by Robert E. Hunter
What do we, the United States, need — as opposed to want — in the Middle East?
It’s no secret that the region is in a mess. But as Hamlet could have said about US responsibilities: “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”
There is, however, little point in outsiders’ offering the administration strategic or tactical advice on the immediate Iraqi crisis. As I have learned from service to three presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, you are either in the government or you are not. If not, you cannot have a serious impact on the conduct of a critical situation, and commentary on television and in op-eds, even when insightful, will be ignored. Everyone in the government is too busy, focused on tactics, and wrapped up in the course of events and policy for external proposals. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld on the military and war, you manage a crisis with the people you’ve got.
Outsiders can only provide perspective for a time when leaders are less preoccupied with the day-to-day and are better able to reflect and devise coherent strategies to meet the Middle East’s enduring challenges.
That said, we have to begin by viewing the region as a whole, not as a series of separate places and events that may overlap a bit with one another. Regrettably, the latter approach has been dominant in the US government for many years, under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Two examples illustrate the problem. We want to keep Iran from getting the bomb and, at the same time, from being a serious competitor for power and influence in the region. Thus we have kept our focus on sanctions, threats of force, and — when we do negotiate with Tehran — limiting the agenda to the nuclear issue. Yet, in 2001 we welcomed Iranian support for overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and helping to create its first new government. Then the Bush administration promptly included Iran on its “axis of evil” list, which made it impossible for Tehran to keep supporting US interests. Now, 12 years later, we have decided that Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan might help us leave the country without the Taliban taking over again. Suddenly, we also see that Iran might be helpful to us in countering the rapid spread in Iraq of brutal Sunni Islamist fighters and their medieval ideology.
But this US wish list doesn’t compute.
We want Saudi Arabia to continue helping us in the West to get oil from OPEC states at a tolerable price. Yet convincing Riyadh to do so includes helping it to feel secure against Iran. Hence, massive (and highly profitable) arms sales to the Kingdom and its neighbors, even though, if Iran does pose a threat, it is certainly not military, but economic, cultural, and to a degree, sectarian. We also work with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states in opposing the Alawite minority government in Syria, while trying to prevent the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL or ISIS) from making ever-greater inroads both there and in Iraq. Yet the inspiration (Wahhabi and Salafi Islam) and the horde of cash that underpin the Islamist terrorists who are the backbone of ISIS and other extremist Sunni groups come from — you guessed it — Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Arab states. Are the governments actively behind this trafficking? Maybe not, in fact, private sources are probably the main funders, but these governments have not stopped the flow from their countries of 7th century ideas and masses of cash for arms.
This also doesn’t compute.
Other aspects of the US piecemeal approach to the Middle East include our seeing the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict as somehow existing in an isolated world of its own. We try to ignore the impact this ongoing issue has had on other developments in the region, including the Sunni-Shia civil war that is spreading outward from Syria. We also ignore the struggle for geopolitical influence featuring Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, and Israel. In Egypt, meanwhile, we want “stability,” in major part to ensure preservation of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. But we don’t like the way the new Egyptian government treats dissidents and uncooperative journalists, though this concern did not interfere with reopening the pipeline of US military aid.
What does all this add up to? First, the US government needs to start looking at the Middle East as a whole, with all of its interconnections, and understand it to the fullest degree possible. This approach also requires humility. Much — let’s say most — of what is happening in the region was not caused by the United States. But try as we might, there are severe limits on what we can do about changing the nature of Middle East societies, as repetitive failures should by now have made clear. We can, however, at least try to avoid making matters worse by overreaching and overpromising.
Second, we need to understand the extent to which the US reputation in the region has taken hard knocks. That started with the Iranian revolution and the 1979 US hostage crisis in Tehran. Then, at around the time when the Iranian clerics’ zealotry was finally losing its appeal among the region’s Shia and the Iranian populace, a small band of ideologues in the Bush administration seized on 9/11 to advance their agenda of invading Iraq. With current events, that folly has been reconfirmed as one of the worst blunders in US history. The US looks like it does not know what it is doing or is unable to act in its self-interest. The situation is so bad that some regional commentators, who often see US conspiracies everywhere, believe America is secretly working to create Sunni dominance over the Shia in the region and thus wants ISIS to succeed!
