Reality Check

Confederacy of Dunces

What the meeting in Tehran says about America's standing in the Middle East.


The international goat grab this week in Tehran — aka, the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) — is unlikely to have any lasting impact on the struggle between Iran and the United States over the ultimate disposition of the nuclear issue.

It’s a fleeting, feel-good moment for the mullahs. Indeed, I really hope America’s diplomats didn’t waste too much time trying to persuade U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to attend. Teenagers talk on the phone, beavers build dams, and U.N. folks go to these kinds of things.

Still, the NAM conference made me think about a more enduring and consequential issue — the state of America’s influence in a region that remains vital to its national interests, but which it can neither fix nor leave. What, if anything, does the NAM gathering tell us about America’s stake and stock in the Middle East?

Not everybody sees the world the way America does.

No shocker there, except maybe to Americans. The fact that representatives of 120 countries, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and the U.N. secretary-general are milling around with the mullahs is no small matter. This may not be the NATO A-Team. Rather, it’s a pretty strong testament to the limitations of America’s containment strategy — at least on the political side. The summit is proof that the United States isn’t succeeding in persuading vast swaths of the world that Tehran is a major threat to international peace and must be contained, sanctioned, and isolated. Nor will it.

As if to put an exclamation point on the matter, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is bringing Iran directly into the latest plan to fix the Syrian crisis. He has launched a regional initiative that calls for a committee of four powers — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Islamic Republic — to work together on the issue. So much for America’s influence.

Bomb, or accept The Bomb?

That the United States hasn’t succeeded in bringing the mullahs down, or at least to their knees on the nuclear issue, is also pretty self-evident.

Iran’s search for a nuclear capacity is driven by a complex mix of insecurity and grandiosity, two factors inextricably linked to Iran’s self-image and identity. These kinds of inchoate motivations are rarely, if ever, susceptible to external pressures — certainly not to sanctions, cyberattacks, and militaristic rhetoric. If Iran doesn’t decide to jettison its nuclear program on its own, we’re rapidly moving to a situation in which military action may well be the default position, however risky or nonproductive it could turn out to be.

We’ve tried negotiations, kind of, and sanctions too. However, the centrifuges continue to spin. And the most widely discussed default position — a "kaboom" by Israel or the United States — increasingly seems to be drawing inexorably closer, like a moth to the flame. How such a military strike could do much more than retard the nuclear program is unclear. Eliminating Iran’s acquisitive desire for a nuclear weapons capacity would require regime change — and even that might not do the job. Had the Shah of Iran not fallen to Ruhollah Khomeini and the crowds, Iran would long ago have become a nuclear weapons state.

Just say no.

The Tehran gathering signals something else too: These days, everyone seems to have the capacity to say no to the world’s greatest power without much cost or consequence.

The fraternal order of the "Just Say No Movement" includes a checkered cast of close allies, neutrals, the so-called nonaligned, and adversaries. Its ranks include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary-General Ban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iraqi strongman Nouri al-Maliki, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, assorted Egyptian generals and Muslim Brothers, and, last but certainly not least, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As I wrote some months back, the United States is fast becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East: America really doesn’t get much respect.

America has power, but…

Last time I looked, America was still the greatest power on Earth. The country boasts vast armies equipped with sophisticated weaponry deployed all over the Middle East and beyond. Its capacity to change regimes and bring down bad guys, including some of the world’s greatest evildoers — Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Muammar al-Qaddafi (dispatched albeit by committee) — is indisputable. America even has a superstar secretary of state who traverses the globe preaching a well-received global humanism.

Yet with all its power, why isn’t America more admired and respected? Exactly what’s going on here?

I offer four possible explanations:

1. America never ruled the world.

Part of the problem is that the country is in love with a vision of U.S. power that has always been something of an illusion. From 1945 through the 1980s, the United States clearly had more successes in the Middle East than it has experienced over the past couple of decades. I’d call them moments — during the early 1970s in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and during the late 1980s and early 1990s in war-making.

Why do I say "moments"? The thing is, America was never really a consistently effective hegemon. It was a tall task to win hearts and minds, conduct breakthrough diplomacy, project military power, and create some kind of impermeable pro-American zone of influence in a region where folks didn’t like U.S. policies all that much. From Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, from the Bandung summit to the failed Baghdad Pact, the region consistently rejected U.S. schemes, dreams, and visions. America did pretty well in holding the Russians at bay, keeping the oil flowing, and maintaining close ties with the region’s royals and the Israelis. But those same successes — staunch anti-communism, support for Israel, and an obvious preference for the oil producers — generated opposition among Arab nationalists who resented Western intrusion.

