For decades, Washington had an understanding that the Arab world mattered. This presidential campaign has killed it.
- By Ray TakeyhRay Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.
The surreal presidential campaign unfolding this year has highlighted the gap between the foreign policy elite and voters. It has upended the foreign policy establishments of both parties and, in a curious way, is producing a new bipartisan consensus — one that abjures American involvement in the Arab world.
The Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has castigated the Iraq war as a crime, denounced America’s traditional alliances, and lavished praise on dictators such as Muammar al-Qaddafi. The Iraq war has also haunted the Democratic Party, with Bernie Sanders describing Hillary Clinton’s support for the war as a judgment test that she failed. Sanders and his legion of young followers are now busy leaving their non-interventionist imprint on the Democratic Party, pushing for collaboration with Russia and Iran at the expense of America’s allies.
Since the Cold War, the foreign policy establishment has lined up behind a far-reaching policy of sustaining the walls of containment in the Middle East. The elites and the public were united behind the goals of preserving access to the region’s oil, ensuring the safety of Israel and thwarting Soviet ambitions. The remarkable aspect of this unity was that it survived the breakdown of the national consensus over the Vietnam War. Successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, thought that the Middle East mattered and that America had to succeed in the region.
Even in the post-Cold War era, when the United States no longer had to rebuff a relentless Soviet empire, the Middle East remained an area of rough agreement. Both parties sought to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, contain Iran and Iraq, and deal with the emerging threat of Islamist terrorism. There were disagreements on tactics, but not on the overall objectives. In 2003, both parties lined up behind the invasion of Iraq and the need to cleanse it of its elusive weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, the 9/11 tragedies did much to condition the bipartisan embrace of the Iraq war, but the Middle East had long been a place of such consensus.
The Iraq war and its tumultuous aftermath shattered the conventions of U.S. politics. Barack Obama’s presidency was a reaction to America’s costly attempt to implant democratic rule in Iraq. But Obama seemingly over-learned the lessons of the war: He opted for an irresponsibly quick withdrawal from Iraq, drew red lines in Syria that he would not enforce, and launched a drone war against terrorism without appreciating the underlying causes of extremism. Terrorism is, after all, the violent manifestation of failed institutions and failed lives.
The Obama administration was increasingly censured by the foreign policy elite, Republicans loudly and Democrats obliquely. This only reinforced Obama’s disdain for what he termed the “Washington playbook.”
The contentious Obama years conceal the fact that the president’s hesitation actually enjoyed a measure of popular support. The primary campaign in both parties revealed a public not just distrustful of elites and their institutions, but dubious of the notion that the United States should bear the burdens of the Middle East.
Neither party is inclined to admit that it is reconsidering its orthodoxy. The eventual nominees of both parties will speak of destroying the so-called Islamic State, supporting Israel, and sustaining a battered alliance system in the Middle East. And yet, the candidates will marry their muscular declarations with a pledge not to deploy troops to the region. They will ignore the fact that the Syrian civil war cannot end and that the Islamic State cannot be truly defeated without plenty of American boots on the ground. Drones and airplanes cannot relieve the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, or reclaim chunks of Iraq from the Islamic State.
The tragedy of the Middle East is that American indifference has come when the region is undergoing one of its most violent transitions. The Arab state system that evolved in the 20th century has all but collapsed. Transnational terrorist groups, employing their own claims of spiritual authority, are moving in to occupy the ungoverned spaces. A sectarian civil war is engulfing a region increasingly populated by failed states. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are struggling under the weight of authoritarian stagnation, while a menacing Iran is extending its tentacles.
Since displacing Britain as the primary external actor in the Middle East, the United States has been a source of stability in the region. Washington enabled the conservative Arab order and prevented radical actors from subverting its foundations. Under the protective U.S. umbrella, Israel evolved from a fledgling enterprise to a strong state capable of defending its interests. The region’s oil reached its destination at reasonable prices.
A bipartisan consensus underpinned America’s record of achievement. But today, in a nation tired of war and the pathologies of the Arab world, a different bipartisan agreement is taking shape. In the coming weeks, elite opinion will follow the public’s aversion toward greater involvement.
No American president will ever leave the Middle East, but the time when Washington was eager to mitigate its conflicts has passed. The pendulum may swing back again. The Iraq syndrome — like its debilitating Vietnamese predecessor — will one day pass. But for the first time in its post-independence history, the Middle East is truly on its own. And the dangers of that isolation will eventually become obvious.
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