The Middle East’s Age of Innocence Is Over

The traditional object of the West’s romantic foreign-policy visions is now the graveyard of its idealism.

Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston on Aug. 29, 2009. (Brian Snyder-Pool/Getty Images)
Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston on Aug. 29, 2009. (Brian Snyder-Pool/Getty Images)

The Middle East is the graveyard of American foreign-policy idealism. For the last generation, the United States has deployed every weapon in its armamentarium in fond hopes of reshaping a recalcitrant, and terribly important, region: regime change, democracy promotion, counterinsurgency, humanitarian intervention, the rhetoric of human rights and of national self-determination.

What does the United States have to show for all that investment of life, money, hope, and thought? Far more importantly, what do the ordinary citizens who at long last took their fate into their own hands in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Iraq have to show? Death, imprisonment, and horror. Peace has scarcely dawned in the Middle East — look at Syria, Yemen, or Libya — but the sense that the future might be better than the past has been buried along with so much else.

I found myself compelled to contemplate that graveyard as I read Order From Ashes: New Foundations for Security in the Middle East, a collection of essays published by the Century Foundation. The volume invites us to look forward, but the very act of reading it forces a backward look. Consider the title: The “ashes” in question are all that remain of the fires that seemed ready to consume the Arab world in 2011. In a 2017 collection, Arab Politics Beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism, Century acknowledged the extinction of those hopes. Now it asks whether something worthwhile can be built atop that charnel house.

That thing is “order,” which is to say a Westphalian order of states acting collectively in the name of regional security. It is ironic in the extreme to reflect that a region that was first upended by an American invasion designed to topple a hated dictator and allow democracy to flourish is now invited to pursue an autocratic peace. But we understand why: Dictators have consolidated their rule across much of the region. The worst of them all, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, may be only a few weeks away from gaining control over about two-thirds of his territory and thus asserting something very much like sovereignty. The Arab world is not far from returning to the status quo ante of the late 20th century, though with a very different distribution of power among the chief actors. Put otherwise, the great issue in the region going forward will not be the rights of individuals but the contest among states.

I speak here as a chastened idealist, though hardly, I think, the only one. I went to Afghanistan in late 2009 to watch counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy in action in a district outside of Kandahar. I concluded that COIN was the right idea, though it probably wouldn’t have enough time to work. I later came to see that it was the right idea for a different country entirely. Afghanistan was too big, too porous, and too unresponsive to central control. I suspect that President Barack Obama wishes that he had taken Vice President Joe Biden’s advice to protect American interests through counterterrorism and leave Afghanistan to its own devices.

When the hurricane of the Arab Spring touched down in Egypt, in late January 2011, I waited impatiently for Obama to take the side of the Egyptian people and call on President Hosni Mubarak to step down. He finally did so, and all of Egypt seemed to burst with pent-up joy when Mubarak agreed to leave immediately. It seemed that the United States had finally put itself on the right side of history in the Middle East. But the direction of history turned out to be otherwise. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, struck by the haplessness of the movement’s leaders, had advised Obama to promote a slow and orderly transition. In retrospect, it’s hard to see how that could have made a difference. But Clinton’s skepticism was justified.

Is the inference that we should draw from this terrible waste that the United States would have been better advised to support autocratic allies in the 21st century as it had done in the previous century? Certainly, the calamity of Iraq taught us, too late, the wisdom of a patient policy of containment, frustrating and even dangerous as it may be. The botched aftermath of the intervention in Libya taught us, once again, about the unintended and unforeseen consequences of nobly intended adventures. But what about Obama’s principled stand — as he saw it — against giving substantial help to the Syrian rebels? Syria left on its own spiraled into a disaster even greater than the Iraqi one, demonstrating that the consequences of inaction can be as grave as the consequences of action. “Realists,” be they ever so tragically minded, can take no satisfaction in the Syrian outcome.

Recent history has not encouraged the faith that the arc of history bends toward justice, as Obama often said. Nevertheless, I still believe that we should act as if it did. I don’t regret that Obama called on Mubarak to stand down, and I do wish that he had helped the Syrian rebels in 2012. Yet the ashes remind us of how little we can do to change the fate of people living inside cruel states. We tried a lot, and it’s very unlikely (save perhaps in the case of Syria) that we could have made a difference if we had tried harder.

Order From Ashes bids us to draw a line under that era and look to the external behavior of the states that have emerged from the tumult. Rightly so, for current rivalries among regional powers look likely to spread. Perhaps, then, the silver lining of a restored Westphalian space in the Middle East will be the opportunity for new forms of state cooperation. But one of the reasons why conflict is endemic in the region is that Arab states have not accepted what Henry Kissinger describes in his book World Order as the cardinal principle of the Westphalian system — the willingness to let every other state pursue its own internal order, as Protestant and Catholic princes agreed to do at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. In the Middle East, a Shiite order led by Iran now squares off, in both Yemen and Syria, against a Sunni one led by Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis really do view Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told 60 Minutes, worse is yet to come.

Most of the authors of the Century volume do not expect otherwise; some seem to have agreed to tackle a subject whose hopeful premises they do not accept. Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, describes the prospects of a new regional order as “dim, if they exist at all.” Katulis details the lessons learned from seven decades of failed order-making efforts in the region: “Geopolitical competition overrides cooperation”; “fear of geopolitical domination inhibits regional security cooperation”; “shared threat definitions mask differing priorities and interests.” Because, however, such an order is “too important to give up,” as Katulis titles his essay, he suggests practical steps the United States can take, including preventing its allies from “making unforced and disastrous strategic errors,” like the Saudi-Emirati war in Yemen.

That, of course, would require a drastic change in mentality not only in the Gulf but in Washington. Elsewhere in Order From Ashes, international relations scholar Bruce Jentleson suggests a recast U.S. policy that offers diplomacy to Iran, throttles back on support for charismatic autocrats such as Mohammed bin Salman, and accepts the legitimacy of political Islam. Yet the Trump administration has given carte blanche to the Saudis both in Yemen and in their intra-Sunni campaign against Qatar while Donald Trump himself seems prepared to give the Saudis the ultimate gift by voiding the Iran nuclear deal. For the next few years, the United States is more likely to hinder than to help the very shaky endeavor to build order from ashes.

Still, there’s something else we know: Order doesn’t exhaust politics. Once people have had a taste of freedom or dignity, you cannot keep it from them forever. Those fires will eventually smolder once again.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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