Imagine trying to follow a critical baseball or football game—a World Series finale or a Superbowl, say—without being able to see it in person or even on TV, without knowing which players are in the lineups at any given time, and without even having access to a real-time eyewitness play-by-play over the radio or the internet. All you have to go on is delayed second- and third-party accounts whose unbiased reliability cannot be firmly established, and, worse, whose motive to obfuscate or “spin” the facts has to be assumed. That’s a little like what trying to follow U.S. foreign policy feels like right now, U.S. Mideast policy in particular. Things are happening even amid some internal debate and disagreement. Assessments and decisions are being made, and those judgments, large and small, are bearing consequences. But for those who aren’t calling the pitches and flashing the signs to hitters and base-runners, and who can’t even follow the game in real time, it’s frustrating trying to figure out what’s going on because what we do know of the decision-making process could conceivably fit into more than one explanatory template.
The sports metaphor is obviously a limited one. U.S. foreign policy is not a game. No score can be expressed in numbers than makes any sense. There are more than two teams. Lineups are neither symmetrical nor fixed. Offense and defense are not sharply distinguished. The competition doesn’t ever exactly end. The rules are diffuse. There are no umpires, aside, perhaps, from the unrelenting logic of strategic interaction. But you still get the basic idea: Important stuff is going down, but we on the outside can only infer what it is. And this is a “big game.” Unprecedented instability in the Middle East, whatever else it’s doing, is teeing up an unprecedented number of generative decision points for U.S. officials, creating path-dependent realities we’ll be living with for decades. These are molten times, so the demands to “get it right” now reach incandescent levels of intensity (or they should).
We know most of the discrete decision points: What to do about the Syrian civil war? How best to stop or limit the Iranian military-nuclear program? What to do about a re-fracturing Iraq? How to stop the contagion from Syria and Iraq from spreading into Jordan and Lebanon? How to handle the critical Turkish angle viz Syria and Iraq and the Kurds amid a new and potentially far-reaching Turkish political crisis? How far and in which ways and with what relative priority to push Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations? How to influence post-“Arab Spring” political developments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere? How to think about the burgeoning sectarian cleavages in the region and relate it specific countries? How the counter-proliferation portfolio relates to the other challenges in the region? How to refashion the U.S counterterror intelligence footprint given the withdrawal of so many platforms and personnel from Iraq and, prospectively, Afghanistan?
What is striking about these decision points is how many of them there are right now, and how diverse, difficult and intertwined they tend to be. This is not normal. That observation in turn leads to other questions: Does the Obama Administration have a strategic theory of the case as regards the region as a whole that can tie all of these discrete points together in some overarching logical framework? And is that theory of the Middle Eastern case, if it exists, consciously related to global strategic objectives of some sort? If it does and if it is, whose theory is it? The President’s? The Secretary of State’s? Someone else’s? Are the principals agreed or not—on some of it, most of it, all of it?
This is not a simple set of questions because different Presidents and principals have demonstrably different styles of relating strategic abstractions to policy behavior. Some do have explicit theories of the case and exert themselves consistently to match behavior to strategy. The Nixon-Kissinger tenure was the quintessence of such an approach, but, tutored by World War and disciplined by Cold War, the Eisenhower and Kennedy-Johnson Administrations approximated it.
Some Administrations have had highly abstract, often thickly moralist theories of the case, but these theories have been too abstract to marshal consistent discipline in a policy process. They often leave subordinates to guess and argue over what the President wants. That circumstance typified both the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies, and to some extent the Carter presidency as well.
Some Presidents and their closest advisers have deeply practiced intuitions about policy, but are not so keen on formal strategy exercises or explicit strategies. The Bush-Scowcroft-Baker team exemplified this approach, as did the Truman-Acheson team. A President can have a disposition toward strategy without having a formal strategy as such, and in very fluid times that may be most he can have, or should want. This is possible because when discrete decisions come before the President, there are not a large number of choices he can make by the time they get there. His instincts can cause those decision points to cluster a certain way even if he cannot fully or consistently articulate why he has decided as he has in a fashion that would satisfy a Kissinger, a Brzezinski, an Acheson or even a Scowcroft.
Some Presidents seem to have no use for strategy at all, are not adept or comfortable thinking in such terms, and so tend to deal with unavoidable foreign policy decision points on a case-by-case basis. The Clinton-Christopher period illustrates this approach.
And Barack Obama? Is this Administration’s foreign policy just distracted ad hocery, as many claim, and as some evidence from the process side suggests? Or, agree with it or not, does it have, as others claim, an explicit strategic theory of the case that embraces the world and the Middle East as a part of it? Or, like the George H.W. Bush Administration, does the Obama Administration have highly intelligent (or highly misguided) instincts that fall short of explicit, formal strategy, but that are nevertheless driving policy in a particular direction over time? Which is it? How do we know? What counts as evidence?
