Breaking out of the mid-east rut

Can anyone alive today remember a time when America wasn’t involved in some kind of war in the Middle East? U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted in the past week that he intends on doing things differently. Yeah? Well, I intended on not devouring a bucket of ice cream this week, but unfortunately that didn’t work out too well.

“We never should have been in the Middle East,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters. “It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country.”

Funny, I felt the same way about that ice cream a few days ago. I knew that once I had a taste, I’d end up boring a hole through to the earth’s core if the tub went that deep. So I focused on healthier choices and was successful — right up until the hot weather returned and provided the perfect pretext to pry off that sticky lid. I quickly conjured up an exit strategy as the spoon plunged in: I’d put in some extra miles at the gym.

War in the Middle East is every U.S. president’s own ice cream challenge. It seems as if they all declare at the outset of their term that they want to focus on a domestic agenda to grow economic prosperity at home. Americans and much of the world breathe a sigh of relief over the idea of break from war. Unfortunately, it never pans out because some kind of pretext for re-engagement inevitably materializes.

But what if an American president decided that even if the freezer conked out, melting all the ice cream, he still wasn’t going to rationalize the need to touch it?

No recent president has been able to do that. Instead, the melted ice cream — now basically a milkshake — beckons to them. Suddenly, they’re having nightmares about another country stealing and drinking their disgustingly warm milkshake, so they raid the broken freezer and gorge themselves. Soon they discover that they’re in too deep and will never purge all those calories at the gym, so they double down by camping out in case more freezer items just happen to end up defrosting. Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province didn’t come about much differently than Camp Busted Freezer.

It appears that Trump has some interest in folding up the chair, however.

“The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria,” the president tweeted last week. “Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S. I want to develop the U.S., our military and countries that help us!”

Cutting losses on U.S. government nation-building in Syria — another pretext for continued military involvement — is a no-brainer. Syria is now squarely in the Russian-Iranian sphere, given that Russia and Iran were the primary backers of the Syrian government in eradicating the Islamic State within the country.

Nonetheless, Trump seems intent on finally climbing out of the Middle Eastern quicksand pit into which his predecessors sank. He campaigned on this promise and echoes it often.

It’s still hard to imagine a full American retreat from the Middle East. What’s more likely is that the Trump administration will shift the focus to covert and clandestine operations rather than overt war. The fact that CIA Director Gina Haspel, sworn in earlier this year, is the first lifelong operations officer to lead the CIA in 45 years makes her the perfect person to execute such a pivot.

If you’re wondering why such a move is overdue, consider that America always seems to be involved in some kind of major military conflict, while other powerful nations seem to achieve their objectives without resorting to shows of force. It’s not that other countries aren’t doing anything — it’s just that what they’re doing is quietly effective.

There are, however, some challenges associated with a more discreet approach, not the least of which is that our current technology-facilitated age of transparency has made secret activities more vulnerable to exposure. It’s also unlikely that the CIA currently has the right personnel profiles in its rank and file to execute the kind of modern clandestine operations needed to further America’s economic interests.

In other words, the agency needs people who aren’t desk jockey types with “CIA” marked on their foreheads by virtue of being stationed in an embassy. They need to be able to function more like savvy businesspeople than typical civil servants.

Trump has a chance to modernize the CIA to reflect new priorities and realities and to better serve an economic-oriented agenda in the interest of breaking the endless cycle of war. If he’s able to do so, it will go down in history as a cornerstone of his presidential legacy.