If the current — and future — U.S. administration wants to battle the Islamic State, save Syria, and keep ties with Israel, it’s got to ditch the Cold War playbook.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Do you know what the United States should do in the Middle East? The answer to that question used to be pretty obvious, but not anymore. For most of the past half-century, U.S. leaders knew who their friends and enemies were and had a fairly clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish. No longer. Today, there is greater uncertainty about U.S. interests in the region, more reason to question the support it gives its traditional partners, and no consensus on how to deal with the dizzying array of actors and forces that are now buffeting the region.
One thing is clear: The playbook we’ve been using since the 1940s isn’t going to cut it anymore. We still seem to think the Middle East can be managed if we curry favor with local autocrats, back Israel to the hilt, constantly reiterate the need for U.S. “leadership,” and when all else fails, blow some stuff up. But this approach is manifestly not working, and principles that informed U.S. policy in the past are no longer helpful.
Things used to be so simple — and no, that’s not just nostalgia talking. During the Cold War, for example, the central elements of U.S. Middle East policy were reasonably well understood. First and foremost, the United States sought to contain and, if possible, reduce Soviet influence in the region. It also wanted to make sure Middle East oil and gas continued to flow to world markets and that Israel survived, although the dysfunctional “special relationship” that now exists did not begin to emerge until the late 1960s.
To achieve these goals, from 1945 to 1990 the United States generally acted as an “offshore balancer.” In sharp contrast to its military deployments in Europe or Asia, Washington didn’t station large ground forces in the Middle East and kept its overall military footprint low, relying instead on a variety of local allies and clients. In particular, the United States backed conservative Arab monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf; had a close relationship with Iran until the 1979 revolution; and saw Israel as a strategic asset mostly because it kept defeating the Soviet Union’s various Arab clients. Indeed, a string of defeats and rising economic problems eventually convinced Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to abandon his Soviet patron and realign with Washington. The United States also played a balance-of-power game in the Gulf: Ronald Reagan and Bush 41 tilted toward Iraq during its war with Iran, and then Bush turned against Iraq when it invaded Kuwait in 1990.
When the Cold War ended, one might have expected that U.S. involvement in the region would decline, because there was no longer a significant external threat to contain. Instead, the U.S. role deepened, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War. Instead of its earlier balance-of-power approach, the Clinton administration’s strategy of “dual containment” cast Washington in the role of regional policeman. Unfortunately, this ill-conceived strategy required the United States to keep substantial ground and air forces in Saudi Arabia, infuriating Osama bin Laden and helping to convince him to attack the United States directly on 9/11.
America’s military role increased even more after the 9/11 attacks — after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney drank the neocon Kool-Aid and embarked on their delusional effort at “regional transformation.” The results were disastrous, and Barack Obama was elected on promises to end the Iraq War, rebuild America’s relations with the Muslim world, achieve a two-state solution, and put U.S. relations with Iran on a new footing. Although he eventually reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, the rest of his Middle East policy has been no more successful than that of his inept predecessor. Syria is in ruins; al Qaeda remains an active force; the Islamic State is sowing violence around the world; Libya and Yemen are war-torn failed states; and the peace process is in tatters.
Why is the United States having such trouble? Because it has failed to take account of the dramatic changes that have transformed the Middle East’s strategic landscape.
For starters, there is no great-power rival to organize U.S. strategy. Containing Soviet influence was the overriding goal during the Cold War, and the clarity of that objective made it easier to set priorities and sustain consistent policies. Today, by contrast, there is no single overarching threat to the region and thus no clear organizing principle to guide U.S. policymakers. Some people would like to cast Iran in that role, but as an actor, it’s still far too weak and internally hamstrung to serve as the organizing focus of U.S. strategy. And on some issues — such as the Islamic State — the United States and Iran are largely on the same side. In short, what we are grappling with today is a fiendishly complicated array of actors pursuing a variety of objectives, and who is on our side and who is against us varies from issue to issue.
