Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is in the midst of a whirlwind Middle Eastern tour. He should have stayed home.
Prior to the 2020 election, Biden aides Jake Sullivan and Daniel Benaim, today respectively national security advisor and the deputy assistant secretary of State for the Arab Gulf states, penned a piece in Foreign Affairs arguing that the face of US policy in the Middle East should be diplomatic rather than military. While they omitted the importance of business, they were right that diplomacy should trump the military in US outreach.
Austin’s trip is a case in point, as the retired general tripped through diplomatic minefields and made a number of unforced errors.
Start with Iraqi Kurdistan: For Austin to meet with Masoud Barzani was a diplomatic own-goal for three reasons: First, while Masoud might be a political party leader, he holds no office. Essentially, he is a warlord. Meeting with him affirms his ambitions and undercuts democracy.
Second, Austin’s visit allows Barzani to imply exclusive endorsement against the backdrop of a political crisis given Austin’s failure to meet with competing political party leaders.
Third, it validates his strategy of undermining security in Baghdad in order to position Iraqi Kurdistan as an exclusive security partner, essentially extorting funding from the United States as an arsonist might demand money to pay for firefighting equipment.
Lastly, he ignores that US subsidies to party Peshmerga fighters now drive instability in the region rather than resolve it.
Austin then flew on to Israel, where reports suggest he seeks to cajole the Israelis to suspend their counterterrorism operations in the West Bank in order to keep focus on countering the broader Iranian threat. This suggests bizarre ignorance on the part of Austin if not the administration itself. Does he really believe that efforts by Hamas to infiltrate the West Bank have nothing to do with Iran? Then again, Austin comes from a military that, for the sake of diplomatic nicety, long denied Pakistani complicity in Taliban terror.
Regardless, the fact that the Secretary of Defense appears profoundly ignorant of the depth and breadth of Iranian strategy will give the Israelis more reason to act unilaterally rather than less.
There is a high price to such missteps. Unfortunately, the chance that the entire region will pay for it is now higher because of Austin’s trip.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).