America’s Last Gasp in the Middle East

by James A. Russell

The annual spring ritual of America’s would-be presidents and politicians parading before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) declaring their undying fealty to the Jewish state evokes an odd nostalgia in 2016.

All these current and prospective officials parrot the shopworn lines of yesteryear when America’s relations with Israel and its attempts to referee the Arab-Israeli dispute formed a centerpiece of US strategy and foreign policy. Try as they might to pretend otherwise, America’s future presidents will face a very different reality.

Both the Israelis and their American patrons have moved on, although for completely different reasons. The Israelis and their Likud leadership took the United States for a long and expensive ride over the last several decades, pretending to be interested in peace while taking America’s money and arms as they slowly but surely realized their vision of greater Israel by gobbling up Palestinian land. America’s free arms and limitless political cover created the moral hazard condition that enabled Israel to continue its expansionist aims free from outside interference—except occasional resistance from those having their land stolen.

For the United States, it also willingly got led down this path by the soothing words of a series of advisers that flitted in and out of government from the Washington DC-based Israeli lobby. Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross gave voice to the preferred tactical approach to the “peace process,” as it was called, insisting on small incremental steps that would one day lead to the promised (and peaceful) land.

To blame these advisers of strategic miscalculation, however, misses the broader point. The corporate center of US strategy and foreign policy genuinely believed that resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute would serve America’s strategic interests by creating a more stable and peaceful regional political order. Successive Democratic and Republican administrations doggedly pursued this policy priority and welcomed Ross and Indyk’s efforts. There was a genuine bipartisan belief that such a new regional order was indeed possible—with an Arab-Israeli agreement as a foundational building block.

Failure of Vision

Today, however, this vision lies in tatters. The Arab-Israeli dispute is consigned to afterthought status with the unfolding of the region-wide civil war for political authority and power raging in the Arab states. The stakes involved in the US-Israeli relationship have declined as result.

The United States today watches the armed struggle in the Arab world with no real means to affect its outcome short of another large-scale armed intervention. And such a folly would only delay the reckoning of the political arguments that are fueling the death and destruction in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. As is abundantly clear, Washington has no stomach for that armed intervention in part because the strategic value of America’s erstwhile partners in Cairo, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv doesn’t justify it.  The Cold War helped create America’s regional alliance structure that ran from the Gulf States through Cairo and Tel Aviv, but each of these partners is today going their own way. The strategic landscape has changed shape, and perhaps this is as it should be.

The Saudis and the Gulf State monarchies have supplanted the United States as the principal supporters of Egypt’s ruling military patronage corporation. The Saudis insist on dragging the smaller Gulf State monarchies along behind them as they fuel sectarian civil wars in the name of combating Iran’s quest for regional primacy. Meanwhile, the Saudis and their Gulf State partners support several of the Sunni extremist groups battling for power in the civil wars.

The Israelis have concluded that the key to their security is to build bigger walls, keep the checkpoints manned in the occupied territories, and build more settlements. They have dropped even the appearance of being interested in a two-state solution. At least they’re finally being honest about their ultimate objectives (although Israeli leaders like Menachen Begin never tried to pretend otherwise).

Changing Commitments

For the United States, the realization has slowly but surely dawned that the last quarter century of diplomacy and war in the Middle East has yielded little of lasting strategic benefit. The commitment to guarantee regional stability under the Carter Doctrine made sense in 1980 but is irrelevant today. Saudi Arabia might have needed defending in 1990 but it’s difficult to construct circumstances today that would justify defending the Kingdom. America tried its hand at forcefully directing the process of political evolution in Iraq and beat a hasty retreat when it realized that it could not force-feed Western-style democracy and modernity to peoples more focused on long-standing grievances.

The United States thought it was doing its regional allies a favor when it concluded a deal to deny Iran a nuclear weapon. Instead, these allies met the agreement with a mixture of derision and suspicion. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his allies in AIPAC) actively opposed the agreement and sought to undermine and embarrass a sitting president by openly consorting with his political enemies. So much for favors.

The misguided aerial-delivered bombardment of its Islamic extremist enemies is another sign that the United States has also moved on—despite the treatises offered up to the AIPAC donor audiences in Washington. Although generating a body count for PowerPoint briefing slides presented at the White House and the Pentagon, the United States has wandered down a blind alley as it blasts away at its enemies from 10,000 feet with little regard for the potential and negative long-term strategic consequences. The citizens of Paris and Belgium have tragically found themselves on the receiving end when those being bombed have decided to start shooting back.

Today, America’s strategic priority in Middle East is much more narrowly defined than during the Cold War. Where once the United States talked of promoting a new and more peaceful regional political order, it now offers a new strategic priority: killing militant Islamic extremists.

America cannot referee the battle for political authority and power underway throughout the region. Its stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute has all but vanished. Although the AIPAC audiences won’t hear this, the region’s altered strategic landscape offers the inescapable conclusion that the United States can no longer save the region from itself. Let’s hope the next president grasps this central fact.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Has Israel in effect changed its borders by growing the illegal settlements of Jews in the occupied West Bank? I think this remains to be seen.

  2. “The U.S. is the big financer of the Zionist project and the big financer of the settlement project. Without the U.S. there is no occupation. And the U.S. carries responsibility for any of Israel’s deeds and crimes, because without the U.S. Israel couldn’t do it, very clearly.” (Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist)

    Just because US interests are no longer being served by Washington’s financial and military support of the occupation, doesn’t mean that Washington is going to withdraw that support. Israel’s politicians and pundits have excellent access to all kinds of media in English, and they can get very ugly when they have someone to ruin. No American president will ever withdraw its support before Israel has finished colonizing the West Bank and all Palestinians have abandoned Gaza (if Israel actually allows it).

  3. Israeli annexation of the Gaza Strip is an object favoured only by the most fanatical of Zionists.

  4. Very good review. The root cause of the political strain between US and Israel is mostly due to US getting suckered into the ME militarily by Israel’s trickery and it took the US about 8-10 years to realize it! Nothing else is changed in this relationship and US continues to be fleeced by Israel for billions in cash and free military armaments! This three legged, (cash, arms and political) relationship will not change in foreseeable future! In fact the fleecing of US bound to increase by any of the current candidates running for POTUS! As I said before Israel won’t rest until it has gobbled up most of the fertile land in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon all the way to Jordan river with the help of Uncle Sam! It’s taken 75 years for Israel to gobble up this much land and it may take them another 75 years to achieve their goal! If Israelis have learned one thing from being in the ME it is patience!

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