In the following several posts, I will attempt to answer these questions. But before an answer can make much sense we need first to understand more about the novelty of a thoroughly destabilized Middle East, and how it got that way. Then we will look briefly at some of the aforementioned discrete Middle Eastern decision points (Syria, Iran and Iraq) in hopes that a characteristic pattern of Obama Administration decision-making emerges from them. Then, maybe, we’ll be able to accurately characterize the Obama Administration’s approach, putting us in a position to make some judgments about how wise it is, and what it’s likely to lead to. Onwards!
Over the past seventy or so years a kind of intellectual tic developed among casual Western observers of the “Middle East” that has held the region to be “unstable.” (I put Middle East in scare quotes to suggest that said casual observers have been casual, too, about defining the region they mean.) Well, like a lot of things, a region is stable or unstable only by comparison to some place else, or the same place at different times. Hence, how one defines the area one is talking about obviously affects comparisons.
So, if said casual Western observers have meant by “Middle East” just the “Arab-Israeli” conflict zone alone (and they often have), then wars in 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1970-71, 1973, 1982 and so on, “peacetime” periods speckled by acts of terrorism, reprisals, raiding, assassinations and the like, probably qualify that area as highly unstable compared to Europe, South America, and most of Asia during the Cold War. If observers meant the Levant or the Gulf or North Africa or more broadly the “Arab world”, or even more broadly the “Muslim world”, the instability label fit a lot less snugly. Yes, there were palace coups and assassinations and military interventions into politics and a few insurgencies, civil wars and other incidents of mass political violence within countries in all of these defined zones. But there was really only one bona fide interstate war that did not involve Israel, and none that pitted Arab states directly against one another.
There were also some very long-lived, highly stable regimes: Qaddafi in Libya from September 1969 to October 2011; the Assads in Syria from November 1970 to date; Mubarak in Egypt from October 1981 to February 2012; the Ba’ath in Iraq, mostly under Saddam Hussein, from July 1968 until March 2003, and one could go on. Of course cemeteries are stable, too, so stability is not always a good thing, as most of us imagine, to healthy civil societies. But I am using “stability” in a descriptive, social science sense—no more, no less.
You can get some idea of how relatively stable the Middle East has been for most of the past 60-70 years, dating to just before the end of 2010, by comparing it to what’s going on now. Now the region as a whole—all of it, pretty much, however you define it—is unstable. Really unstable. It could get even worse and probably will, but this, folks, is what instability looks like—this is the real deal. This is an entire region engaged in the political equivalent of a demolition derby, except that no one seems to be having any fun.
Consider: There are no conventional cross-border wars going on right now, but we’ve got just about everything else wherewith to make an instability cocktail. Civil wars and active major insurgencies? Check: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia (the latter two if you include non-Arab countries). Political violence just short of institutionalized insurgencies? Check: Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon and, arguably, Algeria. Merely frightened or weak governments to one degree or another? Check: Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan and both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Ordinarily well-institutionalized governments in political crisis, and not in control of their entire national territory? Check: Turkey. The only two major countries in the region (I’m excluding three Gulf families or collections of families with flags: Oman, Qatar and the UAE) that are in control of their national territory and are not in their own estimation teetering on the brink of some internal meltdown are Iran and Israel. And long before the rest of the region convalesces those two may go to war.
Moreover, as many observers have pointed out, we’re not looking just at some two dozen countries in trouble, we’re looking at more than a few whose very existence as polities is in jeopardy. That certainly goes for Syria, and it probably goes for Iraq. The existence of an integral Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan very long into the future is no sure bet either. The prospect of regime upheaval (not government administration change but actual regime change, properly defined) against the monarchies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco is far from zero. The rise of pan-Kurdish nationalism has implications for the territorial configurations of Iran and Turkey as well as of Iraq and Syria. “Palestine”, less than a polity but more than a figment of political imagination, has long been in limbo and, current negotiations notwithstanding, is likely to remain there for quite a while. So we’re not just talking about the sum of individual country troubles, we’re talking about an entire regional state subsystem undulating and disintegrating from the decay of some of its units and the growing weakness and unpredictability of other units.
One good tic deserves another, I suppose. Just as casual Western observers used to be quick to disparage the Middle East’s instability, they were and remain determined to blame someone for it. The American mainstream press operates biographically: who’s up, who’s down; who’s screwed up and who hasn’t (yet). This saves journalists and editors from having to actually understand issues, and, besides, they’re probably right to think that most of their readers prefer it that way. High-brow gossip trumps actual analysis, in spades.
The result of this habit is that, depending on their politics mostly, some blame President Obama for the Middle Eastern mess we behold today. He should, they archly declare, have intervened early in Syria. He should have supported the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009. He should have stood by Mubarak, even as Mubarak’s own colleagues were throwing him over the side. And had he done all this and a nearly endless list of other things he should have done but did not do, or that he did do but should not have done, everything would be fine today.
