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Re-Centering U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Photo courtesy of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo/Twitter

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has viewed the Middle East as a backward yet strategically important area in dire need of American military and moral intervention. As a result of its flawed preconceptions, Washington has never truly understood the Middle East – or the broader Muslim world, for that matter – and has, in turn, formulated ineffective Middle East policies. The Trump Administration is making a similar mistake by basing its Middle East strategy on a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, a campaign the Trump administration escalated when it assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, on Jan. 3. The U.S. needs to re-center its policy in the Middle East by basing it on a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamic changes occurring in the region and by identifying and pursuing core U.S. interests in the region: Preventing transnational, non-state actors from gaining power; halting nuclear proliferation; and preventing interstate conflict.

The Tradition of Flawed U.S. Policy

The current administration is in good company. Indeed, the three prior U.S. presidential administrations failed at crafting coherent and effective policy towards the Middle East. The Clinton administration failed to combat the rise of radical Islamist ideology as a force while wasting time on an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty that never came (see Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower”). In the wake of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration embraced the neoconservative belief that American interests in the region could best be served by the forceful imposition of liberal democracy – with Iraq as its unfortunate petri dish. The Obama administration tried as best it could to avoid and even withdraw from the Middle East altogether, all the while hoping that Obama’s charisma might paper over the divide that had emerged between the United States and the Muslim world in prior decades.

Now comes the Trump administration. Like its three predecessors, the Trump administration has built its policy approach to the Middle East on erroneous assumptions: that peace is delivered through strength, that Iran is the source of the Middle East’s seemingly interminable problems, and that maintaining low oil prices is in America’s eternal interest. The U.S. killing of Soleimani reflects the inherent danger within Washington’s ill-shaped perspective on current politics in the Middle East and should serve as a clarion call for a long-overdue reassessment of U.S. policy towards the region. Both Iran and the United States have since walked back from the precipice of war, but targeting someone like Soleimani in a fatal strike could very easily have dragged the U.S. into a conflict that, in the long run, it cannot win – and may also have strengthened the very factions inside Iran whose weakening would serve U.S. interests.

Learning from the Past

The knowledge necessary to avoid these missteps has been available for some time. The late British-American historian Bernard Lewis identified “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in prescient and lucid prose in 1990. Simply put: The Islamic world currently exists within a state of civil war, a battle royal over what religion’s role should be in the modern world not unlike Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Examples of this conflict abound. The “Arab Spring” in both Egypt and Tunisia quickly became a de facto public referendum on mosque and state, with the military and Muslim Brotherhood squaring off in Egypt and Tunisia attempting to find a more democratic and liberal path. The rivalry between religion and politics is built into the very fabric of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Recent reforms supported by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman show that even Riyadh is trying to strike the right balance between religion and state. The attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 was about the clash between a more religious-minded, conservative political faction and the secular Kemalist factions.

This conflict is more violent in some parts of the Muslim world than others, but in virtually every Muslim country it defines political discourse. In Uzbekistan, a once staunchly secular state is sponsoring what it hopes will be a more peaceful and compassionate version of Islam for Uzbekistan’s youth. In Indonesia, the politics of Islam was a defining feature of the April 2019 elections that saw incumbent President Joko Widodo retain his office. 

Muslims are not alone in facing this question. In Israel, the political movement known as Zionism is bifurcating into two separate camps: those who view a Jewish state in the Holy Land as a religious imperative, and those who harken back to the original political Zionists who viewed Israel as a specifically political and secular project. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has profound implications for India’s almost 200 million Muslims, but is at its core an argument about the relationship between politics and religious identity – and how much the latter should define the former. The barbarism of Christianity’s 17th century version of this conflict is, even today, in a class of its own. Islam in this sense is not exceptional. 

The Middle East, however, is exceptional, because this broader Muslim soul-searching has become hopelessly entangled with the region’s unique blend of ethnic and sectarian strife. The conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, for instance, is not about political Islam, but rather a struggle between ethnic groups. Yet on both sides, and especially in Turkey, where the Erdogan government wants to use its self-appointed role as global Islamic leader to further distinctly geopolitical aims, the broader religious question has become fused with a Turkish-Kurdish ethnic dispute. Same with the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry, which is arguably the most volatile bilateral relationship in the world today. The primary axes of that rivalry are ethnic (Arab-Persian) and sectarian (Sunni-Shiite), but the rivals’ strategy of engaging proxies in neighboring countries to hurt each other has inflamed the civil war Lewis identified in 1990. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to intervene in the region with anything approaching consistent moral grounds.

