The Middle East: What Does the US Really Need?

by Robert E. Hunter

Last week’s brutal attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in the heart of Paris have again riveted Western attention on terrorism, not “out there someplace” but “here at home.” It didn’t happen in the United States. But the fact that it happened to a close ally should make us take a good, hard look at US policy in the region, which has seemingly been drifting along as though there is all the time in the world to get it right.

There remains the basic question: “Just what does the United States need, in its own interests, to achieve in the Middle East?” The fact that the question even has to be posed points to the lack of clarity, not just in explanation—what President Obama and members of his administration say—but in the policy itself.

The president’s basic approach seems to have three core elements: 1) to prevent any terrorist attack on the soil of the United States—even one far smaller than last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris; 2) to sustain the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, a strategic achievement that in fact promotes the security of all America’s friends and allies in the region, whatever their public postures; and 3) to resist if at all possible putting American (combat) “boots on the ground” in Syria or Iraq, as opposed to the use of air power and some Special Ops.

From President Obama’s perspective, these three elements cover the most important American interests and take into consideration domestic political realities. According to American public opinion—or, more accurately, national psychology—the first core element is most important. In fact, what happened on September 11, 2001 was of minor magnitude compared with other conflicts, including those involving the United States. Three thousand lives were lost on 9/11 and each is to be mourned. But they do not compare with 58,000 lives lost in Vietnam, much less three-quarters of a million in the Civil War.

Nevertheless, the shock of 9/11 was of great magnitude. The attacks were unprovoked, they came literally “out of a clear blue sky,” and they were the first significant assault on the continental United States since 1814. The US response has also been of great magnitude. We have fought two major wars, lost several thousand lives (and treated many more wounded), and spent trillions of dollars. Osama bin Laden can thus be characterized as the world’s most consequential figure in the first 15 years of this century. What hath evil wrought!

In fighting the Global War on Terror, we Americans have accepted not just the costs of wars, but the practice of torture against suspected enemies, limits on some civil liberties (notably in the electronic surveillance of American citizens), assassinations (primarily by drones), and the diversion of huge amounts of money to the military from what could otherwise have been much needed domestic investments.

First Things First

Our willingness to accept these costs reinforces President Obama’s first priority of preventing “another 9/11.” This point was underscored by last week’s horror in Paris. But as with 9/11, the psychological impact was the most significant element: this was precisely why the terrorists chose to do what they did. This includes IS’s goal of stigmatizing all Muslims in Europe in the eyes of “native” Europeans and thus increasing the pool of possible IS recruits. (The Paris attacks also demonstrate yet again that terrorism cannot be totally prevented, especially when, as in Paris and on 9/11, only modest resources are required. This is inherent in the use of terrorism as an instrument to promote political ends through media magnification.)

Yet in addition to President Obama’s three core objectives in the Middle East—his “grand strategy”—the US cannot ignore second-order effects. One is the flood of refugees into Europe from the Middle East (in addition to those from Africa), especially because of the Syrian civil war and the barbarism of IS. This flood has not washed up on our shores. Yet we still cannot ignore it, not just on moral grounds but because our partners and allies in Europe are hurting. America’s reputation for leadership and dependability—for creating and sustaining consistent policies that allow us to call on others in the future when we need their help—is also at stake in what is happening in the Middle East and spilling over into Europe. It may be exaggeration to say that the US is the “indispensable nation,” but we cannot “lead from behind” without incurring wider costs.

With the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran, the US has shouldered additional burdens in the Middle East. The Obama administration must not only press Iran to live up to its part of the bargain but also must reassure allies and partners in the region that continue to be deeply skeptical of the agreement. Fears and concerns expressed by Persian Gulf Arab states, Israel, and Turkey may be grossly exaggerated—reflecting geopolitical competition with Iran more than the possibility it might still acquire nuclear weapons—but the US has felt the need to make added security pledges to these countries and back them up with military hardware. Thus, the conclusion of the nuclear deal does not offer the prospect of reduced American engagement in the Middle East but rather has further enmeshed the US in the region’s future.

