The defining feature of the Middle East in 2008 is how utterly different it is from the region President Bush discovered when he entered the Oval Office. There is a “new Middle East”, but it is quite unlike the one many in Washington had hoped would emerge during this Administration.
The events of the past seven years demonstrate how manifestly unprepared the United States was for the challenges the Middle East presented. That the entire strategic landscape of the region has changed, and that much of the change has been caused by U.S. policy, adds a novel set of problems and a new layer of complexity to a place where so much is at stake for the United States. The next president will get to know the region well over the next four years, better than he will probably care to.
The themes of the current policy debate reflect disappointment and still some anxiety over the course of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the limits and counterproductive consequences of democracy promotion, and a sense of squandered and waning American power. President Bush clearly trapped himself in the lofty rhetoric of democratization, setting expectations far above the carrying capacity of objective reality. This self-wrought trap then limited the Administration’s options, making its choices appear to be either hypocritical or signs of weakness in the face of adversity. All this has led many policymakers, analysts and pundits to advocate retrenchment and more modesty when it comes to the Middle East.
Some retrenchment and more modesty are probably good things, but we must not overdo it. The United States has too many vital interests in the region to adopt a neo-isolationist attitude. The adjustments the next administration must make have to do not with a scaled-back conception of U.S. interests but rather with methods and tempo. As to methods, it is clear that many prevailing assumptions about the Middle East no longer apply, so old policy tools are unlikely to work as they once did, if at all. As to tempo, the next administration will need to moderate the metabolic rate, so to speak, of U.S. activities. There are times and places where less is more, and U.S. policy in the Middle East over the next four years will probably be a case in point. We cannot take on every problem we see all at once and expect to achieve our goals: This much, at least, the Bush Administration has taught us.
The next president will succeed in the Middle East if he seizes upon the right opportunities to stabilize Washington’s position, manage current crises and build a foundation for realizing larger goals beyond his first term. While new conditions may call for more modest objectives, achieving these aims will nonetheless require bold thinking.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It would be nice to believe that by the end of the next president’s term in January 2013 there will be peace and stability in the Middle East, that ballots will have taken the place of bullets, and that the region as a whole will be more amenable to American power. Unfortunately, policymakers must live in the real world. The problems that the United States confronts in the Middle East are so complex, varied and still poorly understood that it will take well beyond the tenure of a single presidency to repair the damage done over the past seven years.
But President Bush is not solely responsible for Washington’s dismal standing and strategic weakness in the Middle East. Analysts tend to discount how structural changes like globalization, the rise of China and India, unprecedented demand for energy, the reverberations of the demise of the Soviet Union and now the re-emergence of Russia would have complicated U.S. policy in the Middle East regardless of the Bush Administration’s strategy. Of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 also altered U.S. calculations.
Still, even with all this change, American interests remain largely fixed: oil, Israel, terrorism, rogue states and preventing other powers from dominating the region. After 9/11, some analysts and policymakers included building democracy in the Middle East among Washington’s vital interests in the region. Rather than an interest, however, democracy promotion was actually a new strategy for the United States to achieve its traditional interests. The central question for the next administration will be: What strategy should the United States employ to secure its main goals? Inevitably, the answer will depend to some extent on how the new administration understands how we got here.
During the Cold War and the first decade thereafter, the prevailing U.S. Middle East strategy was best described as “authoritarian stability.” Washington cared little about the character of regimes so long as they were pro-American and broadly supportive of U.S. actions in the region. As a result, the United States developed close strategic ties with a diverse array of kings, emirs and military officers who ruled their realms through normative appeals to Arab nationalism or religious exceptionalism, bribery, and a healthy dose of coercion. This strategy of support for the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders proved both efficient and successful. Countries like Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates maintained a regional order that was favorable to the United States and that did not require Washington to expend an inordinate amount of resources to sustain. Indeed, despite temporary setbacks such as the 1973 oil embargo and the Iranian revolution six years later, the record was remarkably positive.
