Best Defense

To do better in the Middle East, listen less to our hearts and more to our experts

Even the world’s most experienced job coach won’t prepare Trump and his coterie for the havoc the Middle East can wreak on a presidential agenda.


By Emily Whalen
Best Defense guest columnist

Ideally, President-elect Donald Trump’s national security and foreign-policy team will spend the next eight weeks reading briefing books and developing a working expertise. The best-case scenario for his anomalously unseasoned administration is to avoid a major foreign-policy crisis in the coming years — otherwise, Trump’s inevitable stumbles will not only cost him domestic political clout, but also to threaten American power and security for years to come.

This is why presidents end up resenting that most crisis-prone of regions: The Middle East. Even the world’s most experienced job coach won’t prepare Trump and his coterie for the havoc the Middle East can wreak on a presidential agenda. So how are the Trumpists going to avoid a crisis in the Middle East?

Disengagement isn’t a real option. No matter how little oil we import from Arab countries, or how light our security footprint, Americans will remain involved in the Middle East. And we will likely remain involved in a parochial manner. That’s why we will keep failing — and why, unless we significantly change our policy, there will always be a crisis looming just over the horizon.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration is traditionally seen as successful in the realm of foreign policy, offers an example of how a parochial approach turns apparent successes into grave crises. In 1957, building on the momentum of American leadership during the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower and Dulles debuted their Cold War containment policy for the Middle East. According to the Eisenhower Doctrine, any friendly Arab government could call on American military and economic support to combat Soviet infiltration. The Doctrine was less new than it seemed; it codified previous interventions the Eisenhower administration had undertaken to curb perceived Soviet threats in the region (Iran in 1953 and Syria in 1956, most notably). But with an official Doctrine, the Middle East assumed a new importance as a Cold War priority.

Eisenhower had mixed success making the Middle East a theater of the Cold War. Gamal Abdel Nasser and other Arab leaders did fall under a degree of Soviet influence over the years. Still, Eisenhower protected American security interests and preserved American access to oil. Indeed, a recent book argues that the president ultimately regretted his decision to rebuke France, Britain, and Israel during the Suez Crisis, given how the Cold War unfolded over the rest of his time in office.

This is the traditional story of Eisenhower’s comparatively successful Middle East policy, the one that policy wonks like to tell when comparing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy favorably with Eisenhower’s. Eisenhower tried to court Nasser, but when the Egyptian president failed to fall in line, Eisenhower readjusted his policy to suit American interests.

Consider a different perspective. The Suez Crisis was a powerful moment for Arab nationalists, who previously had hailed Eisenhower as a pillar of anti-colonialism. The American president, they hoped, would fulfill the broken promises of the Wilsonian era and protect the sovereignty of Arab states. Dulles and Eisenhower were aware of the powerful symbolism of their choices during the Crisis. The Suez Crisis was a rare moment of American-Soviet accord in the U.N. Security Council — the new superpowers joined together against the old colonizing nations.

But Eisenhower didn’t particularly like Nasser, nor did he support the cause of Arab nationalism. He rebuked France, Britain, and Israel for a range of reasons, only some of which had to do with Nasser or the Arabs. Trying to shore up his electoral support only two weeks before re-election, Eisenhower’s choice during Suez wasn’t a “gamble” — it was a shrewd calculation that rising oil prices would be more unpopular with his constituents than chiding Israel. Eisenhower was not averse to regime change in Egypt, and scholars speculate he and Dulles were planning a Mossadegh-style coup even as France and Britain made their own moves. Eisenhower resented the perceived slight. The U.N. Security Council’s condemnation was a message to France and Britain not to stray too far beyond the bounds of American leadership.

