U.S. must develop clear strategy for Middle East

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The Iraq War was a failure in convincing Iraqis that the United States could save them from disorder in the form of dictatorship, poverty, and extremism.

The three threats are entangled, and though the first has been somewhat alleviated through American efforts, the effects of dictatorship are still widely seen in the form of a disorganized and very partisan government. Moreover, 9/11 and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can be seen as reactions to American involvement in the region, as well as to multiple malfunctioning governments. Recent events, from the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff to the unexpected re-capture of Mosul by Iraqi and Kurdish forces, underline the magnitude of the volatility surrounding the terrorist group known as ISIS. Moreover, ISIS presents a unique conundrum to American foreign policy.

Fareed Zakaria, a well-known political analyst and former editor for Foreign Affairs, wrote an essay in the aftermath of 9/11 titled “Why do They Hate Us?” His essay begins its narration with the portrayal of America in the Middle East during the Cold War. Communism, personified by Russia, never quite matched the mystical appeal of wealth and glory that the United States held during this era. How did this reputation deteriorate in the span of less than 50 years?

First, the rise of oil and the wealth and power that came along with it destabilized the Middle East’s yearning for “modernization” associated with the United States. Due to the Gulf War and the United States’ eagerness to protect its oil sources, along with the oil barons who controlled the wealth output of the Middle East, modernization and Americanization became synonymous with inequality and the marginalization of Saddam Hussein dissenters, namely the Shiites. Moreover, as Hussein gained power, the people of Iraq fled from Americanization, thus creating the perfect environment for radical sentiment.

During the Iraq War, Iraqi sentiment toward the United States was mixed. Some praised America’s military involvement, others criticized its ineffectiveness, while others still harbored anti-American sentiment that arose during the Gulf War and was exacerbated by Saddam Hussein’s reign.

In the era after the Iraq War, the United States must come up with a comprehensive solution for dealing with ISIS and the corresponding humanitarian issues. As history tells us, every action the United States executes in the Middle East has a strong and often varied reaction, fueling a constant feedback system that makes the execution of a coherent and effective foreign policy even more complicated. American foreign policy in the Middle East is becoming the world’s most complex game of public relations.

America wants to act as a stabilizing force, but without the overexertion of its own armed forces, as seen during the Iraq War. One way the United States is accomplishing this maneuver is through the cooperation with Sunni forces. The reason for this relationship is twofold. Not only will it show that the Americans can cooperate with both Shiites (who had until recently, dominated Iraqi politics, thanks to United States-backed Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki) and Sunni, but also cooperation will cut off the supply of fresh recruits to Al Qaeda and ISIS, or any future splinter terrorist group who recruit young Sunni Muslims. The Shiites and Sunnis have been deadlocked in conflict for decades. Sunnis dominate many countries in population, often forcing the Shiites to live impoverished and oppressed.

In Iraq, however, the opposite is true, and the fact that the United States allowed al-Maliki to install a Shiite-dominated government has further dented relations with the Sunnis. ISIS has won the support of the Sunni people, many of whom make up the bulk of its fighters, by appealing to “Sunni Pride.” The United States must do the same. The Obama Administration must figure out a way to help the Sunnis and encourage a new brand of nationalism removed from ISIS.

Currently, government forces in both Syria and Iraq are led by the Assad regime and Shia forces, neither of which holds any appeal for local Sunnis. As a result, the key to winning over the Sunni does not lie in rapid military success, but rather in winning on a cultural, ideological scale.

By providing humanitarian and political support for the Sunni people, as well as arming, training, and providing tactical support for the Sunni forces against ISIS, the United States may be able to tip the balance of power in Iraq.

The United States has already come too far to become a bystander with no clear plan of action in the ongoing Middle East crisis. The nation must be the spark for dialogue and a change of the American image if it wants to protect its own interests, as well as provide a safe and stable environment in the Middle East.