Why it’s nearly impossible to sort out Mideast good guys and bad guys

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. neocons have long since concluded that there is no Iran deal worth doing that can be done.

Pretty much any effort to divide the Middle East into good guys and bad guys, democrats and tyrants, friends and foes to America will fail due to excessive complexity, shifting sands of interests and a great deal of b.s.-ing the public.

The neocon element of the Washington establishment, led most publicly by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, always have a top candidate of a bad guy they’d like to overthrow, usually by bombing or invading that guy’s nation, unless it can be handled by a secret CIA coup. To my eyes, the track record of this approach, in terms of achieving the promised results, looks pretty bad.

We’re at a (probably not “the”) key moment in the U.S.-led effort to prevent, by peaceful, negotiated means, Iran from getting too close to developing nuclear weapons capability. It’s not going great and it may fail or drag on or, perhaps, something in between that buys more time.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. neocons have long since concluded that there is no deal worth doing that can done. Many of them are less clear on what the alternative is to a deal, but it’s not that hard to figure out. Bomb. Invade. Overthrow or, as they prefer to euphemize it, “regime change.”

They don’t much talk about the fact that such a policy would fracture unity of the world’s biggest powers who have been working together on the deal. The end of that unity would also likely weaken the economic sanctions regime that is the main pressure keeping Iran at the bargaining table.

If they would be more clear about what their alternatives really are, they would have a much harder time finding a receptive audience in broader America.

Writing for the Monday New York Times, long-time foreign policy columnist Roger Cohen delivered a smart, sober analysis, which amounted to fairly strong endorsement of President Obama’s current approach. The four-word lede is this: “Do the Iran deal.”

His one-paragraph put-down of the neocon approach goes like this:

“American or Israeli bombs on Persia (or both) would have all sorts of ghastly consequences, but the fundamental argument against such folly is that they would cause no more than a hiccup in Iran’s nuclear program before spurring it to renewed and unmonitored intensity. This would be war without purpose, or war on false pretenses. We’ve seen enough of that.”

Cohen (and, one assumes, Obama) hope that buying 10 years or so will keep open the possibility of a deep change in Iran’s attitude and conduct. Here’s the section of his piece:

“Iran is a hopeful and youthful society. Nurture the hope. Don’t imprison it. A deal lasting 10 years would condemn Iran and America to a working relationship over that period. I use the word ‘condemn’ advisedly. It would not be pretty. In fact it would be ugly. There would be plenty of disagreements.

“But jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Much can be achieved with nations that have fundamental ideological differences with the United States; look at the history of Chinese-American relations since they resumed in the 1970’s. During the next decade the Islamic Republic is likely to go through a leadership change. Its society is aspirational and Westward-looking. ‘Death to America’ has become a tired refrain. What these elements will produce in terms of change is unpredictable, but the chance of positive developments is enhanced by contact and diminished by punitive estrangement of Tehran.

“Would it be preferable that Iran not have the nuclear capacity it has acquired? Sure. Can there be absolute guarantees a deal would be honored? No. But diplomacy deals with the real world. The toughest, most important diplomacy is conducted with enemies. Opponents of an accord have offered no serious alternatives.”

I’ll stop quoting him, but you have his argument now, and more importantly, his tone, which is calm, hopeful and mature in that it doesn’t endorse the kind of “magic bullet” properties that the regime-changers do. (Did I mention that the U.S. already “regime changed” Iran, overthrowing the only really democratic government it ever had?)

Another much more radical, lefty analysis – not just about the Iran stuff but about the overall nature of the Mideast problem and U.S. policy there –  was published Tuesday by Robert Parry for his site, Consortium News. It notes that the Mideast is hopelessly complex but also notes that there are forces and voices in the U.S. mainstream discussion that do not want us to know or understand key facts.

One of those key facts, Parry believes, is that:

“Israel is now allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Persian Gulf states, which are, in turn, supporting Sunni militants in Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly, this Israel-Saudi bloc sustains Al-Qaeda and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the Islamic State.

