Give Trump a Chance in the Middle East
Bush and Obama already helped destroy the region and damage U.S. interests there. How much worse could it get?
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States, starting with the decision to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched a military campaign aimed at challenging the political status quo in the Arab world and transform U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The underlying assumption to what amounted to be a revolutionary change in American foreign policy was that only a process of political and economic reform in the Arab world along liberal-democratic lines — abetted by regime change and nation-building — would be able to deliver a blow to the forces of radicalism like those that helped perpetrate the 9/11 attacks.
“The place is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good,” said foreign-policy expert Fareed Zakaria, expressing his support for President George W. Bush’s military campaign to liberate Iraq and advance the “freedom agenda” in the Middle East. Indeed, this line reflected the consensus among fellow pundits in Washington. Though it was resisted by veteran national security figures who argued that these goals were not realistic and that an attempt to achieve them would harm U.S. interests, the neoconservative strategists in the Bush administration ended up winning the policy debate. Bye, bye to the old order in the Middle East. We were about to enter the new Middle East.
But the desire to fix the desert didn’t begin with Bush. Even before 9/11, the United States tried to challenge, and in some cases, overthrow Middle Eastern regimes that were seen as posing threat to U.S. interests. Although American leaders occasionally marketed these exercises in regime change in Wilsonian terms, in reality, they were driven by strategic and economic interests — not by a determination to promote American values. During the Cold War and in its immediate aftermath under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Washington was determined to deter those players who were trying to challenge the status quo in the Middle East.
Hence, the United States had no problem allowing Saddam Hussein to remain in power after the Gulf War — as long as his regime ceased to threaten the interests of the United States and its allies in the region and play by the rules of the old Middle East. Baathist Iraq may have wished to harm American interests, but a U.S. strategy of containment helped deter the regime in Baghdad from challenging Washington. And the strategy actually worked. After all, Iraq wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks and, as we discovered later, it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.
Similarly, Washington’s attitudes toward the ayatollahs in Iran was less of a reflection of American hostility toward the radical Islamist ideology of the regime in Tehran and more of a response to its anti-American policies. After all, the United States was allied with Saudi Arabia, which has been a leading exporter of militant Islamism but at the same time has rallied behind U.S. policies in the region.
Core U.S. interests
This traditional American policy proved to be very costly but has helped secure core U.S. interests in the Middle East that enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington during the Cold War. Republican and Democratic administrations set as their goals in the Middle East the containment of Soviet expansionism in the region; maintaining the access of the Western economies to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf; and protecting the security of Israel while trying to advance peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
But under the influence of neoconservative ideologues in the administration of the second President Bush and later of the liberal internationalists who advised President Barack Obama, this traditional interest-based American policy was rejected in favor of a radical ideological crusade to remake the Middle East — whether through direct U.S. military intervention to promote political change or by accommodating revolutionary movements challenging the political status quo.
The Bush policies to force Saddam Hussein from power and bring democracy to Mesopotamia, and the ensuing effort to expand that revolutionary agenda to the rest of the Middle East ended up removing the main obstacle to Iranian expansionism in the Persian Gulf and turning Iraq into an Iranian semi-protectorate while strengthening Hezbollah in Lebanon and helping bring Hamas to power. No one would have been surprised if the ayatollahs were to decide to name the main boulevard in Tehran after George W. Bush.
Obama’s policies of accommodation — allowing Iran’s drive to expand regional power; hailing the so-called Arab Spring; forcing Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally, from power and welcoming his Muslim Brotherhood successors; and deposing a somewhat friendly dictator, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi — continued to wreak instability across the Middle East, helping create an environment conducive to Iran’s expansionism and the rise of the Islamic State.
According to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, all the mess that Washington helped create in the Middle East, were just the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” While her intentions and of those of her colleagues in Washington were good, it now seems that they helped pave the road to a new but hellish Middle East.
Harvard’s Stephen Walt, in a response to my recent commentary, agrees that the Middle East policies pursued by the last two American presidents were “costly failures,” but he doesn’t seem to share my view that they were a radical break with American foreign policy pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations since World War II; after all, as Walt writes, “Bill Clinton’s track record in the region is hardly something to be proud of.”
But Walt finds fault with my “embrace” of what I consider to be an attempt by the Trump administration to reverse Washington’s disastrous policies that have created chaos in the region in the form of failed states and bloody civil wars, helping strengthen the hands of radical Shiite and Sunni forces and in the process damaging core U.S. national interests.
It’s a low bar for success
After 16 years of pursuing policies that helped turn some of the countries in the Middle East into hell on earth and ignited the world’s worst refugee crisis since 1945 — while eroding U.S. global power and credibility and producing isolationist and protectionist sentiments at home — one is almost compelled to ask: Could another American president adopt policies that would be able to inflict more damage to the Middle East and U.S. interests than those pursued by the last two presidents?
Walt apparently thinks that could happen. After occupying the White House for four months, he writes, President Donald Trump is “making the Middle East worse.”