Yet Washington’s support for the House of Saud, the Hashemites of Jordan, a variety of ruling families in the Gulf, the Moroccan monarchy and Egypt has brought with it a cost. Authoritarian political systems tend to breed political alienation, provide limited economic opportunity for the masses and make fertile ground for extremist ideologies. This environment not only sows ill will toward the United States but also contributes to terrorism. For the United States, Hosni Mubarak is the old soldier who has held the line on Islamist extremism, kept the Suez Canal open and maintained peace with Israel. Yet to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Washington has rendered once proud Egypt into a quisling of the United States, all in the service of Israel and oil. In bin Laden’s dark narrative, the “Zionist-Crusader” alliance, with the willing participation of corrupt and illegitimate leaders, has emasculated Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region to the great detriment of the umma. There is no denying that the U.S. policy of authoritarian stability placed New York and Washington in al-Qaeda’s crosshairs.
While fires were still burning in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, U.S. officials quietly determined that the entire framework that had guided foreign policy in the Middle East was no longer relevant. In order to “drain the swamp” of would-be terrorists, the Bush Administration embarked on an ambitious effort to promote democracy in the Arab Middle East. Of course, bin Laden’s critique had little to do with the fact that Arab regimes were non-democratic. Nevertheless, the architects of the policy theorized that if disaffected young men could process their grievances through democratic institutions, fewer would bomb American embassies, attack U.S. warships, or fly civilian airliners into buildings.
Even assuming that democratizing the Middle East was possible on a relevant timeline, neither officials responsible for democratization nor analysts working on transitions in the Middle East have ever satisfactorily explained how the United States was to secure its interests during the unstable and politically fraught short- and mid-term points of a democratic transition. As a result, the Bush Administration backed away from the democracy agenda after a strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary election and Hamas’s electoral victory in January 2006. The reaction to elections in Egypt and Palestine, along with the intensification of civil war in Iraq, thoroughly discredited the idea of democracy promotion among Arabs and many Americans.
It seems implausible, however, that Washington can revert to a policy of authoritarian stability. For better or worse, the Bush Administration has helped unleash forces in the Middle East that are unlikely to be reversed. One option for the next administration is to continue supporting the expansion of political and individual rights, independent judiciaries, the rule of law and accountability while also continuing to work with its regional partners on the important issues of the day. The inherent contradictions of such an approach are likely to further complicate relations with Arab leaders who are unwilling to make a deal in which they are expected to gradually reform themselves out of power while continuing to carry water for Washington.
Instead of supporting non-democratic leaders or grandiose projects like the “forward strategy of freedom”—or even splitting the difference between the two efforts—the next president will need to triage the region, repair the damage and establish a foundation upon which to pursue broader goals beyond his first term. In practice, this means a strategy of decoupling and disentanglement that requires Washington and its regional allies to pursue policies more independently and the United States to extricate itself from the tactical minutiae associated with trying to engineer the political trajectory of the region. It is important to underscore that the goal must not be to withdraw from the Middle East. Rather, a new approach requires the United States to remain active, but with a redrawn set of policy priorities that reflect the significant changes in the region. Applying this strategy to the four primary issues confronting the United States—the emergence of potential competitors in the region, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Washington’s position in Iraq and America’s ties with its strategic allies—will shore up and create new opportunities for American diplomacy.
As Richard Haass has observed, the period of American primacy in the Middle East that began after the first Gulf War has come to an end.11.
Haass, “The New Middle East”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2006). It has ended for reasons having much to do with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the power of non-state actors in the Middle East and political blunders associated with democracy promotion. Regime change in Iraq has contributed to an Iranian moment in the Middle East. This has less to do with the sectarian kinship between Iranian and Iraqi Shi‘a and more to do with geopolitics (though the pull between the communities is palpable). By accidents of geography, geology and theology, Iraq and Iran were natural competitors and balancers. The existence of a powerful Iraq precluded Iran from dominating the Persian Gulf, and vice versa. That logic, which held for the better part of the post-World War II era, no longer applies, and there is no regional candidate who can counter Iran effectively.
