by Robert E. Hunter
President Donald Trump’s official proclamation that the US accepts Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, along with preparations to move the American embassy there from Tel Aviv, has predictably upset apple carts across the Middle East and beyond. The period just ahead will be dominated by diplomatic responses, an increase in violence, and perhaps terrorist acts.
Any positive payoff is hard to see. One of Trump’s obvious motives was to fulfill a presidential campaign promise, especially to some large campaign contributors. Another was to show “courage” on this issue, as he sees it, compared to his predecessors. A third was to appeal to domestic political constituencies, mostly major elements of the Jewish and Christian evangelical communities. Despite these personal political gains, little if any good can come from the president’s decision. Ironically, despite Trump’s claims to be a great dealmaker, he sought nothing from Israel in return, including on contentious Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank. Trump may believe his decision will advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but that would place him in the tiniest of minorities.
Much debate will now ensue about the impact of the president’s action. In a larger perspective, however, this is a good time to revisit the basic premises that have for so long kept the United States pinned to the Middle East, and, if they are found wanting, to mandate major changes in US policies. Given that even the United States has limits on its power, that its government can deal with only so many issues at a time, and that the American public has a narrowing tolerance for presidentially determined actions abroad, choices must be made and priorities assigned. Thus, to decide US engagement in and policies toward the Middle East, a global perspective must come first.
The Fundaments of National Power and Influence
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been overdue for “zero-based budgeting” on its foreign policy. Some was indeed done, notably when George H.W. Bush proclaimed the grand strategy of trying to create a Europe “whole and free” and at peace. But regarding the rest of the world, the US has done little of the basic analysis needed at the level of grand strategy, other than the vague notion of some “rebalancing” to East Asia and wondering what to do about China’s rise.
To promote US interests in the post-Cold War world and to continue being taken seriously as a top economic power, the most important requirement has been to ensure that the US economy performs at its highest possible standard and has the wherewithal to be effective, not just at home but also abroad. Yet every administration—along with Congress and the private sector— has consistently underinvested in key areas such as public education, a health system that includes everyone, rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, and support for the middle class on which the strength of any free nation depends.
At the same time, a succession of US administrations has failed to understand that, for the United States to maintain significant influence in a world lacking a commonly understood threat (like, previously, Soviet power), it must nurture a wide variety of instruments. (It must also, as Trump has rightly argued, persuade traditional allies and partners to share more of the security burden.)
The Trump administration is augmenting the US military instrument and strengthening its ability to act virtually anywhere, which does confer on the nation a significant degree of influence, including the knowledge on the part of allies and partners that it will be available when needed, notably in Central Europe and East Asia. Nevertheless, the military’s day-to-day ability to shaping the world in which we now live is decreasing. As President Barack Obama said, “Just because we have the best hammer [military power] does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Indeed, save for North Korea’s soon-to-exist ability to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, the United States is almost entirely secure against all other plausible military threats to the homeland.
At the same time, however, the administration is slashing diplomatic and development instruments on which the US increasingly depends. In the case of the State Department, that amounts to perhaps 30% of its budget. This is the falsest of false economies. It is weakening the overall capacity of the United States to act effectively abroad, to continue setting much of the agenda for global economic relations, and to be taken seriously everywhere.
This distortion of priorities—military instruments over the diplomatic and economic—is as evident in the Middle East as it is elsewhere, and the nation has been paying the price in terms of a lack of coherence in its regional policies and engagements, as well as the international respect required to secure its national interests.
In general, the United States has too long neglected the necessary non-military sinews of its great power status. The United States has also fallen short in developing methods to enable it to concentrate on what is truly important for US interests abroad. Actions taken by both Russia and the West (especially the United States) are engendering a new Cold War in Europe. Meanwhile, with the growth in power and influence of other states, notably China and India, the United States faces competitors of a very different nature from the Soviet Union. It is also abdicating leadership in promoting a rules-based global society and dealing with climate change, the most important challenge facing everyone.
Reassessing US Interests in the Middle East
This is background to this week’s Trump decision on Jerusalem and the predictable, negative reaction almost everywhere. In major part because the United States must make difficult choices about what to do, where to do it, and to set priorities, there is an insistent question: just what are US interests in the Middle East and what should the Trump administration best be doing to secure them? The following are key topics for the national debate that must take place.
First, US interests in the region are not as compelling as they were only a quarter century ago. Certainly, their nature has changed significantly. The Soviet Union is gone and with it the need to contain Soviet power and communism, which preoccupied the United States from the late 1940s, when it began assuming key responsibilities for protecting the West’s Middle East interests. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did the need for the whole containment edifice, including that for the Middle East, notably the 1980 Carter Doctrine.
Second, every US administration since the 1950s has labored to provide security for Israel. Yet with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (1979) that ended any serious Arab-state military threat to Israel, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015) that contained the Iranian nuclear program, and the decisive military edge that the US always provides Israel over all comers in the region, its security is better protected now than ever before in its history, despite what its current government wants Americans to believe.