The increasing lack of trust in the US ability to recognize emerging events, clearly identify its interests, and devise effective policies is not limited to the Middle East. Like the current crisis in Iraq, America also seemed to be caught unawares by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine, also in a region of critical importance. Unfortunately, perceptions reinforce one another.
Third, President Barack Obama needs to reform a system that enables failures of intelligence, which occurred in both Iraq and Ukraine. Correction: intelligence professionals rarely miss matters like these. But as insights move up the chain, they often get blocked or at least watered down by senior officials who don’t like delivering bad news to the Oval Office. Or, when the “news” gets to the National Security Council (NSC), it may not act effectively on what it is told. It is no accident that the current NSC staff is about 6 times the size it was under the three national security advisors who set the standard for effectiveness in the job: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft. When the White House staff gets bloated, capacity for hard, focused, strategic analysis tends to get swallowed up by committee. At the same time, the more the NSC Staff grows, the more it micromanages across the government, especially tasks that should be entrusted to the State Department, thus marginalizing the highly competent US Foreign Service.
While corrective actions may have to wait until after the immediate crisis, here are some ideas to help the administration shape its long-term approach to the Middle East.
The Obama administration must start by prioritizing what the US needs in the Middle East, not expecting to get everything on its shopping list, including the false belief that we can succeed at “geo-mechanics” or remaking whole societies according to our druthers. That includes dropping the fantasy that redrawing national borders or carving up countries can lead to stability.
Prioritization includes several parts.
First is the US commitment to Israeli security, which is deeply embedded in American culture. But that does not require accepting the limits Israel tries to impose on US negotiating flexibility with Iran, thus making it harder for the US to ensure there will be no Iranian threat to Israel. It also does not mean aligning ourselves with all of Israel’s regional aspirations or continuing to indulge it when it builds settlements that make it more difficult for Israel ever to achieve peace with the Palestinians. At the same time, we need to underscore to Iran that its problems with us and others in the West will never be reduced until it stops its campaign against Israel — conduct that makes no contribution to Iran’s security but fosters Iran’s continued isolation.
Second is the continued Western dependence on Persian Gulf oil. We do need to help Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to “be” secure — objectively determined — even if they say they do not “feel” secure. In exchange, they must stop permitting — and that means a full stop, no nonsense — the export of Islamist terrorism by their nationals which, among other things, has led to Americans’ dying in Afghanistan. In particular, we need to impress on the Saudi leadership that it must decide whether it wants a positive relationship with us or to continue exporting its bad actors to spread turmoil and instability outside the Kingdom.
Third, we have absolutely no interest in taking sides, or in being seen as taking sides, in the Sunni-Shia civil war or in competitions for primacy among regional countries that purport to be our friends and allies, but exploit us to their own ends, far beyond what they legitimately need to be secure against external threats.
Fourth, the US has nothing to gain from seeing any of Syria’s sectarian groups prevailing at the expense of others, a sure recipe for another “Lebanon.” We thus must change our rhetoric and our goals on Syria. Note that the chemical weapons are now gone, even though Obama wisely chose not to go to war when so many people were clamoring for him to do so. But calling for President Bashar al-Assad to “go” has no value, unless we also advance a set of serious ideas for Syria’s future, focused on ensuring that all of its sectarian groups, the Alawites included, are included in a hopeful and peaceful future. Without viable alternatives there is no chance of a non-violent change of government in Damascus, ending Syria’s civil crisis, and staunching the flowing of terrorism beyond its borders.
While not exhaustive, these steps offer a start in enabling the United States to regain initiative in the Middle East and to devise long-term policies and approaches that can secure our interests. They will also help America shore up its reputation in the region and beyond.
Photo: President Barack Obama convenes an Oval Office meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Iraq, June 13, 2014.