Iran’s rise has become a vexing issue for American policymakers. Over the last three years, the foreign policy establishment has been engrossed in a pointless debate over whether to “engage” Iran. One camp argues that Washington should talk to its enemies in order to clarify positions and explore potential areas of cooperation. The other group steadfastly opposes dialogue with Tehran on the grounds that it is a bad actor and that efforts to negotiate will only embolden the clerical regime. This group recommends a muscular, even military, response to Iran’s challenge.
Elements of both arguments have merit, but they are strangely divorced from reality. Iran has remained unmoved by either carrots or sticks when it comes to its nuclear development project. Britain, France, Germany, the EU collectively, the IAEA, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even the United States have engaged Iran on a variety of issues for some time, yet this has not altered its behavior. Although the efficacy of air strikes is uncertain at best, it is almost assured that Iran would raise a storm of violence in Iraq, Iran, Gaza and southern Lebanon in response.
The next president must understand that Iran’s drive for nuclear capability does not reflect messianic lunacy. Rather, it is a rational response to the array of threats that Tehran perceives. The Bush Administration has consistently spoken of regime change in Iran, and America maintains large contingents of military forces on the country’s borders. It is entirely logical that Iran would seek to keep the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan while building its ultimate guarantee for survival, nuclear weapons. Of course, Washington could end its call for regime change, but maintaining large military forces in and around the Persian Gulf is inevitable given its core regional interests. As a result, Iran will continue to perceive a threat and, in turn, carry on its nuclear development.
Because Tehran’s nuclear ambition is rooted in a coherent perception of threat, there is no reason to believe that the United States does not have the capacity to deter and contain Iran. Throughout the dark days of the Cold War, the United States undertook a massive effort to deter a competitor bent on global domination. It is only the erroneous assumption that Russians are rational but Persians are not that makes containment and deterrence seem questionable.
Politically, acknowledging that Iran will ultimately acquire nuclear weapons is a tough sell not only in the United States, but also in the Middle East. The Saudis and Israelis in particular may be outraged, and a variety of friendly states in the region may seek to acquire a nuclear capacity of their own. To delay or forestall this likelihood, the United States should formally extend its nuclear umbrella to its allies in the region. The umbrella has to cover not only protection against a nuclear weapons attack, but, as in the Cold War, it must follow the logic of deterrence down to the conventional military level: Iran must not be allowed to launch or threaten conventional attacks in the belief that its nuclear shield will make such aggression relatively cost-free. Such a strategy is certainly possible in the Middle East in the years ahead, just as it was in Europe during the Cold War. While this represents a dramatic change in policy, the next administration would be wasting time and resources if it pursued policies based either on engagement or possible military confrontation. If Washington wants to ensure by 2013 that Iran will not realize its regional ambitions, then deterring the Iranians is the best option.
A Resurgent Bear
Iran is not the only possible strategic competitor to the United States in the Middle East. As the power of the United States wanes, some observers have posited that China’s growth and energy needs will compel Beijing to take a more active and influential role in the Middle East. Although the Chinese are investing in a variety of countries around the region, the “Silk Road” metaphor is overblown. Moscow’s activities in the region are in fact more consequential than Beijing’s. Russia has taken a number of steps ranging from weapons sales to investment to cultural exchanges to signal that the Bear is Back.
Russia has certain baggage left over from the Soviet period, but, more important, its crony-capitalist, authoritarian political system meshes well with those of the Middle East, whose leaders can be assured that Moscow will not badger them about human rights and democratic reform. Moscow’s role in obstructing Western efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear proliferation makes it clear that the United States has little leverage with a resurgent Russia. By 2013, Moscow will likely be an even bigger player in the Middle East, complicating U.S. efforts to secure its interests. Russian influence and mischief-making is likely to be a fact of life for American policymakers. Given the resources at Moscow’s disposal and Washington’s weakened regional position, the United States is going to have to accept the reality that Middle Eastern actors will again have a choice of patrons.
