Do No (More) Harm

Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back.

Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photoillustration by FP
Photoillustration by FP
Photoillustration by FP

In case you hadn't noticed, the Middle East is going from bad to worse these days.  

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Middle East is going from bad to worse these days.  

The Syrian civil war grinds on. Israel and the Palestinians spent the last month in another pointless bloodletting (most of the blood being Palestinian). ISIS keeps expanding its control in parts of Iraq, placing thousands of members of the Yazidi religious sect in peril and leading the Obama administration to consider airstrikes or some form of airborne humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, officials back in Baghdad snipe mostly at each other. Libya continues to unravel, belying the high-fives that liberal hawks gave themselves back when Qaddafi fell. A U.S. general was shot and killed in Afghanistan, and another disputed election threatens democracy there and may give the Taliban new opportunities to make gains at Kabul’s expense. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recip Erdogan has been calling Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi a "tyrant," an irony given Erdogan’s own authoritarian tendencies. A diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar remains unsettled. Nature even seems to be against us: the MERS virus on the Arabian Peninsula may be transmissible by airborne contact. I’m sure you could find some good news if you tried, but you’d have to squint pretty hard.

A string of events like this attracts critics and Cassandras like yellow jackets to a backyard picnic. In the Washington Post, neoconservative Eliot Cohen laments the "wreckage" of U.S. Middle East policy, blaming everything on Barack Obama’s failure to recognize "war is war" and his reluctance to rally the nation to wage more of them. (Never mind that the last war Cohen helped get the United States into — the invasion of Iraq in 2003 — did far more damage than anything Obama has done.) A far more convincing perspective comes from former Ambassador Chas Freeman who surveys several decades of America’s meddling in the region and comes to a depressing conclusion: "It’s hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end."

Is there a silver lining in this disheartening tableaux? Perhaps. After all, when things are this bad, the need to rethink the entire U.S. approach to the region is hard to escape. If we cast aside familiar shibboleths and taboos and took a fresh look, what might we see?

Since World War II, the meddling that Freeman recounts has been conducted in partnership with various regional allies. These alignments may have been a strategic necessity during the Cold War (though even that could be debated), but the sad fact is that the United States has no appealing partners left today. Egypt is a corrupt military dictatorship with grim prospects, and Erdogan’s AKP regime in Turkey is trending toward one-party rule, while its ambitious "zero problems" foreign policy has gone badly off the rails. Working with the Assad regime in Syria is out of the question — for good reason — but most of Bashar al-Assad’s opponents are no prize either. Saudi Arabia is a geriatric, theocratic monarchy that treats half its population — i.e., its women — like second-class citizens (at best). Iran is a different sort of theocratic state: it has some quasi-democratic features, but also an abysmal human rights record and worrisome regional ambitions.

The view doesn’t get much better no matter where one looks. The Hashemite monarchy in Jordan has been an ally for decades, but it remains heavily dependent on outside support and is too weak and fragile to be the linchpin of U.S. engagement. The same is true for Lebanon. Libya doesn’t even have a government, let alone one the United States would want to be close to. Israel is wrapping up its latest outrage against the Palestinians-to no lasting strategic purpose–and its march to the right now includes open advocacy of eliminationist policies by prominent political figures. The "special relationship" with Israel also fuels anti-Americanism and makes Washington look both hypocritical and ineffectual in the eyes of much of the world. But Palestinian political groups are no more appealing: the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and ineffectual and elements of Hamas still proclaim the worst sort of toxic anti-Semitism. States like Qatar and Bahrain do provide valuable real estate for U.S. bases, and many of these governments cooperate with the United States out of their own self-interest, but it’s hard to find anyone in the region that looks like a genuine strategic or moral asset these days.

Faced with this unpromising environment, what would be the sensible — or dare I say realistic — thing for the United States to do? The familiar answer is to say that it’s an imperfect world and that we have no choice but to work with what we’ve got. We hold our noses, and cut deals with the least objectionable parties in the region. As Michael Corleone would say, it’s not personal; it’s strictly business.

But this view assumes that deep engagement with this troubled area is still critical to U.S. national interests, and further assumes the United States reaps net benefits from its recurrent meddling on behalf of its less-than-loyal partners. In other words, it assumes that these partnerships and deep U.S. engagement make Americans safer and more prosperous here at home. But given the current state of the region and the condition of most of our putative allies, that assumption is increasingly questionable.

In fact, most of the disputes and divisions that are currently roiling the region do not pose direct and mortal threats to vital U.S. interests. It is admittedly wrenching to watch what is happening in Syria or Gaza, or to Israel’s democracy, but these events affect the lives of very few Americans directly. Unless, of course, we are foolish enough to throw ourselves back into the middle of the maelstrom.