“The U.S. news media is loath to note these strange Israeli bedfellows, but there’s a twisted logic to the Israeli-Saudi connection. Both Israel and the Saudi bloc have identified Shiite-ruled Iran as their chief regional adversary and thus are supporting proxy wars against perceived Iranian allies in Syria and now Yemen. The Syrian government and the Houthi rebels in Yemen are led by adherents to offshoots of Shiite Islam, so they are the ‘enemy.’”

If true, there is certainly some strange bedfellowism here. Israel (despite the obvious problems of the subject Palestinian population) is as close as you get to a real democracy in the Mideast. Saudi Arabia is the opposite. They hold no meaningful elections and they flog bloggers there. Women cannot legally drive. And Saudi Arabia has historically been the leader of the Arab rejectionist bloc, meaning they rejected Israel’s right to exist, although in recent yeafrs they have played a more constructive role in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But this must be said. Friendship and alliance with both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been the key building blocs of U.S. Mideast policy for decades.

Parry essentially argues that through that three-way strategic relationship, the United States is part of a club that currently sides with elements of Al Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Read the full Parry argument yourself. It’s titled “Deciphering the Mideast Chaos.”

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/01/2015 - 11:10 am.

    Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have been dubious allies over the years.

    We have placed American lives and resources into battles that they wanted but could not fight or win. Meanwhile, they continue to pursue and support actions and policies that run directly counter to our interests.

    If, for no other reason than to realign the power dynamics between the US and Israel and the US and Saudi Arabia, a deal needs to be done between the US and Iran. If you haven’t noticed, they are THE power player in the ME right now. Our leverage with the remainder of the ME circus will be increased.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/01/2015 - 02:37 pm.

    Where’s my irony meter?

    “…the United States is part of a club that currently sides with elements of Al Qaida and the Islamic State group.” Surely, Parry’s words qualify as a statement that ought to get the attention of a whole lot of people, in and – especially – outside the D.C. Beltway. It’s not at all difficult to see popular support for American policies that, in effect, support al-Qaeda vanishing like steam on an August morning in the Sahara should the public understand what the neocons are doing.

    Some sort of deal with Iran, even if it only provides a decade’s breathing space, is infinitely preferable to yet another shooting war with no declaration, no clear goal, and no means of reaching whatever goal exists, clear or not. The most worthwhile negotiations often ARE with one’s enemies, and they’re also the most difficult, but as Cohen notes, angry words traded back and forth with a potential enemy are much preferable to bullets and bodies being traded back and forth, and, as is noted above, much like the ACA and its knee-jerk Republican opponents, those who currently oppose a deal with Iran have themselves provided no viable alternative policy. Our track record when it comes to regime-change is, to put it kindly, abysmal.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 04/01/2015 - 03:23 pm.

      Pick a subject

      The GOP never gives a viable alternative. If an alternative is offered it contains a guaranteed poison pill.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/01/2015 - 03:46 pm.

    Regime change in Iraq was working until Obama undermined it by pulling the troops out. As a direct result of that blunder, the Iraqis have welcomed Iran into the country to to fight the same crew we ejected in 2008.

    The fact that he hurriedly out a similar pullout in Afghanistan in reverse is small comfort, but it’s something…I guess.

    • Submitted by Ross Willits on 04/01/2015 - 04:35 pm.

      Oh, I get it

      You almost had me convinced, but then I noticed that it’s April 1.

      Good one!

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2015 - 05:01 pm.


      ‘Regime Change’ worked in Iraq as long as WE were the regime.
      We occupied the country and were the law (at least in most of Baghdad).
      As long as we were willing to keep large numbers of troops there (and suffer the accompanying losses) we could maintain that status quo. But we never changed the political culture or Iraq, and unless we were willing to spend the billions to stay there forever (remember that the costs were supposed to be paid for by Iraqi oil?), we eventually had to face reality.
      So Obama finally pulled our head out of the sand.
      “You’ve got to know when to fold ’em.”

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/01/2015 - 05:04 pm.

      One tenth

      We have about a tenth as many troops in Afghanistan (‘the graveyard of empires’) as we had in Iraq.
      We are not trying to occupy the country.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/01/2015 - 09:18 pm.

      Just for the record, AGAIN !!

      Bush negotiated the timing of the troop pullout. Obama just followed the timetable set by Bush. Without immunity from prosecution for US troops, no one would leave US troops in Iraq–that was always the sticking point.

