Bookends of America’s Broken Regional Policy

Kerry_Faisal_Riyadh

by James A. Russell

It’s hard not to cringe watching the United States careen around the Middle East these days, dispensing bombs, money and political fealty in various doses depending on the crisis of the day to a series of supposed allies that take turns slapping us around while demanding our protection.

These unseemly and contradictory scenes are emblematic of the crumbled bookends of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East that lies scattered around the regional landscape. It’s the rubble of a broken foreign policy paradigm conceived in an earlier era that has ceased its usefulness in the 21st century.

America’s Cold-War era regional foreign policy, which has seen us construct a series of partnerships in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Islamabad, is no longer relevant to US and regional interests. Moreover, it’s difficult to conceive of a more unattractive group of states to align ourselves with—all of whom engage in behaviors that do not serve American interests and that are inconsistent with our values. It’s time to recast the Sunni-state plus Israel alliance that characterizes American foreign policy in the Middle East.

The busted bookends of our policy are slapping us in the face on a nearly daily basis. On the one hand, we had Bibi Netanyahu on one of his usual forays to the White House, openly dissing President Obama and even suggesting at one point that criticisms of Israel’s ongoing and continuous annexation of Palestinian territory were “un-American.” Thanks for the lecture, Bibi.

Never mind that the United States has implemented what amounts to an expensive social and military corporate welfare program to prop up a state, Israel, which by World Bank standards is among the wealthiest countries in the world. Who’s fooling who, exactly?

Next, we were treated to Vice President Joe Biden bowing down to Gulf State familial sheiks and apologizing to them for openly stating the obvious—that these repressive and autocratic monarchies have to varying degrees supported Sunni extremist groups battling the Iranian-backed Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.

It’s hard to imagine that these erstwhile allies didn’t think they had American backing in Syria given our own 35-year undeclared war against Iran in which we have sold these states some of the most advanced defense equipment in the world—presumably to protect them from the Iranians.

Vice President Biden has had a long history of sticking his foot in his mouth. As someone that sat through many Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings over the years, it was clear to everyone that he was/is not one of the deepest thinkers to come from the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Whatever his failings, however, Biden is the second in command of the world’s greatest democracy and the leader of the free world. It was unsettling to see him cap-in-hand before the very sheiks that we have been protecting for the last 35 years.

Never mind that the US has now taken it upon itself to start blasting away at the group that calls itself the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) in one of the most mysterious and ill-conceived imperial policing operations in recent US history—in part to protect the autocratic Middle Eastern monarchies that refuse to take any responsibility for their actions.

Last, but not least, we have Secretary of State John Kerry again ricocheting around the region, recently at a donor’s conference pledging $212 million to help “rebuild” Gaza, while simultaneously stating that the current status quo between America’s two client-state antagonists (Israel and the Palestinian Authority) is not sustainable.

There is something surreal about the idea of the United States offering to spend more taxpayer money to rebuild buildings that were destroyed by American-provided bombs and planes in the first place—bombs that will no doubt be freely replenished the next time Hamas and Israel decide to start blasting away at one another.

The reality is that all parties regard the status quo as completely sustainable, in part because they are supported by American money and, in Israel’s case, unlimited political support. America’s political leaders show no interest in placing any meaningful leverage on the parties. Absent any political will to pressure the parties—particularly Israel—it is manifestly unclear why any further money or effort should be expended in trying to solve this long-running dispute. Besides, we could use that $212 million at home to rebuild the dilapidated Lincoln tunnel or one of our many deteriorated highway bridges.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the neoconservatives that got us into the Iraq war are desperately trying to undo a possible nuclear deal with Iran—presumably so we and/or the Israelis can start another war to preserve Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Never mind that such a deal creates the opportunity for the United States and Iran to begin cooperation on a host of regional issues in which we share important interests. Détente with Iran would be good for American strategic interests—stakes that far outweigh anything involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute or in our bombing raids in Iraq and Syria.

How did we get to this point? How is it that the United States is shoved around and made fun of like the poor village idiot by a collection of alleged allies that just keep on cashing our checks while making fun of us as soon as our back is turned?

In the end, of course, the joke is really on us. The fact is that the United States will continue to be embarrassed by supposed friends until it decides that it doesn’t want to be pushed around in front of the international community. That requires acknowledging that the two Cold War-era “twin pillar” alliances with the Sunni autocracies and Israel need to be recast. The contradictions in each of these partnerships have now become so incongruous that not even we can square the circle.

The idea of the United States now offering up money to clean up the mess created by the American-made bombs dropped by its Israeli client state aptly describes the depths to which the US has plunged. Gulf Sheiks embarrassing the US vice president provides just another layer of icing on a cake that has been in the oven for far too long. Israel lobbyists fanning out on Capitol Hill to torpedo a nuclear deal with Iran while Israel cashes our checks bespeaks an out of control ally that has lost all sense of decorum and proportion.

The contradictions of American regional policy that have seen us dispense billions of dollars in arms and money to ungrateful and ungracious allies in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Islamabad while simultaneously protecting them can no longer be reconciled. It’s time for a paradigm change.

Instead, the United States should leave these countries to their own devices and their own quarrels. Most importantly, they should solve their own problems. Perhaps we might have better fortunes in the long run in building a more integrated and peaceful regional order with other states. Anything would be an improvement over what we have now.

Oh, and another thing—let’s stop turning the other cheek the next time one of our supposed allies starts swinging.

Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal escorts US Secretary of State John Kerry after he arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 3, 2013.

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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.

37 Comments

  1. Things we could achieve only if we had few more reasoned , informed , intelligent voices like A/Prof James Russell. Thanks for a great article.

  2. The fact that oil is heading South of $80 per barrel and that Obama has largely made the US energy-independent may well change the situation, anyway.

  3. Wow, Professor you made me LOL on very heavy isiues and your straightforward and logical style and reasoning is wonderful You should be in White House and US would be again the hope of the world. Thank You!

  4. “America’s Cold-War era regional foreign policy, which has seen us construct a series of partnerships in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Islamabad, is no longer relevant to US and regional interests.”

    Bingo, and I’d go a step further than that. It never was. But even if it was relevant to our interests to any degree even back then, those partnerships are working completely against our interests, not to mention the interests of even those countries. In every one of those countries whose capitols are mentioned above, the foreign policies that their leaders have been practicing have been working against the long term interests of every one of them. No wonder half of those countries are unstable, most of them are hated by most everyone, just about all of them are run by extreme right wing reactionaries of different varieties, and every one of them would collapse and crumble if it wasn’t being propped up by overwhelming American support, financial, military and otherwise. How long can they go on counting on Uncle Sam’s flow of money and support while they go around suppressing their own population internally, occupying and making enemies externally?

  5. Well, it’s good to have a little war going on somewhere far away, so you can test your weapons systems. But however much rebuilding you pay for, you can’t buy back the lives lost or the families destroyed. Someone is making a lot of money out of all this, but it isn’t the ordinary people of the Middle East, nor the poorest folks back home. I never cease to wonder that, whatever cuts and restrictions there are on spending back home, there is always enough money for another war………

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