What If the United States Had a Middle East Strategy?
Washington's lack of a plan to confront the spread of radical Islam looms as an epoch-defining failure.
What would it look like if America actually had a Middle East strategy?
To begin with, of course, it would hardly look like what we are seeing today. At the moment, we are confronted with an unprecedented region wide series of crises that are each seemingly being treated by U.S. policymakers as though they were unrelated. American responses to each have been reactive, typically veering between the passive and the inadequate. While there has been lots of rumination about what could go wrong if we embraced risky or bad policies, there has been less focus on how to actually achieve our goals and seemingly precious little thought given to the consequences of our inaction. In short, at a particularly fraught moment in a dangerous and vital part of the world we seem to be without a clear vision or a plan for achieving it.
As a consequence, America’s vital national interests are suffering. A region of substantial economic importance to the United States and to the world is spiraling into ever deeper instability. Allies are at risk. Bad actors who pose a material security threat to the United States and those allies are growing and multiplying and gaining strength. Unchecked or inadequately, haphazardly challenged, recent disturbing trends could grow much, much worse.
Still, our goals in the Middle East are straightforward: We have economic interests there such as the provision of energy resources, trade flows, and investments we wish to protect and cultivate. We wish to maintain strong relationships with countries that can help us advance our geopolitical interests — enhancing our influence, counterbalancing the power of potential rivals.
It’s clear that what we seek in the region is not only the kind of development that promotes and protects those who are well-disposed toward the United States, but stability. But not just any stability — and this is an important point. We want a stable, prospering Middle East that is friendly to us but is also an inhospitable environment for our enemies. As the Mubarak regime showed, the stability of the oppressive autocrat resistant to change is an illusion. The region is a graveyard for strongmen who ignored the street.
A long-term U.S. strategy must therefore embrace not just momentarily stabilizing choices but those that will promote changes that make stability more durable. The stability tipping point in any society is when the majority of people feel working within the system is more within their interest than working outside of it. The Arab Awakening was a sign that many countries in the region were teetering at this point. Extremists sought to take advantage of this. To counter their initiatives we must support those who recognize the need to create systems that offer a better alternative than the mayhem and medieval values jihadists and their ideological cousins are selling — in short, existences that are rewarding in both this life as well as in the next. Further, of course, we must recognize that stability in the Middle East cannot be imposed by outsiders. It must be cultivated from within. That said, we cannot shrug off the fact that those who lead from within still need our backing given the threats, rivalries, and momentary challenges they face.
While many forces are in play in the greater Middle East (and even in neighboring regions into which Middle East-like or related conflicts are flowing, such as North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and even Uighur China) there are important crosscutting trends that should be taken into account in our strategy. Indeed, it is the awakening to the crosscutting and indeed interlocking nature of these trends that is the secret to the formulation of such a strategy.
That is because the principal source of threat to our interests, the stability of the region, and to our allies is one and the same — the threat of extremist or political Islam. Further, while the extremist actors and groups go by many names and are independent of one another in important ways, they also share important links. Some of these are ideological. Some have to do with the tactics they employ. Some have to do with the pools from which they draw their recruits. And, notably in terms of combatting them, some have to do with the sources of their financing and arms. For example, think of the strong, clear, and documented financing links between Qatar (including the government as well as rich Qataris and Qatari NGOs) and extremists in Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Syria, and the Persian Gulf. Doha is not just the favored residence of on-the-run terrorists from Hamas to the Taliban, it is the financial capital of the terrorist world.
Perhaps most importantly, these threats are linked not just by shared patrons or social media ties or a common appetite for brutality; they are linked in being part of a larger historical narrative. While much attention has been given (rightly) to the Sunni-Shiite rivalry that dates back to moments after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the year 632, another fault line of perhaps even greater importance has emerged in recent years. It is the Sunni versus Sunni battle between extremists, who are the advocates of militant radical change and proponents of political Islam, and more moderate groups who are seeking to preserve Islam but do so in a way that is either more open to the evolution historical trends demand or at least does not seek to forcibly impose their views on nonbelievers. It is a battle between those who seek to violently force the clock backwards and those who believe that piety and progress can be made to coexist. One senior Arab diplomat with whom I spoke called it the new Middle East Cold War. He’s right about the divide threatening much of the region. But of course, for many there is nothing cold about this war. It already is as brutal and hot as they come.