      And Maliki, as picked by the Bush administration, was always aligned with Iran.

      So sorry that Bush, and now you, can’t keep the intricacies of Iraq straight.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/02/2015 - 07:14 am.

        Bush would have renegotiated that agreement. He would never have abandoned Iraq to ISIS.

        Next excuse?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/02/2015 - 08:55 am.

          An excuse

          is better than a fantasy.
          Saying that you KNOW what someone else might have done is a fantasy.
          On the other hand, what BushII DID do is public record.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/02/2015 - 09:37 am.

          Excuse me

          Obama tried to renegotiate the agreement, but the Iraqi government would not agree to acceptable terms.

          There is no excuse for being so gullible as to think the Iraqi government would have offered the Bush administration better terms. They wanted the US gone.

          • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/02/2015 - 09:12 pm.

            Only a fool believes a government surviving on the good graces of an occupying army has any chips to play.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/03/2015 - 09:21 am.

              Is that why . . .

              . . . they refused to agree? Perhaps the Iraqi government misread the situation. It’s entirely possible that they misoverestimated (to use a GW Bush-type construction) their own stability.

              The big hang-up with the renegotiation of the agreement was immunity from Iraqi law for US troops. The Iraqis weren’t willing to give on that point. How do you suppose President Bush would have responded? Leave our troops vulnerable to an uncertain justice system?

              Of courses, the wishes of the American people were meaningless in this situation.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/04/2015 - 11:03 am.

              There was no government in Iraq

              There were competing warlords.
              The one’s in power wanted our troops to keep them in power.
              The one’s not in power wanted us to leave so that they could take over.
              There never was a regime elected democratically and supported by a majority of the populace.
              Reread the tarbaby.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/06/2015 - 06:04 pm.

          Iraq was “abandoned to ISIS” from the moment the U.S. invaded

          and destabilized it. For all his faults, Saddam Hussein kept the Islamic fanatics in check.

          There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until they came in to “help fellow Muslims” repel the “foreign invaders” (i.e. U.S. troops).

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 04/03/2015 - 10:51 am.

      how did that work again

      The only thing “regime change in Iraq” accomplished, other than to pave the way for ISIS or something like it, was to remove the main counterbalance to Iran’s ambitions to be the leading power in its part of the world. Fortunately the current Administration is able both to recognize that fact and to develop policies that deal with the resulting threats and opportunities that do not depend on the fantastic notion that still more “regime change” is preferable, or even possible.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/01/2015 - 08:52 pm.


    While the neocons may have a “bad guy” on the radar they want to get rid of for the betterment of the world and advancement of American interests, liberals always think that there are no bad or good guys. So the first approach may sometime work (Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, Grenada in 1983) and sometime not (Vietnam and Iraq) but the latter cases are usually the result of the wrong politics, not wrong idea (if America withdrew its troops from Iraq right after Saddam’s capture it would have been a great success). Liberal approach, on the other hand, always leads to failure and as a result, we have al Qaeda, Assad, ISIS, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, North Korea and other “nice” guys liberals are afraid to offend by calling them bad and who they think may be turned around. And of course, using force is a no-no except cases when it is against the interests of America like in Yugoslavia or Libya. In fact, WWII was the result of similar approach (sure, sure, Iran is not Nazi Germany… except Iran with nukes will be much worse).

    The way the deal with Iran currently looks to be forming, it is a sure path to giving Iran nuclear weapons, not preventing it from acquiring a bomb. The sad truth is: a deal that would prevent Iran from getting a bomb is not possible now because it would require implementations of the Security Council resolutions demanding Iran dismantle the entire system and the only way to do the job done is the regime change. No matter what the bad consequences of this approach may be, it will be better than Iran with nukes.

    Now Mr. Cohen is saying that a war with Iran will be “war without purpose, or war on false pretenses.” Clearly, Obama thinks the same and Iran knows that. So can anyone explain why would Iran agree to anything other than full capitulation of the West? And, assuming that everyone understands that Iran does want a Bomb (otherwise this issue would have been resolved long ago), we can take a wild guess what is more important to Iran: nukes or economy (obviously, if economy were more important, this, again, would have been resolve long ago). No wonder we are where we are now… And if someone is saying that we have to take into account Iran’s pride, regional insecurities, and the fact that it has already built all those facilities (illegal according to the UN resolutions), I would ask: Should Israel be allowed to keep its settlements for the same reasons?

