by Robert E. Hunter
Troops to depart suddenly from Syria. Troop strength in Afghanistan to be halved. James Mattis to resign as Secretary of Defense. Last week was a week of turmoil that likely presages worse to come. But is it certain to be deadly poison for the interests of the United States in and around the Middle East, as well as those of its friends and allies? Or could these events and reactions to them provide the shock needed to impel top U.S. leaders—and the US think-tank community—at long last to assess U.S. interests in the region clearly and objectively? Can the current mess be the opportunity to start “doing something differently” that has eluded the United States for so many years?
Washington conventional wisdom holds that what President Donald Trump has just done sets U.S. policy in the Middle East on a disastrous course. Regarding the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), his critics might prove right, though it is not obvious, and at any rate there has been no U.S. plan or commitment to dealing with the underpinnings of the terrorists’ appeal, a sine qua non.
It is ironic that some of the most strident voices attacking Trump’s decisions come from people who in 2003 pressed the United States to invade Iraq, a folly that was as much as anything the “root of all evil” for everything has happened since. Like Dr. Samuel Johnson’s warning that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” their cry now about lost U.S. credibility abroad ignores that America’s reputation depends on its demonstrating that it knows and acts on its clearly-defined and -understood interests. This undergirds and validates America’s reliability and predictability for others who depend on it.
Mattis’ impending departure—initially intended for next February but which Trump has moved forward to January 1 —is also almost universally seen as bad news for the Trump administration’s ability to do anything right in foreign policy. Mattis has been viewed as the balance wheel among a group, beginning with Trump himself, about which the word “erratic” would be almost a compliment. By comparison Mattis looks good. But expecting one official to keep the ship of state off the rocks is miscast, a dream. A few tried during the Vietnam War. All failed.
What Really Matters to the United States in the Middle East
Since 9/11, the United States has had only four significant interests in the Middle East and its environs, in addition to the desire for the amorphous quality of “stability.” The first is to counter region-spawned international terrorism, not because it poses a critical threat to the United States (it doesn’t), but rather because of the psychological shock all Americans felt from the first attack on the continental U.S. since 1814. The second interest is to ensure the continued flow of hydrocarbons from the region, if possible at “reasonable prices.” The third is to halt the spread of nuclear weapons in the region beyond Israel and (at one remove) Pakistan and India. And the fourth is to continue redeeming the American people‘s pledge to ensure the survival and security of the State of Israel. All else is secondary, although one further interest has recently emerged, in major part because of miscues in U.S. policy: to keep from ceding primacy to Russia across the region. But for that to happen the U.S. would need to retreat from the region totally, a possibility so small that it beggars belief.
U.S. policy in the region first got off track in Afghanistan with the toppling of the Taliban regime, an act of vengeance—to which this author also subscribed—rather than a strategic requirement. Ironically, the U.S. even chose the wrong but more convenient target: the country the terrorists used as their training ground, rather than that which spawned their malignity, Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis meant a lot to the United States, whereas Afghanistan meant nothing.
Unfortunately, Washington didn’t stop there. It expanded ambitions to try converting Afghanistan into a modern, unitary state. That never had a chance, which has been amply demonstrated over many years and the squandering of American blood and vast amounts of treasure. The U.S. has repeated the mistake in Iraq. As a further irony in the Global War on Terrorism, the United States still coddles Saudi Arabia, whose citizens continue to promote terrorism all across the Islamic world with a passion and success that has no rival.
Regarding outsiders’ interest in Middle Eastern hydrocarbons, we have long been sold the idea that, without the United States to provide military and diplomatic support to the Persian Gulf Arab states, including a potent U.S. fleet based in Bahrain, the flow of oil will somehow be at serious risk. Yet the basic fact of the oil trade has always been that that those who own it can’t drink it. They all share a common interest in security of production and supply. The same is true of the security of the Persian Gulf. Absent a war, which would only be provoked not by Tehran but, for some self-destructive reason, by its enemies, Iran has as much interest in keeping the Gulf open to shipping as any other country. Nor, for many years, have the regional oil producers paid particular heed to consuming-state desires on the price of oil, while the United States has unexpectedly become self-sufficient.