While the conditions and specific upheavals in each state in the Middle East are, as noted earlier, different, it is this battle that is responsible for the greatest amount of today’s unrest and violence. Whether it is Ansar al-Sharia in Libya or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza or al-Nusrah Front in Syria, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or the Islamic State struggling to establish its caliphate, it is clear today that extremist Islam is emerging as a threat so broad that it must be seen in its totality to be contended with. Further, the ties of these groups to others operating in the periphery of this region — from the Taliban to the Haqqani network, from Boko Haram to Uighur or Chechen separatists — both underscore the global scope of the problem and the potential for significant alliances to help combat it.
Certainly, our traditional allies in the Middle East have come to see the problem as one. Consider the degree to which Israel and Egypt have cooperated to deal with Hamas. Consider that unifying animus toward the Muslim Brotherhood that has linked together not only those two former warring states but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. While in some of these states there are individuals who support such extremist groups, the governments themselves are united in concern about the unchecked spread of the Islamic State. It is a concern so great that it has even caused some to set aside for the moment unease with the support of Iran or Bashar al-Assad in the battle against that rising threat. It is so great that it has led to the formation of a new, closer Russian-Israeli relationship. It is a concern so great that when Vladimir Putin last visited Beijing, a substantial part of the discussion turned to cooperation in fighting terror. It is a concern so great that the new Indian government, itself concerned with Muslim extremism, supported Israel in the last round of Gaza-related U.N. votes.
Perhaps it is a measure of the severity of such a threat that it inspires alliances, cooperation, and special degrees of tolerance among such strange bedfellows. But the loose coalescing of this group should be seen by a United States that does not wish to shoulder too many risks and is skeptical of its ability to influence outcomes far from home as the great strategic opportunity of the moment. American leadership in the years ahead will turn on our ability to reinvent our alliances and international institutions so that we can effectively achieve international goals. This requires diplomacy. And it will require active and dependable commitments of many resources including aid, arms, intelligence, logistical support, air power of the manned and unmanned variety, and special operations. But it will also require a few other underdeveloped U.S. skill sets — diplomacy, the ability to listen, loyalty to longtime friends, a willingness to accept differences in values and approaches within alliances.
Focusing on forging a new alliance to defeat this threat has many elements. In the Middle East, it will involve real work to restore trust with the diverse set of actors that can help us from Cairo to Tel Aviv, from Amman to Abu Dhabi, from Kuwait City to Riyadh. It will require a much more intensive effort to get the EU on board — one that should be driven by the fact that unrest in this region is likely to spill over to Europe, perhaps led by the thousands of jihadis currently fighting in Syria and Iraq who hail from European cities. But it also should take advantage of the fact that collaboration among major global powers other than the EU will be key to success and can mobilize support — Russia, China, and India being notable in this regard.
The strategy will also require a toughness we have yet to show to countries like Qatar and Turkey that have been too cozy with bad actors. The evidence about Qatari financing of terrorists is overwhelming. Rather than letting these ties provide the Doha regime with more influence as we did during the recent Gaza talks, we should work with governments worldwide to ensure this will deny them ever-increasing influence and access until they reverse course. This should include considering opposing the World Cup in Qatar, moving our troops out of that country, and prosecuting those who are known to be financing extremists. And we need to do this actively elsewhere as well. Shutting down resource flows to all these groups must be a top priority of this effort.
If this is a top priority it will also mean recognizing that undercutting vital potential partners like Egypt or Israel or potential Gulf allies with our behavior should be reassessed. Relationships are complicated and we can still offer pressure when needed, but we need to keep our priorities — stability in the region and the elimination of the extremist threats — clear. That doesn’t mean blind support. Regimes that embrace activities that are likely to ultimately lead to instability should be steered away from those activities precisely because they are dangerous to our overall goal.
Difficult problems will exist, of course. Eliminating Iranian nuclear weapons must be a U.S. goal. And Iran can be an ally against the Islamic State. It also can play an important role in ultimately producing change in governments in Syria and Iraq. But we must recognize that drawing too close to them will be seen as a threat to other allies in the region and that even as the Sunni-Sunni tensions take precedence, the Sunni-Shiite battle remains a risk. Thus the delicate work of a three-way balance is required, much as it will be with Russia — which we must challenge on Ukraine even as we cooperate on fighting terror.
But that is the kind of complexity that major strategies of this kind entail. Divisions and alliances don’t come neatly. There are no risk-free initiatives. Indeed, if this recent period of flying without a flight plan reveals anything, it is that the search for risk-free options may be among the most dangerous paths to choose of all. Because, as we have seen, given America’s unique role in the world, our consigning ourselves to the sidelines or sporadic, very limited interventions that exist outside a broader strategy only creates a bigger opening for our enemies, for the spread of fundamental threats, and for the possibility that this will someday be seen as a period of profound strategic failure for the United States in the region and the world.