So, let’s see: Has Washington taken any steps toward regime change or increased efforts at nation-building in the Middle East since Trump entered into office? Has this administration tried to depose more Middle Eastern regimes or occupy another Arab country? Has it failed at yet another Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”? Were American lives and treasure misused in trying once again to make the Middle East safe for democracy? Did he draw a “red lines” in the sands of the Middle East only to erase them later?
Or are U.S. allies in the Middle East — those governments that actually maintain formal security ties with the United States, including Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel; and Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia — more secure and confident in American leadership and commitments under Trump than under Presidents Obama and Bush?
Clearly, the various steps that Trump has taken in the Middle East since entering office don’t amount to a coherent grand strategy. But his administration has abandoned the fantasies and wishful thinking masquerading as idealist principles that guided the policies of his two predecessors. So far, he is dealing with the Middle East as it is, and for that sin being bashed by neoconservative and liberal internationalists alike — the very people who comprise the intellectual driving force behind the disastrous policies of the last 16 years.
A return to realism
It’s not a Trump doctrine yet. But the new administration’s muddling through in the Middle East sends a few clear signals: No more support for democratic promotion and nation-building efforts in the region. A willingness to work with dictators, monarchs, and theocrats — whether in Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan — who maintain stable regimes and are willing to cooperate with the United States in advancing common interests. One can be assured that Trump will not hail freedom protesters in Tehran if and when a second Green Revolution erupts there. In Syria, Washington will focus on the defeat of the Islamic State, working with Russia in the battle for Raqqa, and allowing President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power.
Idealism is dead. Even the search for Israeli-Palestinian agreement ceases to be framed in that light; no longer is it about ending the Israeli occupation and winning self-determination for oppressed Palestinians. A regional peace between Israel and the Arab states is in the strategic interest of the United States. If the Israelis and the Palestinians want to make a deal, Trump is willing to help them achieve that goal.
Some are concerned that the Trump administration is taking sides in the sectarian feud between Sunni and Shiite Islam, or between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Walt, for his part, suggests that U.S. strategic interests in the region would be advanced if the United States didn’t jump “deeper into bed” with Israel and the Arab Sunni states and reached out to Iran, as though abandoning old friends is the way you win new ones.
But Iran is an anti-American, anti-status quo power, and it makes sense for the new administration in Washington to treat its intentions with suspicion. The strategic bottom line is that Iran and its Shiite partners are stronger today than they were 16 years ago, a reality that Obama recognized in reaching the nuclear deal with Iran. To put it in simple terms, his message was that in the aftermath of the Iraq War fiasco, the United States and the American people were not ready to go to war with Iran.
Why would we make friends with Iran?
Which begs the question: Why is it exactly in the interest of the United States to encourage its formal military allies in the region — which regard Tehran as a threat to their interests — to seek closer relationship with a more powerful Iran, and ensure that they “would have to think seriously about what they could do to remain in our good graces,” as Walt writes?
While the notion of a U.S.-Iran diplomatic détente is something to look forward to, it is nothing more than wishful thinking at this stage. It assumes that a closer U.S. relationship with Tehran and Iran’s integration into the global economy would strengthen the hands of the so-called moderates there and ignite a process of political liberalization. Once upon a time, at the height of the globalization era, that is exactly what we expected would happen in China. It didn’t. And there is no reason to discount the possibility that a more economically and powerful Iran would adopt an even more nationalist and anti-American posture.
At the same time, providing military and diplomatic support to the Arab Sunni allies shouldn’t be considered as a signal that the Trump administration is planning to intervene militarily in a possible war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It can be seen as part of a strategy to contain Iran and to prevent it from expanding its power in the region. It’s a strategy that may fail, but makes more sense at this stage than accommodating Iran.
Walt does make a good point that for most of the post-1945 era, U.S. policy in the Middle East was predicated on the existence of a global external threat in the form of the Soviet Union, and that no such challenge to U.S. interests exists in the Middle East today (which explains perhaps why we should work together in the region with our former Russian adversaries).
I too have argued that Washington’s policymakers should have taken the opportunity of the end of the Cold War in order to reassess American military and diplomatic commitments in the Middle East, and adjust it to the new global and regional realities, by pursuing a policy of “constructive disengagement” from the region.
Instead, Washington doggedly continued to embrace its old posture, dragging the United States into two Iraq wars and the ensuing military and diplomatic mess that it finds itself in today. Unlike old generals, old foreign-policy doctrines sometimes don’t even fade away.
I wish that post-Cold War reassessment of America in the Middle East had taken place in the 1990s. But it didn’t. Instead, we broke it, we bought it, and now we own it, at least for a while. But President Trump’s realpolitik approach to the region does provide an opportunity to start cutting American losses in the region while maintaining strategic commitments and credibility there. That could help establish a stable balance of power in the region, including between Arab Sunnis and Iran and perhaps even create the conditions for Israeli-Arab peace. This in turn could lead to constructive U.S. disengagement from the region. It may not work. But we need to give it a try.
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