Since the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty ended risk of a serious Arab assault on Israel or major-power confrontation, there have only been three geostrategic challenges to the region. The Soviet Union posed one, but then went out of existence. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, but was expelled during Desert Storm. The third challenge has been Iran’s nuclear program. Whether or not Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) put off that potential risk for many years. Even with the folly of Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement last May, it still holds. That is also true even though the United States, beginning with officials in the Obama administration, failed to honor all the JCPOA provisions for lifting economic sanctions against Iran. The US continues to represent Iran as a worldwide threat far beyond anything the facts support.
Finally, the United States will surely continue to honor its pledge to defend Israel from any source and also to ensure that it has a “qualitative military edge,” a surplus of military and strategic power. But beyond that, the United States has no interest in backing Israel’s geopolitical ambitions in the region—nor, for that matter, those of any of the region’s other states, ranging from Egypt and Turkey on the Mediterranean to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf. The United States has let itself be led into playing that fool’s game for far too long.
With these interests clearly in view, what should the United States do? Most important is for the administration, beginning with President Trump, finally to enlist people who have the capacity to think through U.S. interests, relate them to one another, develop region-wide strategies, and sort out potential conflicts between them. It needs also to put all regional states on notice that the U.S. will judge the worth of its actions first and foremost in terms of U.S. interests, which do include contributing to regional stability and supporting efforts by local states to that end. America’s credibility everywhere would thus go up, except with regional supplicants who want the U.S. to do their bidding.
Getting any of this done or even started depends on Trump’s assembling a team able to do the job, as has not been done effectively by any U.S. president since about the end of the Cold War and the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War two decades ago. That period also included the last serious U.S. effort, at Madrid in 1991, to deal effectively with the Arab-Israeli conflict. In brokering the 1993 Oslo Accords, the U.S. was a bystander. Since then, the “peace process,” which depends on serious U.S. involvement and commitment, has been shadow-play.
Obsessing Over Iran
Iran obviously poses a special case. Its leadership-in-fact still thumbs its nose at much of the rest of the world. It falls well short of acceptable standards for human rights—though it is far ahead of Saudi Arabia. It supports disruptive and even threatening (to Israel) elements in Lebanon. It has its own geopolitical ambitions. But Iran is not the be-all and end-all of problems in the Middle East. As demonstrated by the Obama administration’s failure to see whether something positive could be gained from conclusion of the JCPOA, followed by the Trump administration’s demonization of all things Iranian, continued confrontation with Iran can’t all be laid at Tehran’s door. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, with the UAE at its elbow, forged a relationship with Israel to achieve two objectives to further their own national aims, without reference to the interests of the United States: one, to ensure that Washington would continue to view Iran as also its own archenemy, while, two, also ending any hope for the Palestinians to gain statehood.
The entire senior leadership in the Trump administration—none more than the current national security advisor, arch-hawk John Bolton—bought into this view. So has Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who infamously made 12 demands of the Iranian government earlier this year that virtually require its unconditional surrender.
The Trump administration’s single-minded policy of blaming Iran for almost all the region’s ills has included Secretary Mattis, who came to office with fixed, almost obsessive views of Iran’s malignity. Nor did his experience as defense secretary alter his over-the-top opinion that “Everywhere you find turmoil [in the Middle East], you find Iran’s hand in it.” Perhaps he is the only senior administration official who has stood between Trump and war with Iran—a popular notion—though there is no evidence that the president wants to go that far, given the horrendous costs that would be involved. But following in Obama administration footsteps, Mattis’ Pentagon did become tightly tied to Saudi Arabia’s decades-old ambitions in Yemen, and the United States has been directly engaged in Saudi military actions that have done more than anything else to cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It took Saudi Arabia’s brutal murder of a Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, to produce popular American disgust with Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who to that point had been pampered not just by the U.S. government but by American elites from one coast to the other. Only after the murder did Mattis’ Pentagon begin tapering off its support for Saudi Arabia’s civilian slaughter in Yemen. To apply a term from his letter of resignation, he, too, seemingly fell into the trap of seeing Iran as a “malign actor”—a term that has no place in sober analysis by senior U.S. foreign policy officials.
In sum, whether what Trump has decided to do in Syria and Afghanistan proves to be correct in terms of defending U.S. interests, at least it will be more difficult now—though, alas, still very much possible—for him and the Washington foreign policy community to avoid a fresh assessment of the whys and wherefores of U.S. engagement in the Middle East, across the board. Sorting out the mess will not be easy, especially because it has been postponed for so many years by so many administrations. This is the place to start. Yet it is unlikely to happen, either in the government, the main-stream media, or most of the think-tank community.