American presidents have generally been pretty good at botching things in the Middle East, but this one is winning at it.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Behind the bluster, bombast, tweetstorms, and general atmosphere of comic opera, is the Trump administration reverting to the successful Middle East grand strategy that both Democratic and Republican presidents followed during the Cold War? Leon Hadar thinks it is, and he believes this approach makes a lot more sense than George W. Bush’s efforts at militarized “regional transformation” and nation-building or Barack Obama’s Wilsonian embrace of the Arab Spring.
Writing in the American Spectator, Hadar suggests Trump has decided to “deal with the Middle East as it is,” and is aligning the United States firmly with dictators and autocrats, much as it did at the height of the Cold War. This approach, he writes, “was a strategy that worked quite well,” by simultaneously preserving Western access to Middle East energy supplies and containing Soviet expansionism.
Today, he suggests, strong U.S. support for its Sunni partners (and Israel) will “re-establish a stable status-quo” and contain Islamic extremism. He also praises Trump’s rejection of a “make-believe ‘peace process’” that involves bullying Israel, and thinks moderate Arabs can convince the Palestinians to “take the route towards co-existence” with Israel and “eventually lead to a peace deal.” By returning the United States to its old grand strategy, in short, Trump will succeed where all of his predecessors have failed.
I’d love to believe him, but reasons for doubt keep intruding. There’s no question that Bush and Obama’s Middle East policies were costly failures, and Bill Clinton’s track record in the region is hardly something to be proud of. But Hadar’s embrace of Trump’s approach misunderstands U.S. grand strategy in the past, misreads the situation the United States faces today, and greatly overstates the prospects for success.
During the Cold War, the United States backed a number of Middle Eastern countries as part of the broader strategy of containment. Why? Because the United States wanted to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining influence or control over the energy supplies on which the industrial economies of the West depended. Containing Soviet influence entailed allying against Soviet clients such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, and supporting Israel, the Shah of Iran, the conservative Arab monarchies, and eventually Egypt after it abandoned Moscow and realigned in the 1970s.
When the shah fell in 1979, the United States created the rapid deployment force (RDF) in order to deter a Soviet grab for the Persian Gulf. But Washington still acted primarily as an “offshore balancer” and kept the RDF out of the region until it was needed. The United States played a balance-of-power game within the region: tilting toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and then sending the RDF to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.
There is no potential hegemon in the Middle East today, and as yet no external “peer competitor” like the former Soviet Union who might conceivably dominate the region. There is therefore no need for the United States to double down on its present commitments to any Middle Eastern countries. None of America’s current partners deserve unconditional support on either strategic or moral grounds: 1) Egypt is a brutal military dictatorship with a failing economy and of modest strategic value; 2) Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist theocracy, is helping destroy Yemen and Syria, and engaged on a massive economic reform project that may fail catastrophically; 3) Israel is marching rightward toward full-fledged apartheid; and 4) Turkey is a mockery of democracy that has gone from “zero problems with neighbors” to problems with nearly all of them. Trump is easily seduced by foreigners who cater to his vanity — as his Saudi hosts clearly realized — but stroking the president’s ego is not the same as contributing to the U.S. national interest.
Facing an environment like this, a smart superpower would hedge. Instead of trying to create some sort of Sunni axis, the United States should return to the underlying logic of its earlier approach.The core U.S. interest in the Middle East, as in other vital areas, is to preserve a rough balance of power and prevent any single state (or external great power) from dominating. The Middle East is as divided today as it has ever been, which means the core U.S. objective is easy to achieve. Accordingly, the United States should be reaching out to countries like Iran, instead of jumping deeper into bed with Tel Aviv, Cairo, Riyadh, and Ankara. As the director of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis program, Emile Nakhleh, recently wrote, “Taking sides in the perennial sectarian feud between Sunni and Shia Islam or between Saudi Arabia and Iran is, in the long run, inimical to American national security and interests in the Islamic world.”