    Of course hoping that Iran will change to the better shows how little people like Mr. Cohen understand regimes like this. The world was hoping for the Soviet Union failure starting in 1917 and it took over 70 years and even then it really happened by chance. China is no better now than it was – still a bitter enemy except now it has economic strength. There are really no examples of countries that got better on their own (except maybe Franco’s Spain). No matter how “aspirational and Westward-looking” Iranian people are, regime is not, so it will not allow any changes because it doesn’t want to be changed that way any more than by force.

    As for Mr. Parry analysis, he misses one vitally important thing: Iran with nukes is way more dangerous than ISIS and al Qaeda. Churchill understood the world when he said that he would work with devil against Hitler so we should not care what Saudis do so long as they are on our side in fight against Iran. And from this point of view, it really shouldn’t matter who is good and who is bad: we start with the worst guy and everyone who is with us is good for a time being.

    Mr. Rovick, you point would be worse considering if there was a chance that a deal with Iran would work. I also wonder when America placed lives and resources into battles that Israel wanted…

    Mr. Schoch, I do not see how you connect “America’s helping ISIS and al Queda” with neoconservatives – I thought it is what Obama is doing… As for jaw-jaw being better than war-war, that was what Chamberlain was thinking, too… So this proves my point: For liberals, no war is a goal in itself, no matter how unsustainable it is and they never have an exit strategy (what will they do when Iran announces that it got the bomb, just like North Korea did?)

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/02/2015 - 09:03 am.

      I’m not going to try to reply to all these maunderings

      Mostly they’re putting words in other people’s mouths — straw horses ripe for the beating.

      One point — Iran has a LOT more to lose from a nuclear war (it has cities and an economy) than does ISIL or al Qaeda, which are groups of people without physical locations. There’s nothing in a nonconventional war that could be destroyed with nuclear weapons that could not be destroyed with conventional ones, so there’s no MAD or nuclear deterrent.

      Again, if we’re going to play alternative histories, Churchill DID work with the devil (Stalin) against Hitler. One might argue that it might have been better to let Hitler destroy Stalin, and then destroy Hitler. Since that did not happen, it’s just speculation (Harry Turtledove does it well).

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/02/2015 - 08:06 am.

    Mr Gutman asks…

    . ..I also wonder when America placed lives and resources into battles that Israel wanted…


    Since the October War in 1973, Washington has provided Israel with a level of support dwarfing that given to any other state. It has been the largest annual recipient of direct economic and military assistance since 1976, and is the largest recipient in total since World War Two, to the tune of well over $140 billion (in 2004 dollars). Israel receives about $3 billion in direct assistance each year, roughly one-fifth of the foreign aid budget, and worth about $500 a year for every Israeli. This largesse is especially striking since Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to that of South Korea or Spain.

    Other recipients get their money in quarterly installments, but Israel receives its entire appropriation at the beginning of each fiscal year and can thus earn interest on it. Most recipients of aid given for military purposes are required to spend all of it in the US, but Israel is allowed to use roughly 25 per cent of its allocation to subsidise its own defence industry. It is the only recipient that does not have to account for how the aid is spent, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent the money from being used for purposes the US opposes, such as building settlements on the West Bank. Moreover, the US has provided Israel with nearly $3 billion to develop weapons systems, and given it access to such top-drawer weaponry as Blackhawk helicopters and F-16 jets. Finally, the US gives Israel access to intelligence it denies to its Nato allies and has turned a blind eye to Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons….

    …Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a former member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, the ‘real threat’ from Iraq was not a threat to the United States. The ‘unstated threat’ was the ‘threat against Israel’, Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. ‘The American government,’ he added, ‘doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.’

    On 16 August 2002, 11 days before Dick Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hardline speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that ‘Israel is urging US officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.’ By this point, according to Sharon, strategic co-ordination between Israel and the US had reached ‘unprecedented dimensions’, and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq’s WMD programmes. As one retired Israeli general later put it, ‘Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq’s non-conventional capabilities.’….