Eventually, Arab nationalists lost their faith in Eisenhower. In 1957, CIA officers led a botched coup against the Soviet-leaning Syrian government, kicking off nine years of successive rebellions and political turmoil. The shattered Syrian polity only reached a workable consensus in 1966 under the iron fist of Hafez al-Assad. In 1958, American troops landed in Lebanon under the auspices of the Eisenhower Doctrine. President Camille Chamoun claimed his opponents were Soviet agents; they were in fact Lebanese Muslims agitating for better political representation. In Egypt, Nasser attempted to maintain his neutrality, but Eisenhower’s “with us or against us” attitude encouraged the Egyptian president to drift eastward, closer to the Soviet Union. Within two years, Arabs realized the Eisenhower Doctrine was not a new policy for the West and the Middle East; indeed, it was not even Middle East policy. The Doctrine was Cold War policy, concerned with American interests and not with the sovereign rights of Arab nations. Distance from the West became politically expedient for many Arab leaders; Nasser and Asad were quick to exploit this trend and blame the West for their own failings as leaders.

Eisenhower did preserve American energy and security interests in the Cold War Middle East, but in doing so, he undermined the sovereignty and security of Arab nations. This tradeoff sowed the seeds of bigger problems in the region. Unresolved political tension ultimately drove Lebanon into a vicious civil war, and fueled the spread of extremism across the region. Syria, held together by Assad’s brutal police state, invited Soviet military patronage. Unable to remain neutral, and skeptical of Eisenhower’s reliability, Nasser leaned heavily on Soviet support and belligerent rhetoric to maintain his own power, devastating Egypt’s economy and eroding political freedoms.

Many factors other than disappointment with American policy fueled these developments. Yet the parochialism of Eisenhower’s Middle East policies exacerbated the region’s cascading conflicts. The naked self-interest of the Eisenhower Doctrine secured American priorities while eroding American credibility. So, when the next crisis came, Eisenhower (and his successors) had less room for maneuver.

There are foreign policy and national security professionals ― usually those actually residing in foreign countries ― who recognize our parochialism problem. State Department Arabists warned Eisenhower against alienating Nasser, just as CIA officers expressed skepticism about the Carter Doctrine two decades later; their heirs would criticize the Reagan, Bush, and Obama doctrines in turn. Inevitably, it seems, in moments of crisis, these dissenters get sidelined or discredited. Their criticisms appear individual and situation-specific, but at the heart of it, they are saying the same thing. The American foreign policy establishment remains concerned almost exclusively with short-term goals related to American priorities. We purchase short-term success at appalling long-term costs.

Very little that Donald Trump has said on the campaign trail offers much hope for a more sophisticated foreign policy, and the appointments he has made so far reinforce those misgivings.

But this is an area in which continuity ― which the president-elect clearly scorns ― is not a viable option. The incoming administration can initiate real change by devolving foreign-policy leadership away from the federal government, something that Republicans in Congress should have no trouble selling. Experts in-country with the State Department and intelligence community should have a stronger voice in shaping our Middle East policy, with the military playing a supporting role only rarely.

Game theory offers a useful way to understand parochialism. American foreign policy in the Middle East tends to maximize American interests; it assumes a non-cooperative, zero-sum game. Yet in assuming such a dynamic, our policies help create it. We need to revise in favor of a cooperative attitude toward other countries, finding something of a Nash equilibrium to promote peaceful change.

Remedying parochialism doesn’t mean abandoning the national interest. It means reassessing the narrow way we currently conceive of the American national interest. We face an almost singularly urgent moment in our nation’s history, when avoiding a foreign-policy crisis, always a hope, is now a national imperative. To a certain degree, President-elect Trump and his team recognize that our present problems in the Middle East are related to our past decisions in the region. Our successful invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused, in part, the collapse of the Iraqi state and the rise of sectarian violence. The extremist groups that benefitted from our earlier success now threaten American interests anew. Yet the answer is not isolationism; nor is it throwing our lot in with dictators and despots. Until we reconsider the parochialism of our foreign policy, we ― and the region’s inhabitants ― will stay mired in an endless quagmire.

Emily Whalen is a doctoral student at the University of Texas, Austin, specializing in the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. She is a consultant for the EastWest Institute and a Graduate Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security. She tweets @eiwhalen.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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