A more balanced approach to the region would encourage all states in the region to do more to win America’s favor. If Saudis, Israelis, Egyptians, and Turks understood that the United States was talking regularly to Iran and that closer relations with Teheran were a real option, they would have to think seriously about what they could do to remain in our good graces. (The same logic would work in reverse, of course: Our ties to these states gives Iran a reason to court us as well, and especially if their leadership become convinced we might actually respond positively to them.)
Because all the United States really cares about is maintaining a robust balance of power in the region, we have the luxury of playing these states off against each other. And so we should. Needless to say, this would require Trump (and Congress) to ignore the blandishments and propaganda emanating from the Israeli and Saudi lobbies, who have been working overtime to demonize Iran and convince Trump to give our traditional (but unhelpful) allies whatever they want. Don’t hold your breath.
Furthermore, the idea that Saudi Arabia and other, moderate Arabs can convince the Palestinians to abandon their national aspirations and make peace with Israel is one of those perennial illusions that have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades. As Nathan Thrall makes clear in his brilliant new book. The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, the main obstacle to peace is not Palestinian intransigence but Israel’s indifference, and in particular, the lack of any real incentive for Israel to make peace as long as Uncle Sam continues to subsidize and protect it. And the idea that what is needed is greater Palestinian flexibility is risible: After a century of defeats, encroachments, and betrayed promises (as well as some of their own mistakes), the Palestinians have hardly any compromises left to give.
I don’t think Trump cares one way or the other about Israelis or Palestinians (if he did, why would he assign the peace process to his overworked, inexperienced, and borderline incompetent son-in-law?) but jumping deeper into bed with Saudi Arabia and Egypt isn’t going to produce a breakthrough.
The folly of Trump’s approach became clear on Monday, when (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and five other Sunni states suddenly broke relations with (Sunni) Qatar over a long-simmering set of policy disagreements. As Robin Wright promptly tweeted, “So much for #Trump’s Arab coalition. It lasted less than two weeks.” Trump’s deep embrace of Riyadh didn’t cause the Saudi-Qatari rift — though he typically tried to take credit for it with some ill-advised tweets — but this dispute exposed the inherent fragility of the “Arab NATO” that Trump seems to have envisioned. Moreover, taking sides in the Saudi-Qatari rift could easily jeopardize U.S. access to the vital airbase there, a possibility Trump may not even have known about when he grabbed his smartphone. And given that Trump’s State Department is sorely understaffed and the rest of his administration is spending more time starting fires than putting them out, the United States is in no position to try to mend the rift and bring its putative partners together. All of which augurs poorly for the region and for this putative “new” (old) strategy.
Last but not least, Trump’s response to the recent terrorist attack in Tehran was both insensitive and strategically misguided. Although the State Department offered a genuine and sincere statement of regret, the White House’s own (belated) response offered only anodyne sympathies and snarkily concluded: “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” A clearer case of “blaming the victim” would be hard to find, and all the more so given Trump’s willingness to embrace regimes whose policies have fueled lots of terrorism in the past.
Contrast this with how Iranian President Mohammad Khatami responded after 9/11: He offered his “condolences” and “deepest sorrow” for the American people and called the attack a “disaster” and “the ugliest form of terrorism ever seen.” There was no hint of a lecture or snide schadenfreude in Khatami’s remarks, even though it was obvious that the attacks were clearly a reaction (however cruel and unjustified) to prior U.S. actions. It is hard to imagine any modern American presidents responding as callously as Trump did.
There is one way Trump’s approach is consistent with his predecessors, however. Despite some common elements, Clinton, Bush, and Obama all found their own unique ways to screw up the Middle East. Clinton did it with dual containment and a bungled “peace process,” Bush by invading Iraq, and Obama by naively embracing the Arab Spring and thinking drones and special forces would fix things elsewhere. But Trump was equal to the task: He has his own special approach to making the Middle East worse. Why should that troubled region be any different than the rest of the world?
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