    (end quote)

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/02/2015 - 06:23 pm.


    Mr. Brandon, I am not putting words in anyone’s mouth – I am just quoting people. And of course the easiest way to avoid answering tough questions is to dismiss them. Do you have examples when liberal approach worked?

    I do not see any connection to our topic when you say that “Iran has a LOT more to lose from a nuclear war (it has cities and an economy) than does ISIL or al Qaeda.” Yes, but ISIS does not work on nuclear weapons and the only way it can get it is from Iran. And, answering your point that Iran is Shia and ISIS is Sunni, Iran would gladly do that if it can destroy two Satans – America and Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas work together against Israel. And if Iran does that, it will stay away from destruction. So again I do not see your point.

    Mr. Rovick, first, you talked about “lives and resources into battles” so economic assistance does not fall into this category. Second, all this money either goes back to the US for purchasing military equipment thus supporting American economy or to Israel’s defense thus supporting American political objectives. Compare it to half a billion given to Palestinians annually which just disappear…

    Now to your point about Iraq. I am glad that you agree that Iraq war was not about oil (you will have to battle a lot of liberals on this point though) but attributing it to Israel is equally incorrect. In fact, considering that Iranian nuclear program was discovered in 2002, Israel would have preferred Iran to be bombed at that time http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/IH30Ak04.html since it could have taken care of Iraq’s nukes itself (as it had done earlier thus saving the world from Iraq’s nukes). And quoting Mearsheimer in regards to Israel is like quoting Buchanan for this purpose: Both hate Israel and their opinion about it can hardly be called objective.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/03/2015 - 09:22 am.

      To quote YOU:

      “liberals always think that there are no bad or good guys”.
      Please support this statement with direct quotations.
      Since an absolute statement requires only one ‘black swan’ to refute it,
      I regard myself as a liberal (although, like most liberals, I do not agree with everything said by all liberals).
      While I do not believe in angels and devils, I certainly believe that some people behave more badly than others, to the point that they cross the line between ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’.

      Since I don’t know of any single ‘liberal’ approach (and your statement is grammatically ambiguous: do you mean A liberal approach or THE liberal approach?). Please state what YOU think the/a ‘liberal approach’ is — then I could consider a direct refutation.

      • Submitted by Anthony Walsh on 04/03/2015 - 11:20 am.

        Personally, I am waiting for an explanation of how overthrowing democratically elected governments is in any way a good thing “for the betterment of the world and advancement of American interests.”

        Some business interests were made happy. So what. Don’t pretend that everything was fine after.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/07/2015 - 07:20 pm.


      Wasn’t there that little treaty between Egypt and wait let me think, Israel, that Jimmy Carter (Liberal) put together, what some 36 + years ago between, Sadat and Begin! Boy that just hasn’t worked out at all.
      And then there were those awful treaties put together by Truman (Another Liberal) at the end of WWII, those haven’t worked out well either, only ~70 years!

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/03/2015 - 06:10 pm.


    Mr. Brandon, I will give you a few examples of what I meant by saying that liberals do not distinguish between good and bad guys (and of course, as any generalization, it is incorrect to certain degree so I did not mean to say that EVERY liberal think that way). Here we go: Hamas is killing civilians in Israel but it is not corrupt and provides social services to Palestinians; al Queda is a terrorist organization but it is actually American fault because we created them and meddled in the Middle East; Snowden should not have done that but he helped our country to be more free; Manning should not have done it by he had been bullied; Iran is not clear about its intentions on nukes but we have to understand their pride and insecurities; and so on and so forth. The only time this approach fails is when it comes to Israel which has no excuses for its terrible behavior.

    Mr. Walsh, I would encourage you to compare present day Cuba and Chile. In the former, America failed to change the leader while in the latter it succeeded. Which country is better off now? What is better for America?

  8. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/06/2015 - 06:08 pm.

    Not to get off topic, Mr. Gutman, but

    Cuba and Chile started at different places. Cuba was always poor, outside of a small upper class and some show places for tourists, while Chile, along with Argentina and Uruguay, was fast approaching Western European levels of affluence in the 1960s.

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