Second, U.S. relations with all of its traditional Middle East allies are at their lowest point in years. Turkey has drifted back toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP, and its policies toward the crisis in Syria and the Islamic State are frequently at odds with U.S. preferences. Israel continues to move to the right, while still rejecting the two-state solution that Washington favors, and actively tried to sabotage the nuclear deal with Iran. Egypt is again in the hands of a thuggish military dictatorship with few redeeming features, and relations with Saudi Arabia have been strained by the partial U.S. détente with Iran, disagreements about the proper approach to the Syrian civil war, and by growing concerns over the Saudi role in promoting a version of Islam that has inspired a generation of anti-Western extremists. The CIA may still have close ties with Saudi intelligence, but I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not.
However, at the same time, relations between Washington and Iran have improved. Not by much, of course, but at least the two governments are talking to each other. The nuclear deal is the most significant evidence of change, but the speedy resolution of the flap over the U.S. sailors who mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters and the subsequent prisoner exchange show what the benefits of a more businesslike relationship can be. These initial steps may not lead to bigger ones, but it is still a marked shift that raises new questions about what U.S. policy should be.
Third, the stunning collapse of energy prices and the likelihood of a protracted oil glut cast doubt on the strategic rationale that has underpinned U.S. involvement in the region since 1945. The United States no longer imports significant amounts of Middle East oil or gas, and the risk of a significant cutoff is lower now than at any point in recent memory. And if the United States is increasingly capable of energy independence (and looking for ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuels over the longer term), it is not clear why it should continue to spend billions defending Middle East energy supplies on behalf of other countries.
Fourth, America’s track record in the region over the past 20-plus years also raises serious questions about its ability to identify realistic goals and then achieve them. Global influence rests in part on an image of competence, and the past three administrations have done little to burnish that image. Indeed, when it comes to the Middle East, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have been King Midas in reverse: Everything they touch turns not to gold but to lead or, even worse, into a violent conflagration.
If you can stand it, just look at the record: 1) “Dual containment” in the Gulf helped convince bin Laden to launch the 9/11 attacks; 2) two decades of U.S. stewardship over the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has killed off the “two-state solution” that Washington favored; 3) the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a policy blunder of vast proportions whose ill effects continue to multiply; 4) U.S. interference in Libya, Somalia, and Yemen helped create failed states there, too; and 5) Washington has not exactly covered itself in glory in Syria either. Given that record, it is hardly surprising that Americans and Middle Easterners openly question what the U.S. role should be and why some of us think trying to “manage” the Middle East is a fool’s errand.
Finally, it is hard to figure out what the U.S. role should be because the policy instruments that are easiest for Washington to use are increasingly irrelevant to the problems now convulsing the region. The United States’ most readily usable instrument is its still-powerful military, whether in the form of material aid, training, airstrikes, naval task forces, drones, Special Operations Forces, or in extreme cases, the full Rapid Deployment Force. Unfortunately, the central problem facing most of the Middle East is not a powerful conventional army (i.e., the kind of enemy we’re good at defeating) but the lack of legitimate and effective institutions of local governance. As we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military is not designed for or good at creating local political institutions, and the more we use this tool, the more fragile, fractious, and violent local politics usually become.
Sounds promising, doesn’t it? The Middle East is shifting before our very eyes, and the old verities of U.S. policy no longer apply. Our most potent tools of influence are of little value, and our strategic interest in the region is declining. And none of our current allies there deserve unconditional support on moral grounds either.
You’d think this situation would elicit a lively debate on U.S. strategy in the region, and the 2016 election would seem to be a perfect opportunity for one. But if history is any guide, the last thing you’ll see in this election is a serious discussion of U.S. Middle East policy. Instead, the candidates will just reiterate the need for strong U.S. “leadership” (whatever that means), try to outdo each other in declaring their deep love for Israel, and hype the threat from the Islamic State. Sadly, when one of them finally takes office in January 2017, they‘ll have no idea what to do in this part of the world.
Well, here’s a radical thought: If the strategic importance of a region is declining, if none of the local actors deserve unvarnished U.S. backing, if our best efforts make both friends and foes angry at us, then maybe — just maybe — the United States ought to stop trying to fix problems that it has neither the wisdom nor the will to address. In the end, the fate of the Middle East is going to be determined by the people who live there and not by us, though we might be able to play a constructive role on occasion. And the sooner Americans recognize that they’re better off coaching from the sidelines, instead of getting bloodied on the field, the better off they’ll be.
Image credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images