The US in the Middle East: Back to First Principles

President Barack Obama convenes an Oval Office meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Iraq, June 13, 2014.

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.

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.



  1. This is a very useful, comprehensive and informative article about the problems and limitations that various administrations face. It highlights the disjointed way that the US and other governments deal with the day-to-day problems they face. One can add some other factors that especially complicate the decision-making process in the United States.

    One is short-termism. Most Administrations are preoccupied with what serves their interests in the next election. Even if one assumes that some presidents plan for a two-term period, even that is far too short a timespan for long-term and consistent planning. There should be continuity of policy and expertise at the State Department to help various administrations, regardless of their party affiliations. Changes in the personnel of the State Department and the ambassadors by every incoming administration will only result in a narrow perspective.

    The second problem is diversity of voices, if not conflicts, between various departments of the government (often the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon do not speak with one voice) and between the Administration and Congress. The party rivalry between the Democrats and the Republicans, especially under this administration, has meant that the Republicans try to oppose everything that the government does regardless of the harm it does to national interest. There should be an understanding between the parties that at least when it comes to foreign policy they should not obstruct the government.

    A third problem that is truer of the US than of many other countries is the excessive influence of some lobbies, often supporting some foreign governments, that distorts the process of policy making. Many foreign policy decisions are taken by certain individuals with strong attachments to foreign governments, which have often been detrimental to national interests. The only way to deal with this problem is to regard entities such as AIPAC as organizations that support a foreign government, and their influence over Congress and Administration should be curtailed. Greater attention should also be paid to the appointment of individuals to sensitive posts to make sure that the occupants support only U.S. and not foreign interests.

    A fourth problem is the size and complexity of intelligence organizations. They are so vast and they are so interested in the quantity of the data that they collect that they often cannot see the wood for the trees. Despite vast sums spent on them, US intelligence organizations have failed to foresee hardly any of the major epoch-making developments in the world, from the Islamic revolution in Iran, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the Arab Spring and right down to the sudden emergence of the ISIS. What is needed is fewer, much slimmer, more efficient and intelligence-driven organizations, rather than competing organizations interested in collecting as much data as possible, without overall coordination.

  2. I think US interests would benefit from a rich and powerful Iran. (Provided it makes a deal with P5+1 of some sort)

  3. I love the line “this does not compute” because in 4 short words it underlines how we undermine our own goals. The honorable ambassador has excellently touched on a couple of very important items of our foreign policy that do not compute. There are many more. And one of them is related to this: “We do need to help Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to “be” secure.” Is there any question that all the Gulf Arab states are under the very undemocratic and in many cases harsh and cruel rule of royal families whose political values are completely out of line with ours? Part of the reason there is so much instability in the Middle East today is due to that fact. In order to preserve their hold on power, the royal families have indirectly (or maybe even directly) colluded with those same Salafis and Wahabis who became our direct enemies in Afghanistan and have been fighting us in Iraq. The rulers have coerced the Jihadis to channel toward Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan their desire for establishing their own khalifdom. If the desire to help make secure the Gulf Arab states means helping the citizens that’s a noble ideal (which is actually not what w’re doing). I think that statement unfortunately refers to protecting the monarchies running the Gulf Arab states and not the populations, and the reason for that is to simply keep the oil flowing at the expense of helping prolong and enforce undemocratic rulers. We’re not helping any country be secure. We’re simply helping the autocratic, tribal monarchies stay in power to rule their people without involving them in their own governance, and that has the effect of marginalizing and radicalizing enough people who then find the jihadi movements as their only outlet for empowerment. Our own stated policies are therefore working to defeat our own stated goals. THAT does not compute either, does it?

    I hope this does not come across as an attack on the article with much of which I’m in agreement. I can tell the good ambassador is quite aware of what I stated and while diplomacy may not allow him to express it directly, he agrees with the premise.

  4. I think tends to be typical of the opinion churned out by former government employees and that is the slight hubris it takes to think that the arbitrators of public policy are the very civil servants and political appointees tasked to put it together. Going by that measure, I’d have to say they’ve made quite a mess out the Middle East. Be it the guys who advised a US president to back a coup or another one that no revolution was imminent to those that advised the current president pulling out of Iraq was okay. At each turn we’ve been betrayed by the conceits and concepts of those who think they are the smartest people in the room. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered the room is pretty darn small.

    In any democracy, public policy is ultimately developed by the voters. They spoke loudly when they tossed Jimmy Carter on the heels of the Iranian revolution and they spoke when George W. Bush was re-elected following the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now all the policy wonks are going to disagree with whether or not any given action is meritorious, but what they should remember is that ultimately if they forget about what voters, they’re all ultimately going on book and speaking tours.

    In Iran, American voters have spoken loudly they don’t want Iran to get the bomb and they have a low level of trust when it comes to dealing with the Iranians. Fortunately the full court press by the Iranian government’s lobbyists and PR flaks have not moved the needle much as indicative of the near universal position by both sides of the aisle in Congress to opposing lifting sanctions prematurely without a verifiable agreement that reduces refining infrastructure.

    So while the points made here might all be valid, they are in the absence of a very real political reality which is that not many Americans trust Iran and that trust is going to have to be earned and no number of tweets and selfies by Rouhani is going to change that.

Comments are closed.