Moreover, a colossal and underappreciated shift has occurred in the Middle East in the last 17 years: There is no longer a foreign power with either the strength or requisite political will to dictate political realities in the region. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I destroyed the last indigenous source of resistance to Western power projection in the Middle East, and for generations, regional politics was a chess match between bigger, stronger external powers – France and Britain for dominance after World War I, Nazi Germany and the Allies during World War II, and eventually between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. China’s increasing military strength and thirst for Middle East oil may yet return the region to this dynamic, but in the short and even medium-term, not even the mighty United States is capable of shaping the Middle East to its liking – one of the many unlearned lessons of its disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

If these two dynamics – the broader intra-Muslim wars and the relative impotence of foreign powers in the Middle East – are indeed a more accurate portrayal of the region’s political status quo, it follows that neither the Trump’s administration’s policies, nor those of his predecessors, have been set up for success. “Peace through strength” is hardly a good policy when one isn’t strong enough. Regime change in Tehran (which I believe is the Trump administration’s main goal in Iran) is hardly a good policy when the source of regional instability is a broad, civilizational conflict raging within the world’s second-largest religion and not the activities of a single rogue regime, however nefarious. How is oil still a primary motivating factor in U.S. foreign policy when the United States became a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products last year? U.S. oil production now affects the price of oil more than the price of oil affects U.S. energy security, a fact that has gone underappreciated in the policy-making community.   

A more effective U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East should be centered around “three no’s”: no ISIS, no nukes, and no invasions. (ISIS in this case is a stand-in for all non-state actors in the region, not just ISIS itself.) All future U.S. policies toward the Middle East should be measured by whether and by how much they effectively enforce these principles. To combat non-state actors like ISIS, the United States should formalize the informal arrangement it had with Iran, Russia, and other strange bedfellows to ensure a would-be totalitarian, revisionist caliphate never gains significant power again. (Part of this arrangement must be that Iran ceases supporting non-state militias abroad as well.) To halt nuclear proliferation, Washington should use its considerable political and economic influence to push for a region-wide agreement on preventing the spread of these weapons – and destroying any existing weapons or materials. To prevent violations of national sovereignty, the U.S. should support a diplomatic initiative for the region’s states to guarantee the collective defense of any state attacked by another. Asian powers like China, Japan, and India, all dependent on Middle East oil supplies, should be asked to play a role more in line with their strategic dependence on the region – and Washington should make it clear that the U.S. military will not intervene unless its interests thus defined are directly threatened.

Achieving these imperatives will be difficult. Of the three, combating groups like ISIS and Iran’s Shiite militias may well be the easiest. Bringing the four major powers of the region – Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – to the same table, let alone getting them to agree on nuclear non-proliferation, will take immense diplomatic skill and endurance. Preventing violations of national sovereignty will mean resolving intractable problems, like the Kurdish desire for self-determination and the incessant Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Generations of Middle East residents have come of age in a zero-sum environment defined by conflict, not by cooperation, while Middle East governments need only look at the chaos around them to remind themselves of the dangers posed by domestic political unrest, external political intervention, and inter-state conflict, which will make it hard for states to consider the value of compromise. Washington must also normalize its relations not just with Iran, but with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and others. The U.S. can have no eternal allies or eternal friends in the region, and future relations with all Middle Eastern countries should be defined by present U.S. interests, not past performance or intractable conflict. The United States also needs to work not just with its allies, but with competitors like Russia and China, on areas of shared interests – which the three no’s comprise

These three no’s are obviously not a perfect solution. They are meant more as a conversation-starter than as a ready-made template for success. After the U.S. assassination of Soleimani, an act which represents the culmination not just of the Trump White House’s three years in office, but of 28-years of U.S. foreign policy mishaps in the region, it is a conversation that has never been longer overdue. It is not possible to go back in time and assassinate bin Laden or restore the pre-2003 Iraq-Iran balance of power, but just because the Middle East’s recent past has been violent and unstable does not mean its future must be the same. Only by more effectively defining and consistently pursuing a more coherent set of policy imperatives can the U.S. hope to disengage from this part of the world and focus on its far more pressing issues, both at home and abroad.

Jacob L. Shapiro is an independent writer, researcher, and consultant on geopolitical risk, global strategies, and international affairs. As the former director of analysis at Geopolitical Futures, he managed a team of analysts in forecasting geopolitical trends and events. Before that, he was a Middle East analyst and director of operations at the global intelligence firm, Stratfor. Mr. Shapiro holds a master’s degree from Oxford University in Jewish Studies and a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Near Eastern Studies. Follow him at @JacobShap.