Is It Time for the U.S. to Rethink Its Approach to the Middle East?
With friends like these, it might be time for Washington to reevaluate its fight to stabilize the region.
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," was the wise advice proffered by Michael Corleone in the classic film, The Godfather: Part II. To sort out U.S. policy in the Middle East, however, the United States might need to take the reverse view — and take a hard look at the roles its Arab friends and partners are willing to play.
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” was the wise advice proffered by Michael Corleone in the classic film, The Godfather: Part II. To sort out U.S. policy in the Middle East, however, the United States might need to take the reverse view — and take a hard look at the roles its Arab friends and partners are willing to play.
The recent obscene terror attacks in Paris and the on-going Syria conflict would seem to cry out for an international response, no less than Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Islamic State’s new global terrorism underscores that it is a mortal threat to both Arab states in the region and major powers outside the region — and not just the United States and Europe, but also Russia, China, Japan, and India.
After Saddam’s over-reach, then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, in a magnificent display of American diplomacy, mobilized a broad-ranging worldwide coalition including the USSR and even the Assad regime in Syria.
Fast forward. Why is it that the United States is not actively mobilizing a similar coalition to reverse all the gains of the Islamic State? This necessarily also involves expunging the Islamic State from its Raqqa-based “caliphate” and finding a resolution to the Syria conflict. Sending 50 Special Operations troops is a transparent attempt to check the box and appear to be doing something. Where is Jim Baker when we need him? To be fair, the tepid response cannot all be blamed on the fear and loathing of a meek, retreating Obama administration.
How is that the Saudis, Gulf states, Egypt, and Turkey — all of whom face an existential threat from the Islamic State — are so preoccupied with other concerns that they can’t be bothered to fight the Islamic State? Think about it: If I call myself the Islamic Caliphate, the leader of all Muslims, don’t I need to possess the holiest sites of Islam at Mecca and Medina? Is that not obvious to Riyadh? The Islamic State has already wreaked havoc on Egyptian territory in the Sinai, and is literally a stone’s throw away, across the border from Turkey.
While between them these frontline states have more than 5 million men under arms, they do not see it in their respective interest to deploy them and wipe out the Islamic State. And as any military officer will tell you (take the U.S. experience in Iraq), a war cannot be won solely by airpower. Any strategy whose objective is destroying the Islamic will sooner or later need boots on the ground to seize their occupied terrain and lay the basis for a new, legitimate governing authority in that liberated land.
The intriguing question then is why Arab countries, so eager to have the United States play a leading security role in the region, are so obsessed with other concerns? To be sure, Iran and its imperial designs are a clear long-term threat to the Saudis and other Sunni-dominated nations in the region.
That said, it still defies the imagination that the Saudis and other Arab U.S. security partners do not see the Islamic State-led unraveling of the Arab state system as a clear and present danger. The myth that the U.S. role is required to keep the oil flowing has endured too long. No OPEC producer has an interest in destroying their very source of their livelihood. Who has an incentive to disrupt oil flows?
Nonetheless, while the details may be argued and a debate about burden-sharing with oil importers like China, India, Japan, and the EU is overdue, a U.S. offshore balancing role in a volatile region remains an important pillar of stability.
But we are still left with the conundrum that any Western-led effort to wipe out the Islamic State cannot ultimately succeed on its own. If such a campaign is viewed as an American or Western war (or a crusade) it will trigger a backlash in the Islamic world. This is the trap the Islamic State, with its end of days pseudo-theology is laying.
There must be a coalition within which those in region play a major, leading role. It cannot be, not a coalition mainly in name only with Uncle Sucker doing all the heavy lifting: The war against the Islamic State must be owned by those surrounding frontline states. The United States, France, Russia, and others can and should strongly aid and support it — including with some boots on the ground. But it must be principally their war. They must show beyond a doubt that the Islamic State is not Islam, it is not legitimate: it is a scourge and a hijacking and bastardization of the Islamic faith.
For too long the major regional actors have been happy to simply keep DoD content and buy U.S. advanced weaponry to rust in the desert while holding the coat of the United States whenever there is a battle to be fought. The very nature of this threat requires the frontline Arab nations to be front and center in any coalition effort. By many estimates, it would not require more than 100,000 troops, more likely closer to half that, for a relatively short duration and a residual peacekeeping force for what would likely be a protracted one- to two-year transition. That should be with a U.N. mandate and mostly Muslim troops in the PKO.
If those in the region really do have a very different security calculus that Washington, it may be time to reassess the security relationships in the region. A security partnership must reflect shared interests. It is not a one-way street. It must be reciprocal.
It should be obvious to all states in the region that virtually every Western intervention over the past century — from Sykes-Picot replacing the Ottoman Empire with what were alien concepts to the region — ill-conceived nation-states — to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq have all been counter-productive.
There is a congruence of threat assessments in regard to Iran and its long-term intentions. This is discernable in Tehran’s hardline reaction to the nuclear deal: that it is a one-off exception, the United States is still the Great Satan and expanding Iranian influence remains their strategic objective.
But in the here and now, there is an urgency to the threats from the Islamic State and the conflict in Syria that supersedes concerns about Iran. Indeed given that the Islamic State cannot be eliminated until the Syria conflict is resolved, there is some overlap of interest in that Iran will necessarily be a part of any Syrian solution.
In any case, unless and until frontline Arab states rethink how they calculate their near-term interests, the United States would be wise to begin some soul-searching discussions with its friends in the region about the nature of U.S. security ties in the imploding Middle East.
The on-going multiple crises in the Greater Middle East has led many U.S. analysts to argue for enhancing security ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and other Arab partners. But security partnerships, and certainly coalitions, necessarily begin with shared objectives.
In other regions, where the United States has a dominant security guarantor role, Europe and East Asia, there are active partners and security relationships with shared threat perceptions and some measure of reciprocity in regard to their respective defense roles and missions. In NATO, there is a full-fledged collective security commitment. In East Asia, through U.S.-Japanese, U.S.-Korean, U.S.-Australian bilateral alliances, and a growing set of security partners in ASEAN, a regional security network is evolving.
Yet in the Middle East, there is lack of common priorities in regard to threat perceptions, little agreement on respective roles and missions. If this continues to be the case, and those with the greatest interest in eliminating the Islamic State refuse to give it the priority it requires, the agony of a region unraveling will be protracted and the Islamic State death-cult will benefit. In such a scenario, there will be a much stronger case for reducing U.S. security ties in the region rather than expanding them.
Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program. Twitter: @Rmanning4
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.