Even the victories America won came at a time when protecting U.S. interests was far easier than it is now. To expect the U.S. government to walk on water and perform miracles — even in a part of the world known for that sort of thing — is absurd. You could invite Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus back down to Earth to help out with the Iranian nuclear issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they’d be struggling too.

2. Bridges too far.

When pundits and commentators decry the absence of an American strategy for this region, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Strategy isn’t something a bunch of smart folks hermetically sealed in the Situation Room at the White House or State Department map out in a memo to the president. It’s a dynamic process that usually depends on factors beyond U.S. control, on Lady Luck, and on some opportunity that those same smart folks can exploit if they have the will and the skill. The key to successful strategy is more often found in exploiting opportunities, not creating them. See: Henry Kissinger and the 1973 October War, President Ronald Reagan and the collapsing Soviet Union, and President George H.W. Bush and the Gulf War.

In fact, America gets into trouble when it adheres blindly to a strategy but hasn’t read reality right or has failed to analyze the relationship between U.S. goals and the means at the country’s disposal to achieve them. Things get even more out of hand when the country thinks big and imagines it can save the world or re-create the world in America’s image with some overarching plan to "support freedom," "make peace," or "build nations."

President George W. Bush had big ideas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you want to pretend that what the United States has achieved in these countries is still worth the price it paid, and is still paying?

It’s not that America necessarily needs to think small, but there are a few basic rules of the road that must be observed before embarking on foreign adventures. The country needs to (a) think before it acts, and when possible act with others, (b) try to calculate whether it has the means and the will to stay the course in any policy undertaken, and (c) ensure that the small tribes that inhabit these lands — and on whom U.S. success sadly depends — have a sense of ownership and obligation too. To take the most prominent example: If you want a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, they need to want it more than you do.

3. Too few successes.

The world’s most compelling ideology isn’t nationalism, democracy, or capitalism — it’s success. Why? Because success generates constituents, prestige, and power. Failure produces the opposite. Success creates street cred — very important currency in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where small powers have a history of manipulating and frustrating great ones.

I’d argue that over the past 20 years, the United States hasn’t been succeeding in matters of war-making or peacemaking, or in the battle for hearts and minds. Unlike the first Gulf War, which positioned the United States to take advantage of peacemaking and boosted America’s street cred, the second Iraq war left America’s image and credibility in tatters. The same proved true in U.S. efforts on Arab-Israeli peacemaking: America has fooled itself that there really was a chance to make peace (Bill Clinton), tried to fool others when there really wasn’t (George W. Bush), and sometimes just acted without thinking clearly (Barack Obama). These failures have created a truly unique situation where the United States isn’t respected by anybody.

Obama, after a year or so of rosy-eyed idealism, finally got the message that discretion was the better part of valor. He hasn’t achieved any spectacular successes — save killing Osama — but he also hasn’t triggered any catastrophic failures, at least not yet. America could use a significant success to boost its street cred, but all I see now for the White House is more Middle East migraines and root canals.

4. The locals really don’t like U.S. policies.

It should be self-evident by now that U.S. interests and values are out of sync with one another. At times, they are diametrically opposed.

For the great power with many different interests to protect both at home and abroad, a certain amount of discordance is inevitable. Indeed, it’s part of the job description of the great power to behave in often contradictory or even hypocritical fashion. Is the United States going to support Arab Springs everywhere, setting loose political upheaval in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that could undermine U.S. energy interests and attempt to isolate Iran? Is America going to reduce or cut its aid to the Egyptian military because the generals aren’t democrats — or to Israel because of settlement expansion in the West Bank? If the freedom of Arab peoples is so important, why didn’t the United States intervene in Syria the way it did in Libya? And why does America hammer Iran over its nuclear program, but give the Indians, Pakistanis, and the Israelis a free pass?

I could give you logical answers to all these questions, but they just don’t play well out East. The conspiracy theories and lapses in logic regarding Western perfidy that pervade this region run deep. The sources of anger at the United States — support for Israel, backing of regional despots, expansive military deployments, and, yes, for some, the country’s promiscuous lifestyle — are not going away.

Even though America isn’t the regional hegemon it’s cracked up to be, it’ll manage. The Middle East was never a land of opportunity. The United States can probably live without spectacular successes if it can avoid spectacular failures. The current administration has been much more careful and cautious than its predecessor in these matters, and that’s a good thing. It may also have learned a thing or two from its own failures.

But sooner or later, some new crisis is bound to shatter this newfound caution. Even now, the Middle East is burning. As John Buchan wrote in his classic novel Greenmantle, "There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark."

I’m betting it’s the Iranian nuclear issue that blows things up — by year’s end or probably early next. When it comes, the only question will be how America responds and whether its stock of influence in the Middle East will have swelled or shrunk when the smoke has cleared.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

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