Israel/Palestine: Too Many Babies
It is extraordinary that, although the contours of a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians are well known, peace has defied diplomatic efforts over the past forty years. Despite the efforts of the Bush Administration in late 2007 and 2008, the prospects for a deal are limited. Beyond the diplomatic pageantry of the Annapolis summit and the symbolism of President Bush’s two visits to Israel and Palestine in January and May, the conditions on the ground simply do not lend themselves to a diplomatic breakthrough. It is not just that rocket fire from the Gaza Strip (where there are no settlements) continues to rain down on the Israeli town of Sderot, or that Israeli settlement construction persists in the West Bank; in the past two years, there have been two unprecedented and profound changes in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
First, Israel’s effort to destroy Hizballah during the summer of 2006 laid bare Israeli weakness. The war was fought to re-establish the deterrent capability that Israel’s military believed was damaged after its May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. Ironically, its literal accomplishments notwithstanding, it had precisely the opposite effect. Israel’s perennial political divisions and paralysis compound this new strategic weakness, making it difficult for Israeli leaders to pursue coherent foreign and national security policies, particularly when it comes to the Palestinian problem.
Second, there are two Palestinian governments, which are in an undeclared state of war against each other. One government, under the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, has sworn to achieve the destruction of Israel. The leaders of the other government, based in Ramallah, are so weak that only the goodwill of the United States and the military capability of the Israel Defense Forces keep them in power. Into this complex and unpromising situation, the United States has undertaken a major diplomatic effort, a central feature of which is to referee between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) over who is upholding their commitments to the road map for peace—the very same road map that the Israelis and Palestinians consistently violated from the moment the document was promulgated in 2003.
To make the point more broadly: For all the efforts of previous Administrations, Washington has never been able to raise the costs of occupation for Israelis or the use of violence by the Palestinians to the point that either side has seen fit to desist. Largely for this reason, American diplomacy has been unsuccessful in lowering the costs of negotiation and compromise for Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike. Mediating between the Israelis and Palestinians and, as a consequence, being sucked into their complicated internal politics have harmed the United States.
The next president should walk away from the road map, cancel Lieutenant General William Fraser’s mission to arbitrate disputes between Palestinians, and suppress the temptation to hold grand peace conferences. Washington needs to get back to basics and understand exactly what its interests are in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. For better or worse, a variety of strategic, moral and domestic political reasons mean that the United States has an enduring interest in Israel’s security. Yet precisely for this reason Washington must press Israel hard to uproot its outposts and abandon its settlements throughout the West Bank.
Hamas bombers commit grisly acts of murder and Qassam rockets terrorize, but they are not existential threats to Israel. Palestinian babies are. Should our next president be re-elected, by the end of his second term in January 2017 there will likely be equal numbers of Jews and Arabs inhabiting the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In as little as a decade after that, there will likely be more Arabs living in that territory than Jews. At that time, if Israel still occupies the West Bank, it will either cease to be Jewish or become an apartheid-like state. This is a nightmare scenario that could only be reversed if the entire American Jewish community immigrated to Israel en masse (highly unlikely) or if the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank.
President Bush took a first step in this direction in January 2008 in Ramallah when he stated, “Israel must end its occupation.” The next president ought to ensure that this declaration does not become some sort of sop to the Palestinians but a policy priority that is situated first and foremost in the long-term viability of the Zionist project. It is unreasonable to believe that the Israelis will have withdrawn from all of the West Bank within five years, but the principle of ending the occupation should have become the central feature of Washington’s approach to Israel by 2013. This would require Washington to invest heavily in security guarantees for Israel and to push for critical changes to the route of the barrier Israel is constructing. The Israelis have every right to protect themselves however they see fit, but the blatant land grab inherent in the planned course of the barrier will ultimately undermine the security the wall is supposed to provide.
