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Washington's Dysfunction Is Sabotaging America's Middle East Policy

Neither the left nor the right has offered a serious strategy for how to respond to the emergence of new types of militant groups across the Middle East. By David Rohde

The furious partisan debate that erupted this week after a New York Times investigation questioned the central tenet of the Republican assault on the White House regarding Benghazi was a fitting end to 2013.

The lengthy article revealed that the State Department and CIA’s intense focus on al Qaeda caused officials to miss the threat posed by local militias. David Kirkpatrick’s reporting showed that Libya’s rebels appreciated the U.S. support in helping oust Muammar al-Qaddafi, but were strongly influenced by decades of anger at Washington’s support for dictators in the region.

Militants gained strength from Syria to the Sahel over the course of 2013. Republicans and Democrats, however, remained focused on winning their daily messaging battle in Washington.

Neither the American left nor the right has offered a serious strategy for how to respond to the emergence of new types of militant groups across the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s approach consisted of trusting unchecked CIA drone strikes and NSA eavesdropping to secure the United States. Republicans used the region’s instability as a cudgel to beat the president with.

Here are three of 2013’s most troubling developments in the Middle East—and Washington’s perfunctory responses that were a disservice to all Americans.

(Related: John Kerry Has a Long Way to Go to Reshape the Middle East)

Benghazi's Meaning: As Amy Davidson correctly noted in The New Yorker this week, Washington’s response to months of investigation on the ground in Libya and Egypt by Times reporters Kirkpatrick, Suliman Ali Zway, Osama Alfitori, and Mayy El Sheikh quickly devolved into a useless debate over the term “al Qaeda.”

Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)—eager to undermine Obama administration statements that core al Qaeda has been weakened—insisted that the group involved in the attack “claims an affiliation with al Qaeda,” as if that was the same as an actual relationship with core al Qaeda’s remaining leaders.

Fox News commentator and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer dismissed the story as an effort “to protect Hillary [Clinton].” Fox News terrorism analyst Walid Phares absurdly argued that Kirkpatrick was “known to side with Islamists.”

The broad message from the left, meanwhile, was that the United States only makes things worse in the Middle East when it acts there. On MSNBC, Karen Finney said the story exonerated the Obama administration because it found that a fake Hollywood video mocking the Prophet Muhammad did, in fact, help spark the attack.

Isolationists on the left and the right argued that any military action—particularly one carried out by the United States—was destructive.

What was lost when each side cherry-picked conclusions that fit their worldview? The Libyan people’s growing disdain of militias, both jihadi and tribal. In November, Libyans outraged by rising lawlessness drove militias out of Tripoli. Libya’s weak central government, however, lacks the properly trained security forces needed to assert control.

Libya’s first democratically-elected prime minister—a pro-Western moderate—asked in June for American and NATO forces to help train government security forces. Washington’s response? After five months of talk, the United States agreed in November to train 6,000 to 8,000 Libyan soldiers at a military base in Bulgaria. This paltry effort will not be nearly enough to aid Libyans who oppose militancy.

U.S. and NATO military forces should not enter Libya—a move we know from past experience will strengthen jihadists there. But a far larger training effort should be mounted outside Libya.

The Muslim Brotherhood: In 2013, the biggest gamble in the region was the Egyptian army’s decision in July to violently crush the Muslim Brotherhood and remove that nation’s first democratically elected president. The military-dominated government seems to announce each week a new crackdown on the Brotherhood and other critics. But it is not clear that the use of force is working.

The Egyptian military campaign against the Brotherhood has now killed more people than the Iranian government’s 2009 crushing of the “Green Revolution.” Yet Cairo has failed to stop regular demonstrations by the Brotherhood. It has also failed to halt a series of car bombings by Islamic extremist groups that are urging Brotherhood members to take up arms.

The stakes in Egypt are enormous. The crackdown could succeed—or drive tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of conservative activists into the arms of al Qaeda. The reaction of Republican and Democrats to these developments? Collective silence.

The Obama administration should suspend all U.S. military aid to Egypt and stop embracing the Saudi fantasy that autocrats are the region’s low-risk cure-all. Over the long-term, autocrats foster instability and economic stagnation—not stability—in the Middle East.

Syria: 2013 will be viewed as the year that President Bashar al-Assad turned the tide in the war in Syria. As Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman detailed in a Wall Street Journal story this week, “all-in” military support from Iran and Hezbollah allowed Assad to retake crucial territory.

(Read more: Obama’s Syria Policy in Disarray, Is Counterterrorism Next?)

The Obama administration, however, blinked.

Obama had vowed to punish Assad for any chemical weapons attacks. Yet the president held off on air strikes or fully arming the rebels, citing fears of getting embroiled in another Mideast conflict.

The result is a conflict in Syria that could drag on for years. Assad can hold much of the country, but not all of it.

Jihadists, meanwhile, are taking control of the opposition. Thousands of militants from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have flocked to Syria. An estimated 1,500 to 2,000 European citizens and dozens of American citizens have joined the fight there as well. An unknown number are being radicalized.

Some of these jihadists will likely return home, as it becomes clear that Assad will not be toppled in 2014. The Obama administration is gambling that CIA drone strikes and NSA surveillance will somehow hold them at bay.

More likely, the blowback from Syria will resemble that of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Jihadists from that conflict sparked a decade-long civil war in Algeria that killed 50,000—and, of course, carried out the 9/11 attacks.

The Obama administration’s only remaining leverage in Syria is its economic sanctions on Iran, Assad’s primary military backer. Any nuclear agreement with Iran that involves a reduction in economic sanctions should include Iranian support for a peace settlement in Syria.

The chances of Washington agreeing on such a strategy are low. Our political elite was so deeply divided in 2013 that we could not define a common enemy. We turned a blind eye to the revival of Mideast authoritarianism. And we fashioned no plans for how to respond to Syria becoming a new Afghanistan.

The damage that Washington’s partisanship wrought on domestic affairs in 2013 was chronicled daily in the media. Its destructive impact on the Middle East—and our national security—will emerge for years to come.