Nor can the United States walk away from the continuing consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the toppling of a Sunni minority government in a Shia majority country. Ever since, Sunni states have sought to redress the balance. They have intensified confrontation with Shia Iran as well as focusing on getting rid of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, who represents Alawites (and other minorities, like Christians and Druze) in a Sunni-majority country.

For a variety of reasons, including Assad’s brutality and massive slaughter of Syrian civilians, the United States has become engaged in the Sunni-Shia regional civil war on the Sunni side. That is the central meaning of the US demand that Assad depart as an essential element of any settlement in Syria. This demand has been made without any realistic plan for “what comes next” beyond pious hopes about a “transitional government,” “free elections,” and “protection of minority rights.” Having proved vacuous in so many other conflicts, these hopes have little prospect of success in today’s Middle East maelstrom. US immersion on the Sunni side in the civil war with the Shia has been augmented by US military support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and Washington’s turning a blind-eye to Saudi-sponsored Sunni repression of Bahrain’s Shia majority.

Perhaps continuing to support Sunni aspirations, notably in Syria, is the “least worst” option for the United States. It could help to contain Iran, thus pleasing most Gulf Arabs, Israel, and Turkey. In the process, however, this option could diminish the chances that the nuclear agreement will lead, sooner rather than later, to Iran’s understanding its self-interest in rejoining the international community without inherently threatening its neighbors.

But there is a major flaw in this reasoning, as well as in President Obama’s triptych of basic American interests in the Middle East. This flaw has been exposed by the growth and metastasis of IS.

Addressing the Islamic State

IS draws much of its inspiration from the export of Wahhabi Islam, especially from Saudi Arabia, along with massive funding from various Sunnis Arabs (though presumably not from the governments themselves). The United States and some other Western governments have tolerated this export for many years, despite the heavy costs in blood and treasure in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, plus the fostering of instability in Pakistan. Beginning with US training and support for Islamist fighters against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the best that can be said is that this policy “seemed like a good idea at the time.” Even if so, that time has long since passed. (Nineteen of the 20 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia.) Yet the United States has still not demanded that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular, cut off the flow of both money and religious venom that created and continues to sustain IS.

There is a fundamental contradiction in US policy and practice. We seek to get rid of Assad, who is clearly odious, but without a clearly thought-out, delineated, and explainable means of preventing a Shia bloodbath and without intensifying the Sunni-Shia civil war. At the same time, the US has pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy IS,” which receives critical support, direct and indirect, from the same Sunnis whose get-rid-of-Assad objective we back. We want Assad to go in the belief that fighting in Syria will then stop and in the unsupported hope that this will help defeat IS. But the Saudis and other Sunnis want much more: a victory over the Shia throughout the Middle East, regardless of the impact on US interests or prospects for regional stability.

In the process, the United States also wants to limit Russian engagement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity provided by Western lack of coherent purpose and strategic follow-through. Washington accepts that Moscow will have a seat at the Vienna talks on Syria, but it has made clear that this participation is on our terms—“Assad goes or bust.”

Put simply, we cannot have it all. We can’t prioritize getting rid of Assad without further inflaming the Sunni-Shia civil war and thus effectively helping IS, while also keeping Russia from strengthening its foothold in the region.

The US priority needs to be to defeat IS, an entity that challenges not just the regional but the civilizational order. Only by making this our top priority and acting on it can the United States begin to shape strategically coherent policies with any chance of success.

A first step is to convince France that it is not enough to invoke a provision of the Lisbon Treaty to summon support from European Union partners. France should also invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, as the US did after the 9/11 attacks. Further, the United States should recognize Russia’s own vulnerability to domestic Islamist terrorism and welcome its military role in Syria. And Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states should be told to stop all support for the terrorists— tangible or ideological, direct or indirect—or incur our lasting displeasure. Then this would be a real fight against IS. If determining Assad’s fate has to be put off, so be it: first things first.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.


One Comment

  1. Amb. Hunter has laid out a strong case — the right path — for our next steps in the Syria conflict and beyond. The only question I would raise is why France should invoke Article V of the Nato (Washington) Treaty, when we need to work with the Russian Federation. With France, Russia and the U.S. all sitting in the Security Council, that would seem to me the proper venue, with Article 51 of the Charter the key enabling provision.

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