Such an approach will likely arouse the ire of some Israelis and Israel supporters in the United States, yet taboo subjects tend not to be as politically potent as often believed. Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Bush nor Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was punished politically for negotiating with Yasir Arafat, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state, or withdrawing from Gaza, respectively. Moreover, when Israel’s supporters around the globe understand the full implications of continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank, most of them are likely to support a new strategy to secure Israel’s survival.
Iraq: The Long Goodbye
The security situation in Iraq has improved since the summer and fall of 2007, though considerable violence continues and the U.S. military is unwilling to declare victory (unlike some pundits). By the middle of 2008, there were tantalizing signs of normalcy in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala provinces seemed relatively secure, sectarian violence was way down, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was shaking off the torpor and ineptitude of previous years, and some displaced Iraqis were returning home.
No one can know for certain, however, whether the improved security situation is durable now that U.S. forces have drawn down to their pre-surge level of 15 brigades. It’s possible that the insurgency is lying in wait for an opportune moment to return to the battlefield. It is also possible that the Sunni tribes who have taken part in the Concerned Local Citizens program, bringing stability to Anbar province and elsewhere, will turn their guns on the Shi‘a-based government in Baghdad. Then again, the program may have achieved a balance of resolve, if not a balance of terror, between the Sunni tribes and Shi‘a militias. Or there may even be genuine political reconciliation. Iraq has defied understanding for so long that an objective analysis would have to come to the conclusion that any one of these scenarios is possible, and perhaps others as well.
If violence waxes in Iraq, it is unlikely that the next administration will be able to disentangle itself. Under these circumstances, Washington will continue to confront the extraordinary catch-22 that it has faced since the beginning of its occupation: U.S. forces must leave, but they are unable to do so as long as there is instability and violence. Nevertheless, a central tenet of U.S. policy should be disentanglement by January 2013. Disentanglement means not just military withdrawal, though it does provide an opportunity to bring large numbers of troops home; Washington must also understand that its ability to affect Iraq’s political trajectory is limited. Consequently, the best way to achieve stability in Iraq is for the United States to lower its profile there so that Iraqis can find solutions to their own problems.
Since 2004, Washington has posted three of its smartest and most talented diplomats in Baghdad, but Ambassadors John Negroponte, Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker, despite tremendous effort, have not made much progress in the search for the Holy Grail of political progress in Iraq. Congress, too, has tried to force the Iraqis to negotiate through benchmarks and repeated calls for Iraqi politicians to take responsibility. Most of these calls have fallen on deaf ears. This is not to suggest that Iraqi politicians are needlessly dragging their feet, but demands from Washington tend to have the effect of hindering the political process. In addition to the complicated, cross-cutting political pressures that make it difficult to make political deals, there is the fact that none of Iraq’s factions wants to be seen as a lackey of the United States.
Not only is a strategy of disentanglement good for Iraq by facilitating Iraq’s return to the region, but it will also be beneficial to the United States. It would allow the United States to pursue its interests in the Middle East without the shackles of a profoundly unpopular occupation. Though the consequences of the invasion will likely be felt for decades to come, significantly reducing Washington’s profile would undermine a mechanism for extremist mobilization that has been important to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. This approach would also free military and economic resources to deter Iran, thereby helping to ensure that oil continues to flow freely from the Persian Gulf.
Riyadh and Cairo
Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have found it increasingly difficult to contend with new political currents and forces buffeting a region in which they have long been dominant. For the Saudis, the most unnerving changes are the related issues of Sunni-ruled Iraq’s demise, Iran’s rise and the upsurge of Shi‘a consciousness in the region as a whole. The Saudis have been particularly clumsy in dealing with the latter issue. First, they have been decidedly cool toward the Shi‘a government in Iraq, creating tension with their strategic ally, the United States. Second, during the opening week of the war in Lebanon in 2006, Riyadh’s harsh rebuke of Hizballah implied that the organization was colluding with Iran to inflict unnecessary damage on the Arab nation writ large. The statement was clearly intended to impress upon the Arab world precisely what Jordan’s King Abdallah and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak averred a year earlier: The allegiances of Arab Shi‘a were not to Beirut, Riyadh or Manama, but to Tehran and Qom.
