President Barack Obama held a news conference on Thursday to explain his position on current unrest in the Middle East in general, and Syria and Iraq in particular. He announced an increase in surveillance activity, security reinforcement of American installations (mainly the embassy), dispatch of two company sized units as advisors to elected government forces, resupply of those forces, and the movement of American assets to where they might be utilized quickly and decisively should they be needed.
The President emphasized that no group troops are being deployed to fight in Iraq. The kind of government that will be enjoyed or endured by the Iraqi people is not up to the United States but up to political forces inside the country. U.S. air strikes will not be used (even though requested) at this time.
No matter what the President would have announced today, it would have been criticized by some parts of the American political culture. Two Republican critics of Obama's Iraq policies -- Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- called the sending of advisers "a positive step," but said that more needs to be done.
"We must act now to help Iraqis arrest their country's descent into chaos, or the current crisis may soon spiral further out of control," McCain and Graham said in a joint statement.
“Spiral” is an apt word. It follows over 2000 years of spiraling in the Middle East with no off ramp in sight. Perhaps now might be an appropriate moment to identify real American interests in the region and recognize what actions on our part might best secure those interests.
President Obama is right. It is not America’s business to tell anyone in the Middle East how to live their lives. At the same time, America should protect its allies in the region and find a way to explain to its adversaries that we mean them no harm if they can find it in their hearts not to harm us.
An earlier President “Silent” Calvin Coolidge famously remarked that “The business of America is business.” Up until now, America has needed Middle Eastern oil. New discoveries make that not necessarily true for much longer. Islamic countries, if they choose not to be our enemies, can become our customers.
Perhaps the biggest gulf to overcome is not the Persian Gulf, but the way in which we all see ourselves. Islamic countries may do things internally of which we do not approve. That will have to be their business. On the other hand, they will have to understand that our basic medium of exchange is nationhood rather than the religion which they hold so dear. One can compromise and negotiate with a nation. Not so easy to change the belief system of a God.
It is imperative that we not impose our values on others nor allow them to believe that they can impose their belief system on others. There has been much that has been done wrongly over two millenniums and can be easily dredged up and pointed to. The problem with doing that is the spiral without an off-ramp that everyone hates.