The abrupt Obama administration pre-election pullout from Iraq in 2011, along with the administration’s failed reset with Russia and the Iran deal, created a three-headed hydra in the Middle East.
What makes the Middle East monster deadly is the interplay between the Iranian terrorist regime and its surrogates Hezbollah and the Assad regime; Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deployment of bombers into Syria and Iraq after a 40-year Russian hiatus in the region; and the medieval beheaders of the Islamic State.
Add into the brew anti-Americanism, genocide, millions of refugees, global terrorism and nuclear weapons.
The Islamic State is simultaneously at war against the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian surrogates such Hezbollah, and Russian expeditionary forces. It also seeks to energize terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.
Stranger still, ISIS almost surely is receiving stealth support from Sunni nations in the Middle East, some of them ostensibly American allies.
This matrix gets even crazier.
The authors of reset policy during the Obama administration are now furious at President Donald Trump for even talking about what they tried for years: reaching out to Putin. Yet in the Middle East, Russia is doing us a favor by attacking ISIS, even as it does no favors in saving the genocidal Assad regime that has murdered tens of thousands of innocents – along with lots of ISIS terrorists as well.
Iran is the sworn enemy of the United States, yet its foreign proxies attack our shared enemy, ISIS. The very troops who once blew up Americans in Iraq with shaped charges are for now de facto allies on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.
Given that there is now no political support for surging thousands more U.S. troops into Iraq to reverse the disastrous Obama administration pullout, there are three strategic choices in dealing with the Middle East hydra, all of them bad:
One, hold our nose, and for now ally with Russia and Iran to destroy ISIS first. Then deal with the other rivalries later on. (The model is the American-Soviet alliance against Hitler that quickly morphed after 1945 into the Cold War.)
Two, work with the least awful of the three, which is probably Russia. (The model might be Henry Kissinger’s outreach to Mao’s China that left Moscow and Beijing at odds and confused over the role of the United States.)
Three, simply keep out of the mess and let them all diminish each other, despite the collateral damage to the innocent. (The model is the savage Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 that weakened U.S. enemies Saddam Hussein and the Iranian theocracy but resulted in 800,000 deaths.)
In the short-term, option three is ostensibly the least costly – at least to the U.S. But 2 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees have swarmed Europe, coinciding with an uptick in radical Islamic terrorism. Syria is becoming the new Balkans or Rwanda – and nonintervention would mean allowing the wasteland to spread, as hundreds of thousands more civilians die or flee westward.
Which of the other two options is the least objectionable?
After 2014, we quietly pursued option one by fighting in parallel fashion with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad government against ISIS, the more dreadful enemy.
Apparently, the Obama rationale was that when ISIS was destroyed, the U.S. could then come to terms with an energized and empowered Iran rather than with Russia. The jury is out on that strategy.
The second option so far seems to be President Trump’s preference: a new detente with Putin in hopes that he will back off even a bit from his support of Iran and Hezbollah as we jointly fight ISIS.
The flipping-Russia approach may seem unlikely: It assumes nuclear Russia is far less of a threat than soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. Would Putin really be willing to write off a half-century of Russian support for Syria?
Or can Putin see that the U.S. has mutual interests with Russia in opposing all Islamic extremism – both ISIS and Putin’s Iranian clients?
Would the mercurial Putin work with moderate Sunni regimes, Israel and the U.S. to provide regional stability?
Can Trump convince Putin that having Iran as yet another nuclear power near the borders of the old Soviet Union (in addition to Pakistan, India, North Korea, China and NATO forces) is not in Russia’s interest?
Would overlooking Putin’s autocracy be any worse that the Obama administration’s negotiations with a murderous Iran, the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism? What would be Putin’s steep price to abandon Assad, to ensure that Iran stays non-nuclear, and to finish the destruction of ISIS?
Overlooking Russian autocracy? Keeping mum should Putin threaten autonomous nations on his border?
These are bad choices.
Trump, a political outsider, did not create the monster. Rather, he inherited from past U.S. leaders the three-headed hydra of the Middle East.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.