What a Real “America First” Middle East Policy Might Look Like

by Jim Lobe

Paul Pillar, whose analyses for The National Interest website this blog has been honored to repost, has written a longer essay on what he believes is a sensible Middle East policy for the new administration to pursue that is consistent with U.S. national interests. For those readers of this blog who appreciate Dr. Pillar’s insights, logic, and argumentation–and we know there are many hundreds of you who regularly read his pieces on LobeLog–a few passages are excerpted below. Like Stephen Walt, he is a foreign-policy realist par excellence and the author of several books, the latest entitled How America Misunderstands the World. A nearly 30-year CIA analyst who last served as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia (2000-05), Pillar emerged as one of the Bush administration’s most devastating critics with respect to the way it cherry-picked and abused the intelligence process in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the risks of undertaking the war. While I suspect Michael Flynn and other Islamophobic and/or pro-Israeli settler ideologues are unlikely to heed his latest recommendations, perhaps others with influence in the incoming Trump administration may be open to some of their wisdom. One can only hope.

On the U.S. military in the region and the improbability of a local hegemon:

A military presence in the Middle East does not by itself have positive value for the United States—and can prove counterproductive, as reactions to American boots on the ground, with the violent consequences that sometimes have ensued, have demonstrated.

At least as important are the outcomes the United States should not want to transpire. It is in the national interest that no single power come to dominate the Middle East and that, instead, competing players balance against one another. Such balances preclude any single country posing significant threats outside the region and facilitates outsiders, including the United States, freely conducting their business inside it. Fortunately—and unlike East Asia, where a major question is how dominant an increasingly powerful China will become—there is no plausible threat of such a regional dominator emerging in the Middle East. The regional state with the most powerful military and most advanced economy, Israel, throws its military weight around, but will not become the overlord of a largely Arab region. The military strength of the most populous Arab state, Egypt, has rusted away, and the country is seized with economic and other internal problems

The next most populous state in the region, Iran, also is not a candidate for regional domination, despite ritualistic rhetoric suggesting that it is. It is struggling economically, and its military is not a technological match for the advanced armed forces of the Gulf states, let alone an instrument for regional dominance. With regional conflict increasingly drawn along sectarian lines, the Shia-centered state ideology of Iran is not a basis for hegemony in a Middle East that is mostly Sunni as well as Arab. Nearly four decades after the revolution, Iranian leaders realize as much as anyone else that any hopes they may have once had for similar revolutions in the area have been dashed—with the Arab Awakening not having augmented Iranian influence and in some places, such as Syria, straining it. Such a realization is reflected in Iranian regional policies, which entail the defense of existing regimes (in Syria), including where such defense parallels U.S. efforts (in Iraq). Where Iran is not defending a status quo, it is interfering far less than regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia (in Yemen). It favors change that almost everyone else in the region also favors (in the Palestinian territories).

On basic strategic principles:

[T]he initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Which brings us to the basic realist tenet that the United States should maximize its leverage and its opportunities by dealing freely with every state in the region, unfettered by habitually applied labels of friend or foe. Doing so is not an abandonment of friends but instead a recognition that every state has some interests that parallel, and some that conflict with, those of the United States. This approach exploits whatever interests of foes parallel interests of the United States, reduces the danger of friends or purported friends becoming tails that wag the dog, and enables the United States to benefit from the game of playing other actors against each other at least as much as the United States is a target of others playing that game.

On Syria:

Understandable repugnance over the regime’s brutality should not lead to the heart overriding the policymaking head. Nor should policymakers make the mistake of responding to human suffering by escalating the war. Escalation in the form of a no-fly zone, for instance, should not proceed without better answers than have been provided so far to questions about who does the fighting to maintain whatever situation on the ground a prohibited airspace is supposed to protect. Other questions that need answers involve force-protection requirements and what they mean for the overall scale of any military operation, and the risks of further escalation in the form of direct U.S.-Russia clashes.

The most positive contributions the United States can make regarding the Syrian situation involve multilateral diplomacy that encourages outside players to promote de-escalation and that supports whatever compromises exhausted inside players can accept.

On Yemen and Saudi Arabia (and Iran):

Some of the most acutely counterproductive U.S. policy revolves around the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. That intervention has caused thousands of civilian casualties, turning what would have been low-grade civil warfare into a humanitarian disaster, without bringing Yemen any closer to conflict resolution. The United States has created enemies it would not otherwise have had (especially among the Houthi rebels, who, contrary to popular belief, are not Iranian proxies and have acted against Tehran’s advice) and has weakened its moral standing to criticize Russia or the Assad regime for harming civilians in Syria….

Yemen represents the most immediate symptom of regarding the U.S.-Saudi relationship as an “alliance” worthy of blanket support. Extensive relations do need to be maintained with Saudi Arabia, given its role in several regional issues as well as the world oil market. But keeping Saudi leaders happy and comfortable is not itself a U.S. interest. The Saudis have goals based on ethnic or religious divisions or local rivalries that are not U.S. objectives

This perspective applies to the trans-Gulf competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would be hard to find reasons—whether based on the degree of democracy and personal freedom in each of these states, the states’ relationship with the sorts of violent extremism that most preoccupy Washington, or the extent to which each is stoking rebellion or using armed force beyond its borders—to favor one side, and specifically the Saudis, in this rivalry. The competition is the kind of local balance that serves U.S. interests by helping to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. A U.S. tilt would be in order only to correct any marked imbalance.

On Israel-Palestine:

[T]he clock for a two-state solution is ticking, with continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank threatening to make such a solution infeasible. Some assess that the clock already has run out, but U.S. policy does not need to rest on a judgment about whether it has or not; a push for a two-state solution, which is the only outcome that would fully realize the nationalist aspirations of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, does not preclude resorting to a plan B of equal rights for all in a single state.

Unlike the countless other regional hotspots that are mistakenly associated with American ownership, the United States has bought this issue with years of extraordinary financial and diplomatic support to Israel. A special U.S. focus on this conflict, more so than on problems elsewhere of human and political rights and contests over land, is warranted not only to limit damage to the United States from its association with Israeli actions in the territories but also as a matter of moral responsibility, given how U.S. backing and diplomatic cover have facilitated those actions.

On U.S.-Israel:

Also to be challenged are those who habitually criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East for not fully utilizing U.S. strength and being too submissive to other governments—a common theme in criticism of Barack Obama’s Middle East policies. There is no more glaring example of unrealized U.S. leverage and submissiveness to a lesser state than the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The whole essay deserves a complete reading.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


One Comment

  1. That this is not the established policy of the US in the Middle East is puzzling. I have to assume there is a military industrial congressional complex, with the support and urging of militant American Jews and evangelical Christians, in which all parties benefit monetarily and/or politically from continued conflict there. There is no benefit to non-military American business or the public at large as far as I can see. If DJT is looking for a swamp to drain, that would be a good one to start with.

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