At the same time, the United States has for many years had lead responsibility for fostering Arab-Israeli peace, now focused on the Palestinians. The Trump administration, however, has cleaved tightly to most Israeli positions, including ambitions elsewhere in the region that go beyond reasonable security requirements. This almost lock-step relationship with Israel does impose costs on the United States across the Middle East. It is grist for the mill for its state enemies (now principally Iran), promotes anti-Americanism, and is used by Islamist recruiters. What President Trump did this week only made the US problem even worse than it was, without helping to promote either Israel’s security or the peace process.
Third, every regional country that produces oil has a vital interest in ensuring its export, including freedom of transit through the Persian Gulf. No country poses a threat to the flow of oil and natural gas to the outside world, which should condition the deployment of US naval power beyond what’s engaged in current fighting, especially against the Islamic State, which is likely to be relatively short-term.
Fourth, no one has been able to make a compelling case that Afghanistan is of serious strategic interest to the United States. The initial invasion in 2001 was more an act of revenge after 9/11 than a calculated act of national self-interest. Trying to build a Western-style society in that country was always a fool’s errand, as proved by 16 years of pathetically poor successes at staggering cost.
Fifth, there are legitimate concerns about Iran’s ambitions in the region. But the Iranian revolution’s appeal, which was never great beyond the country’s borders, continues to dwindle. As a Shia country, Iran could never dominate the more populous swath of Sunni countries. The principal interest of virtually everyone in Iran, except the clerical elite and the Revolutionary Guard kleptocracy, is to become fully engaged in the outside world, and America is more popular among the Iranian people than in any other country in the region. And Iran is a modernizing, Westernizing country with a free flow of information, which demonstrates that the recent comment by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the Iranian regime is “totalitarian” to be radically misinformed.
Sixth, additional US interests in the region center on completing the task of assaulting the so-called Islamic State, while also opposing all forms of terrorism, Islamist and otherwise. At the same time, however, the United States continues to buy into the fiction, put forward by Iran’s competitors, that Teheran is the principal source of regional terrorism. On the contrary, the overwhelming bulk, both in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Moslem world, is Sunni-based, sourced by Saudi inspiration and cash. It proceeds apace with little more than lip-service opposition by the US government.
Two other current challenges in the region, the continuing Syrian civil war and renewed Russian presence in the Near East, stem in part from America’s own actions or those of regional partners. The misbegotten US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history, ripped apart the region, provided fertile ground for terrorists, and continues to plague everyone.
During the ill-fated Arab Spring, the United States made declarations regarding Syria—drawing a “red line” on chemical weapons and asserting that President Bashar Al-Assad “must go” — that it was either unwilling or unable to implement, thus providing a chance for a relatively weak Russia to reengage in the Near East.
The Risks of the “Free Pass” to Saudi Arabia
In addition, on his trip to Saudi Arabia last May, Trump gave Saudi Arabia and its ambitious young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), a free pass to do whatever they want in the region. The crown prince has used this latitude to continue (with US support) Saudi Arabia’s war of aggression in Yemen, with its massive human suffering, under the thin pretext that without Iran in the mix there would be no civil war there.
MbS also led several of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, plus Egypt, to confront and isolate Qatar, whose alleged sins notably include its operating the only free media outlet in the entire Arab world. Now he is promoting a direct relationship with Israel, but not designed to show long-overdue acceptance of the Jewish state. Rather, he wants to advance joint competition with Iran while, in the process, supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal to crush the few remaining hopes the Palestinian people have for their own state.
The US has finally woken up to the fact that Saudi and US interests may not be entirely aligned. Secretary of State Tillerson has now said, “With respect to Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Qatar, how they’re handling the Yemen war that they’re engaged in, the Lebanon situation, we would encourage them to be a bit more measured and a bit more thoughtful in those actions to, I think, fully consider the consequences.” This gentle tap on the Saudi wrist may be the beginning of recognition in Washington that one of the compelling US interests in the Middle East is to oppose the efforts of any country, whether Iran or Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey or Israel, to dominate the region.
Further, by tolerating the spread of Wahhabi-based terrorism, providing material support for Saudi brutality in Yemen, and backing Israel in almost all things, especially on Israel-Palestine issues, US credit among Moslem peoples continues to decline. The downward momentum has picked up speed because of President Trump’s travel ban on people from several Moslem states and now the red-flag decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Ironically, in his proclamation on Jerusalem, Trump reasserted US commitment to “final status negotiations,” while predetermining one of its key elements—even though Israel’s right to have its capital in Jerusalem (along with that of a Palestinian state) will no doubt be included in any package of agreements.
One thing is clear: unless the United States at long last undertakes a root-and-branch analysis and debate about its post-Cold War role in the world, notably in the Middle East and about that region’s relative priority compared with other interests, the United States will continue to see both a distortion of its engagements abroad and a decline in its influence, reputation, and leadership in the world faster than the rise of other powers would otherwise dictate. This will also have an impact on the way American society develops at home (and vice versa). The only “winners” will be those leaders who must this week be bemused but encouraged by America’s shooting itself in the foot over Jerusalem: Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin and, even more, China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Photo: Rex Tillerson and Benjamin Netanyahu (Wikimedia Commons).