Moreover, the Middle East today is riven by a series of overlapping conflicts along multiple fault lines, driven in good part by protracted government failures and exacerbated by misguided outside meddling. There’s the division between Sunni and Shiite, of course, and between Islamists (of many different stripes) and traditional authoritarians (also of several different types). Add to that mix the conflicts along sectarian lines (as in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere), and the recurring suspicions between Arabs and Persians. And don’t forget the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, which still reverberates throughout the Arab and Islamic world.

Here’s where Americans need to remember the United States may have permanent interests in the Middle East, but not necessarily permanent friends. In terms of its strategic interests, the central U.S. goal since World War II has been to prevent any single power from dominating the oil rich Persian Gulf. However troubled we may be by all the divisions and quarrels in the region, those conflicts also make the possibility that one power will dominate the region more remote than ever. Does anyone seriously think Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), the Kurds, Russia, Turkey, China or anyone else is going to take over and manage this vast and turbulent area, and smooth out all these rifts and feuds? Of course not. And if that is the case, then America’s primary strategic goal will be met whether Washington lifts a finger or not.

Some will argue that we have a moral responsibility to try to end the obvious suffering in different places, and a strategic imperative to eradicate terrorists and prevent the spread of WMD. These are laudable goals, but if the history of the past twenty years teaches us anything, it is that forceful American interference of this sort just makes these problems worse. The Islamic State wouldn’t exist if the neocons hadn’t led us blindly into Iraq, and Iran would have less reason to contemplate getting nuclear weapons if it hadn’t watched the United States throw its weight around in the region and threaten it directly with regime change.

So instead of acting like a hyperactive juggler dashing between a dozen spinning plates, maybe the best course is to step back even more than we have already. No, I don’t mean isolationism: What I mean is taking seriously the idea of strategic disengagement and putting the whole region further down on America’s list of foreign policy priorities. Instead of constantly cajoling these states to do what we think is best — and mostly getting ignored or rebuked by them — maybe we should let them sort out these problems themselves for awhile. And if any of them eventually want American help, it should come at a steep price.

Among other things, the policy I’m suggesting would mean the United States would stop its futile efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’ve argued against such a course in the past, but it is now obvious to me that no president is willing to challenge Israel’s backers here in the United States and make U.S. support for Israel conditional on an end to the occupation. Until that happens, even well-intentioned efforts to broker a peace will keep failing. Instead of continuing to squander valuable time and prestige on a fruitless endeavor, the U.S. government should disengage from this thankless task until it is ready to do more than just palaver and plead. If Israel’s leaders want to risk their own future by creating a "greater Israel," so be it. It would be regrettable if Israel ended up an apartheid state and an international pariah, but preventing that tragedy is not a vital U.S. interest. (If it really were, U.S. policy since Oslo might have been rather different.)

To be consistent, of course, the United States would also end its military and economic aid to Egypt, Israel, and perhaps a few others. I don’t expect Congress to suddenly grow a backbone and do the right thing here, but even a realist can dream, can’t he? But even if the "special relationship" remains more-or-less intact, at least U.S. diplomats wouldn’t be wasting more time and energy trying to do the impossible.

To be sure, the course of action I’m sketching here is likely to leave the Middle East in a pretty messy condition for some time to come. But that is going to be the case no matter what Washington decides to do. So the question is: should the United States squander more blood and treasure on a series of futile tasks, and in ways that will make plenty of people in the region angry and encourage a few of them look for ways to deliver some payback? Or should the United States distance itself from everyone in the region, and prepare to intervene only when a substantial number of American lives are at risk or in the unlikely event that there is a genuine and imminent threat of regional domination?

The latter course would be a real departure for U.S. policy, and I can see the potential downside risks. Some local governments might be less willing to share intelligence with us, or to collaborate on counter-terrorism. That would be unfortunate, but on the other hand, because anti-American terrorism emanating from the region is mostly a violent reaction to past U.S. policies, a less engaged policy would almost certainly make that problem less severe.

In any case, the results of a different approach could hardly be worse than what the United States has managed to achieve over the past twenty-plus years. Unless Americans have a masochistic addiction to disappointment, this seems like an ideal time for a more fundamental rethink.

One final thought: this argument would not preclude limited U.S. action for purely humanitarian purposes — such as humanitarian airdrops for the beleaguered religious minorities now threatened with starvation in Iraq. That’s not "deep engagement"; that’s merely trying to help people threatened with imminent death. But I would not send U.S. forces — including drones or aircraft — out to win a battle that the Iraqi government or the Kurds cannot win for themselves. The United States spent the better part of a decade chasing that elusive Grail, and the end result was precisely the sort of chaos and sectarian rivalry that has produced this latest crisis. We may be able to do some limited good for the endangered minorities, but above all, let’s do no further harm: not to the region, and not to ourselves.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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