Others prefer to blame George W. Bush and the neocons. It was the Iraq War that caused all of this. I’m not kidding; there’s a short essay called “What the War in Iraq Wrought” in the New Yorker, dated January 15, by a journalist named John Lee Anderson that blames everything wrong in the region, even by implication what’s happening in Egypt, on the Iraq War because that’s what supposedly created the sectarian demon loosed on the Middle East today.
Some are more ecumenical in their revisionism: The United States caused all the trouble, all the administrations dating back as far as anyone can remember them. Or it’s the British, or the French, or the generic West, or the Russians, or (of course, lest we forget) the Jews. It rarely seems to occur that the peoples of the region might just bear some responsibility for their own situation. And it virtually never occurs that looking for someone to blame is perhaps not the best way to go about understanding regional realities.
It is especially annoying when people who really ought to know better do such things, doubly so when they do it in mea culpa mode. I was stunned when I heard President Bush say in 2003, “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy the Middle East, and we achieved neither”, a statement that Condoleezza Rice repeated often while Secretary of State (which inclination, more than anything else, led me away from her service). In other words, the reason that Arab countries were not democracies, and hence produced terrorists, is not because of thousands of years of their own historical and cultural experiences, but because of U.S. foreign policy decisions over the previous six decades. This is the argument that leftwing critics of U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in a Cold War context used to make; for avowedly conservative Republicans to start making it was truly breathtaking, not least because, no matter who makes it, it is absurd.
We did too achieve stability for those 60 years; by any reasonable measure, U.S. Cold War-era Middle East policy was a success. Far more important and to the point, it was never in our power in any case to turn Arab states into democracies. This is something George W. Bush (I hope) has by now learned the hard way, and Dr. Rice too. It is astounding that even when we criticize ourselves we do it with a dollop of hubris larger than Mt. McKinley: It’s always all about us. Except that it isn’t. The United States is not and never has been the determining factor in everything that goes on in the Middle East, or anywhere else abroad for that matter (except maybe Panama for a time). We need to get over ourselves.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that what Presidents decide is totally without effect. For good or ill, the United States does matter some most of the time, and a lot at least some of the time. The Iraq War turned out to be ill-advised, certainly the way it was fought if not the decision itself. The way we decided to operate in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime amounted to another mistake, though it’s taken more time for that mistake to become clear to most observers. Screwing up these two wars has amounted to a strategic defeat for the United States in the wider region, and every U.S. ally and partner has suffered from this defeat accordingly, just as all U.S. adversaries and competitors have gained to one degree or another.
The Obama Administration inherited this defeat, decided to cut U.S. loses, and we’ll see later if by doing so it has made things worse or not. Certainly the oscillation between crusading interventionism and the subsequent American recessional under Obama has had its own disorienting impact. As to the broader implications of recent U.S. policies, the Iraq War did stoke the coals of sectarian division into a fire, but it did not create them. The recrudescence of Sunni-Shi’a violence goes back proximately to 1973-74, the year that the quadrupling of oil prices both set the stage for the collapse of the Pahlavi regime in Iran and bankrolled Saudi wahhabism, setting up a collision to come between extremist Sunni and Shi’a clerics (not that sectarian conflict in Islam is exclusively theological in nature, anymore than the 16th century Wars of the Reformation were). Had the Obama Administration early on and effectively quashed the Syrian situation, it might have earned a delay in the region’s sectarian clash—but probably no more than that, since the demon had already broken its chains earlier in Iraq and had already made deadly visitations as far away as Pakistan.
Factors inherent to the region explain most of what is happening now. With few exceptions, the Arab states are weak relative to their tribal societies and sectarian identities. These weak states, most of which are heterogeneous ethnically or in sectarian terms, have been unable to devise effective loyalty formulae or achieve strong records of economic growth or social justice over the years. Many have been bitten hard by the resource curse. The strongly patriarchal, authoritarian bias of these societies has hindered adaptation to many aspects of modernity, not least their ability to create open market economies in place of the radical elite-rentier distortions that have characterized every single one of the Arab countries, republic and monarchy alike, from the beginning of the independence era.
For all these deficiencies the Arab state elites have preferred to blame the West, the United States and especially Israel, and the only thing more bizarre than this is the credulity of so many Westerners in believing them. Sure, the artificiality of many of the territorial states created in the wake of World War I has not helped, but it’s not been the only or the main impediment in most cases so many decades later, and it’s certainly not something anyone can reasonably blame on President Bush, President Obama or the United States in general.
Suffice it to say, messes like the ones we see today in the Middle East have lots of causes, some remote, some more proximate. They are hard to disentangle, and even harder to communicate to people who, frankly, don’t care to know if it gets in the way of their blame game, which some pursue because it’s politically useful and others pursue because they really just don’t know any better. Look, you can lead a political partisan to knowledge but you can’t make him think.