The U.S. Role in Hardening Hard Lines in the Middle East

Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

Realism in foreign policy recognizes that all countries have some interests that conflict and some that conform with the interests of one’s own country. A U.S. foreign policy grounded in realism would see all countries as potential targets of engagement and of attempts to influence their behavior in directions more congenial to U.S. national interests. Some foreign countries obviously have more in common with the United States than do other foreign countries, but in the realist perspective this is more a difference of degree and emphasis than a rigid division between friends and foes in which fundamentally different methods are used to deal with each.

A non-realist foreign policy may be based on such a rigid division, offering nothing but confrontation to those labeled as foes and generously accommodating those labeled as friends. The drawbacks of such a policy appear on both sides of the divide. Opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation with the foes are lost, and unrelenting hostility directed toward them elicits—as one of the most natural of all human reactions—hostility, resentment, and distrust in return. Meanwhile, those considered friends are given free rein to indulge in destructive behavior, unchecked by any serious attempt to steer them in a direction that is less damaging and more in conformity with U.S. interests.

The Trump administration’s policy toward the Middle East is one of the clearest examples of this kind of non-realist approach. The policy is based on an extremely rigid divide between, on one side, arch-foe Iran (and those, such as the Syrian regime, having a positive relationship with Iran) and, on the other side, regional rivals of Iran including Israel and some major Sunni Arab states. Toward the designated foe, U.S. policy has consisted of nothing but unrelenting and escalating hostility. Toward the supposed friends, U.S. policy has been so accommodating as to provide excuses and political cover for behavior that much of the world considers objectionable and even immoral.

The rest of the administration’s foreign policy does not exhibit anything close to this sort of extreme Manicheanism. Any inclination to heat up confrontation with Russia—for example, as exhibited by the scrapping of the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF)—has been offset by Trump’s more private motivations for making nice to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s policies toward Europe have left unclear whom it considers friend or foe even within the Atlantic alliance. Policy toward China has featured both a trade war and a desire to end the war with a trade deal. Even policy toward North Korea has oscillated between fire and fury, on one hand, and love letters on the other hand. Only in the Middle East have the administration’s declared lines of competition—between those it depicts as the root of all regional evil and those it deems incapable of doing anything evil—been stark and unchanging.

Iranian Responses

To the extent that Iran has not yet manifested all the natural negative responses to increased U.S. hostility, it is because Iranians hope for regime change in Washington in January 2021 and are trying to keep a lid on things until then. There certainly has been no positive response, in Iran’s regional activities or in a willingness to crawl back to the negotiating table, to the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The main change so far has been politically within Tehran, with Iranian hardliners gaining influence after the United States reneged last year on the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The hardliners are enjoying enhanced credibility and are saying “we told you so” about the hazards of cooperating with the Americans. The chief Iranian negotiator on the JCPOA, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, still has his job after offering his resignation, but the fact that he had to resort to such a stratagem reflects how much his position and that of President Hassan Rouhani had weakened at the hands of the hardliners.

The fundamental misconception underlying the Trump administration’s misrepresentations about Iran is the notion that a penchant for nefarious behavior is somehow embedded in Iranian DNA and thus is unchanging. Mike Pompeo’s comment about Zarif’s offer to resign—that Zarif and Rouhani “are just front men for a corrupt religious mafia”—was one of the more embarrassingly puerile remarks that a U.S. secretary of state has uttered publicly about a foreign government. The comment overlooks the existence of real political competition in Tehran, as the Zarif resignation episode itself demonstrates. It also overlooks how much of what Iran—like any “normal” state, to use the administration’s lexicon—does is in response to what other states, not least of all the United States, do to it.

This dynamic of action and reaction predates the Trump administration. In fact, much of Iran’s foreign policy in the four decades since the Iranian revolution has been a reaction to postures and actions, especially threatening or damaging ones, by other states toward Iran. And efforts by Iran to cooperate with the United States have repeatedly been met with hostility. The Clinton administration nullified then-president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s contract with the U.S. oil company Conoco, which had been intended as a gesture of goodwill, and then followed up with a policy of “dual containment.” Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with the United States in constructing a new government in Afghanistan was quickly followed by George W. Bush consigning Iran to an “axis of evil.” Some of what today is labeled “nefarious” or “destabilizing” Iranian behavior is a direct response to such rebuffs and hostility. The U.S. exclusion of Iran from the otherwise region-wide Madrid peace conference in 1991 stimulated Tehran to start providing significant aid to Palestinian resistance groups.

Destructive Friends

The unhelpful effects on the behavior of “friends” also did not start with Trump, although the effects have reached new depths under the current administration. Several U.S. administrations have displayed the habit of ignoring or brushing aside outrageous acts if the perpetrator had acquired the label, for whatever reason, of “friend” or “ally.” This is true of the principal states the current administration looks to as partners in an incipient security alliance in the Middle East.

The current U.S. relationship with one of those partners, Egypt, is an outgrowth of Washington supporting Anwar Sadat in the 1970s for making peace with Israel. Today, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi practices significantly more brutality than his predecessors. According to one recent analysis, Sisi “is moving Egypt closer toward totalitarianism than strongman Hosni Mubarak ever did and, in the process, laying the groundwork for more instability in a region that has already seen too much of it.”

The behavior of another of the favored “allies” is Saudi Arabia, which over the last couple of years has cut a destabilizing path that has included its highly destructive war in Yemen, its attempt to coerce the prime minister of Lebanon into causing a governmental crisis, and its murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Much previous U.S. policy led de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) to believe he could get away with a lot.  Trump has carried accommodation to a new level with the political cover he has provided MbS since the Khashoggi murder.

Israel has been the Middle Eastern “friend” enjoying the most bipartisan coddling—a story that began well before Trump but has reached new extremes of accommodation under Trump. During the past two years that story has included an acceleration of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, heavy use of lethal force against protestors in Gaza that may constitute war crimes, and most recently the inclusion in a prospective new ruling coalition of the current incarnation of a U.S.-listed terrorist group.

The Middle East has many hardliners and hard-line policies. Those policies take the form of hostility toward other states and oppression by regimes of subject populations. The region will continue to exhibit many hardline policies no matter what the United States does. A realist policy toward the region would recognize that fact while using whatever influence the United States has with all the states of the region to try to make the Middle East a marginally less volatile, less oppressive, and less conflictual place.

Unfortunately, the current approach of dividing the region into good guys that do no wrong and bad guys that are the source of everything wrong is making the region an even more difficult and more conflictual place than it otherwise would be.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. “The rest of the administration’s foreign policy does not exhibit anything close to this sort of extreme Manicheanism.” YES it does. The Middle East, and especially the shameful coddling of Israel as an “ally” with huge powers over the policies and actions of the USA to the exclusion of anyone else, is the most egregious example. The hatred of Iran is only because Israel has decided Iran is an existential danger to it(!) but the irrational treatment of Russia since the USSR collapsed, the constant treatment of Latin American nations as vassals if they dare to govern for their people, the pretence that Ukraine is a worthwhile “nation” to support (against Russia, the wicked enemy) but that Serbia deserved to be destroyed an Kosovo picked out and made into another country, all show the same extreme Manicheanism which the USA follows with no thought for any other point of view or rights to sovereignty.

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