin was still considered occupied territory, divided into four spheres of influence -- the Soviet Union, the United States, France, and Britain. Khrushchev pushed for a peace treaty to give the largely unrecognized communist government of East Germany (GDR) international legitimacy. This was an issue for the Americans, and so Khrushchev threatened to turn Berlin into a free demilitarized zone, giving the GDR full power over the city's Eastern zone and leaving the Western half under the control of the pro-Western Federal Republic. 

The United States saw this plan as an enormous threat to the West and to capitalism -- a ploy to give all of Berlin to the Soviets. Indeed, that may well have been the endgame Khrushchev envisaged. He was big on parity, but was also a cunning politician serving the communist cause.

Meanwhile, fearful of being stuck with communism forever, East Germans were defecting through the city's porous border checkpoints at a stunning rate. By 1961, the country had lost over 3 million of its citizens. Walter Ulbricht, Secretary of GDR's Socialist Unity Party, accused the West of the "destructive and undermining actions," blamed Western propaganda for the defections, and believed he could prevent further immigration by separating Berlin into two parts. Yet in the first weeks of August, Ulbricht -- who already made mandatory a system of passports and advocated the border closing -- was adamant that the final division, the wall, must be a last resort.

Khrushchev was also hesitant about the division, believing that Washington would take it the wrong way, and that interactions with the West could suffer. But the wall seemed to be the only way to stop immigration and keep East Germans from experiencing the higher quality of capitalist life. On Aug. 13, 1961, the wall went up and Berlin began its three decades of division.

Fast forward to 1964. After the dangers of the Cuban missile crisis had passed Khrushchev wanted to establish closer relations with Europe. His son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei, the editor of the newspaper Izvestia, became an unofficial envoy for this mission. But during a July visit with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, Adzhubei went a bit too far. Rather than just testing the waters of possible rapprochement he offered a solution to the division, as recounted in his memoir, Those Ten Years. "When I tell Nikita Sergeevich you are such good folks, he will get rid of the Wall," he promised.

A scandal ensued. Ulbricht couldn't formally admit he had wanted to divide Berlin, preferring to let Moscow take responsibility for the drastic measure. Khrushchev, on the other hand, couldn't be officially looking for ways to unite it; even if by 1964, following the crises in Berlin and Cuba over the past two years, he believed more in "peaceful coexistence" than in "parity" as a viable European policy for the Soviet Union. The wall remained standing. And just a few months later, in October 1964, Khrushchev was ousted for "failed and erratic policies" and "voluntarism in politics." For the Kremlin hardliners, the Berlin crisis was on the laundry list of his failures -- first he wanted to build the wall, then decided to tear it down. After all, in the always defensive politics of USSR, changing policy to accommodate the other side was seen as nothing less than weakness. It took almost 30 years for another Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to try to open up the communist monolith.

Five decades later, one can speculate that if Khrushchev had been more forceful in trying to end divisions in Berlin, the Cold War might have been over much sooner. After all, Gorbachev was determined to open up the Soviet Union -- and he was indeed successful. But 20 years later, however, whether his success will hold is far from certain.

A hardliner in his own right, the KGB-trained Vladimir Putin has spent last 10 years since the Soviet collapse working to reestablish the centralized power of the Kremlin that Gorbachev had sought to break. The fall of the Berlin Wall had liberated the country from the straitjacket of Marxism-Leninism, yet Putin's "democracy" is understood only as a chance to walk half-naked during the summer heat waves or broadcast poor imitations of American crime shows, in which the brave KGB officers in opulent palaces battle the corrupt mafia.

Most Russians, ever susceptible to state propaganda, are satisfied with this narrow definition of freedom. They no longer regard their country's openness as a sign that they are part of Western civilization as they did for a while encouraged by the Gorbachev policies, fearing instead that NATO and the European Union have expanded so much that they are pressing up against Russia's borders. The United States, too, is seen as an adversary because of its support of democratic revolutions around the world, in Georgia, Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East.

Russia's borders are now more open than they have ever been, but in some ways, the country's ruling "sovereign democrats" believe in divisions and enemies even more than their autocratic communist predecessors. In April this year, Putin reasserted this point of view: "In the modern world, if you are weak, there will always be someone who wants to come in or fly in to give you advice as to which direction to take, what policy to conduct, what path to choose for your own development," he said. "And behind such seemingly well meaning ... advice, in fact stands a rough diktat and interference into the domestic affairs of sovereign states."

But while he warns Russia against the cunning outsiders, Putin is entirely unavailable to his own people. His "superman" propaganda antics -- kissing animals and children, flying jets and navigating submarines -- do not prove superior leadership. His fiery speeches are as divorced from reality as the Soviets blaming the West's "destructive influence" for their own food shortages.

Fifty years ago, Soviet dissident writer Alexander Galich in his effort to disclose the insularity of the Soviet autocrats took a trip on the Rublevsky expressway to Usovo, 15 miles west of Moscow, traditionally a residential area for the Soviet elite, where my great-grandfather used to live. Galich then famously wrote, "It's raining in the countryside; There are fences in the countryside; Behind those fences are the leaders," in hiding from their people.

In recent rainy weeks, I went to see what has become of Khrushchev's dacha. It is now part of the enlarged and updated prime ministerial estate, Novo-Ogarevo. But Khrushchev, the Soviet autocrat, was never as secretive as Russia's "democrat" Putin -- the 20-feet tall wire-mesh impenetrable fence guarding the current leadership is more intimidating than the barriers the bygone communists chose for themselves. Khrushchev's much humbler wooden fence actually allowed for sneaking in and out of the compound. With Putin's new estate, you'd need the ability to fly.

Yes, Khrushchev was an imperfect reformer but even he seemed more attuned to the openness to which a civilized nation should aspire than does Putin. Despite my great-grandfather's tainted past -- a trusted lieutenant of Stalin in the purge and wartime years -- in 1956, he chose to denounce his former boss's cult of personality. After his ousting in 1964, he admitted that walling off West Berlin was a mistake: "Superiority should be shown through competition not through restrictions," he said. Gorbachev followed along this line; when the Berlin Wall was about to fall in 1989, he didn't send Soviet tanks to squash the rebellion. As he once admitted to me in a private conversation, the "essence of Perestroika was that we could no longer dictate to the world how to live. And they didn't want to live with us."

Sadly, this lesson is completely lost on contemporary Russia. Putin's effort to restore the national self-respect he sees as being shattered by the bitter loss of superpower status in 1991, has been focused on cowing Europe into submissively accepting Russia's sphere of "privileged interest" among the post-Soviet nations. By increasing oil and gas prices or limiting supplies in Ukraine and Belarus, by flexing its military muscle in Georgia or sending ships to Cuba and Venezuela to parade Russia's power on the world stage, Putin is eager to show that Russia is back.

Yet this façade has only achieved exposing Russia as an unreliable partner, and confirming that 50 years after the Berlin Wall and 20 after the coup that brought down the Soviet Union, Russia has yet to learn the lessons of freedom.

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