But the Saudis miscalculated. Finding themselves on the wrong side of Arab public opinion, which apparently sets aside sectarian divisions when it comes to “resistance” against Israel, they were forced to back away from their critique of Hizballah.
To the Egyptians, Iran’s effort to extend its influence in the region and the rise of the Shi‘a as a political and social force are also problems, as they further reinforce the widely held notion that Cairo’s regional power is declining. Yet the primary reasons Egypt is on the defensive are domestic. Egyptians are currently playing out the first act in the post-Hosni Mubarak drama. As a result, the political leadership and the elite are absorbed with a range of internal issues, including a failed social contract, an overburdened infrastructure and the prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the available indicators suggest the President’s son Gamal will follow his father, it remains an open question whether all the relevant political actors will accept this succession. Uncertainty and political dysfunction have encouraged the security services to step into the breach and initiate a widespread crackdown on political dissent.
The fact that Washington’s two primary Arab interlocutors are disoriented and unable to significantly shape developments in the region does not bode well for the United States. One could make the argument that, for all their liabilities, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have long been able to leverage the considerable political, financial, diplomatic and even military resources at their disposal to shape an environment favorable to U.S. interests. Still, in the changed environment of the Middle East, Washington should decouple from both countries. After all, the two states, especially Saudi Arabia, have been on this trajectory for some time. In the summer of 2001, Saudi Arabia’s longtime Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, delivered a message from then-Crown Prince Abdallah to the newly elected President Bush. The note explained to the President that Washington’s inaction in stemming the tide of escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis had led the Saudis to determine that it was time for them to go their “own way.” It took a bit longer, but the government of Egypt also expressed deep frustration with Washington, albeit in more implicit ways.
Decoupling does not require Washington to sever ties with its two most important Arab interlocutors. Despite the difficulties Saudi Arabia and Egypt are currently encountering, they remain regional heavyweights, and thus they will always be critical to the United States in the Middle East. Nevertheless, a healthy bit of distance will help the United States achieve its goals in the region. The logic of such an approach is clear: Given the difficulties in Iraq, the Arabs’ widely held perception of Washington’s uncritical support for Israel, the revelations of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and the prosecution of the war on terror, close identification with Washington saps the regional credibility, power and influence of both the Saudis and Egyptians. For example, Hizballah, Syria and Iran have used Saudi and Egyptian ties with the United States to discredit Riyadh and Cairo as champions of Arab and Muslim causes. Throughout 2006 and the first half of 2007, this credibility deficit complicated Saudi and Egyptian efforts to effectively mediate intra-Palestinian disputes, resulting in a civil conflict that drove Fatah from Gaza.
In a world where Tehran harbors aggressive foreign policy designs and threatens to eclipse the influence of Cairo and Riyadh, Washington will find it less costly if the Saudis and Egyptians establish policies independent of the United States. Policymakers might not always like the results, but the strategy will provide an opportunity for Saudi Arabia and Egypt to regain lost ground, making it relatively easier to ensure Washington’s core interests in the region. Although there is a paradox at the heart of this argument, it is important to understand that, unlike Iran, the long-term interests of Saudi Arabia and Egypt do overlap with those of the United States.
If the United States is going to successfully manage the manifold issues that cut across the Middle East, it must modify its underlying assumptions about how to achieve its goals. While changes in the region over the last seven years have added new complexity to many problems, they have also opened up new opportunities for U.S. policy. Taking into account its decreased capacity to influence regional developments, Washington needs a policy that marshals its resources and uses them efficiently in the service of its historic interests in the Middle East. Through a new strategy that, by the end of the next president’s term, disentangles and decouples the United States from Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Washington will have established a new set of principles and policies—deterrence, withdrawal and distance—that provides a solid foundation for securing its interests in the decades to come.
Haass, “The New Middle East”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2006).