Disentanglement will require both farsightedness and political courage.
By Paul R. Pillar
The National Interest
December 27, 2016
The National Interest
December 27, 2016
America’s concentration on the Middle East has persisted for a variety of reasons, some of them reflecting the region’s special characteristics and some having more to do with domestic politics or habit. There is oil, of course, which has been a major reason for special attention ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud on an American cruiser in the Suez Canal during the closing months of World War II. As the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, the Middle East is connected to the religiously rationalized violent extremism that has preoccupied Washington for the last fifteen years. Old habits dating from the Cold War, of viewing the region as a chessboard for great-power competition, have been encouraged by Russia’s recent activities there. And the attention feeds on itself; much of the hand-wringing over a conflict such as the one in Syria is due not only to admittedly bloody events on the ground but also to hand-wringing that already has taken place and sustains the notion that the conflict is somehow a test of U.S. mettle.
The new U.S. administration will not be able, any more than its predecessors, to formulate policy toward the Middle East from scratch, and it will be subject to the usual tyranny of the in-box. To some extent, devoting substantial attention to leftover problems is commendable. And the United States has broken a lot in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the new administration needs to return to basics and consider, with more care than most current policy debate exhibits, what in the region constitutes U.S. interests and what does not. The very extent of American involvement in the Middle East has implied many objectives (for example, deposing the president of Syria) that come to be mistakenly treated as if they were themselves U.S. interests. Moreover, responsibly devoting attention to what one has broken has too often digressed into treating sunk costs as investments to be actively worked in the hope of somehow getting a positive return—a view often taken toward Iraq, not surprising given the scale of the costs that the United States has sunk there.
A zero-based perspective would identify several important interests in the Middle East, even though collectively they are not commensurate with the U.S. resources that have been devoted to that region. Oil still matters, although in ways that have less to do with domestic consumption than with effects on the global economy. Reducing violent extremism is another legitimate interest in the Middle East, given its ability to physically harm American citizens and property. Although the connection between circumstances on the ground in the Middle East and terrorist threats in the West is routinely overstated, events in the region do inspire attacks elsewhere. The United States has an interest in the losing streak of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), to dispel any remaining winning image that would help to galvanize would-be radicals in the West.
Curbing weapons proliferation should be among the new administration’s priorities. A regional state whose nuclear program was the subject of much alarm—Iran—has had its program rolled back and any path to a nuclear weapon blocked by a multilateral agreement that went into effect in 2015. The agreement, which includes the most stringent restrictions and most comprehensive monitoring to which any state has willingly subjected its program, provides a model for further nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the region. In the meantime, however, proliferation of conventional weapons is the more serious problem, as punctuated by the scattering of Libya’s arsenal following the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The Middle East’s geographic status as a continental crossroads entails another set of interests, involving military access and transit and including uninhibited passage through the Suez Canal as an ingredient in the global projection of U.S. military power. But means should not be confused with ends. 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).
The United States also has an interest in averting armed conflict that becomes so severe that human suffering escalates and instability and refugees are exported. The basic point to remember is that the ill effects to be avoided flow from armed conflict itself, more so than from any specific outcome of a conflict. The most pressing U.S. interest in the Middle East is to minimize the expenditure of American blood and treasure and avoid actions that stimulate violent reprisals. This concept often gets disparaged as not being a basis for strategy and as nothing more than “don’t do stupid sh*t.” Whether the next administration refrains from doing stupid sh*t will be a big part of whether, four years from now, its policy meets with success or failure.
Some standards used to measure the supposed advance or retreat of U.S. interests in the Middle East should not be. One is democratization, notwithstanding the intrinsic value of popular sovereignty. Apart from providing channels for grievances that might otherwise find more violent and extreme avenues, it has little direct effect on U.S. interests in the region. The very weakness of democracy in the Middle East makes it a poor criterion for favoring some states over others. Tunisia is probably the most democratic country in the region, but it is small and peripheral to the issues that will most engage U.S. policymakers. In Israel and the territories it controls, a well-established democracy operates within the dominant population, but it is a system founded on ethnic and religious distinctions and in which a large subjugated population lacks political rights. Iran has presidential and parliamentary elections that matter and in which the entire population participates, but its democracy is vitiated by the power of unelected elements in the regime to do things such as arbitrary disqualification of candidates. Democracy in Lebanon is constrained by bargains struck by confessional groups, in Egypt, it is a formal facade for rule by a military strongman and, in monarchies such as Kuwait, elected assemblies, where they exist, can be dissolved at the whim of the monarch.
A misleading standard that has come into vogue more recently is treatment of the region in Cold War terms, in which increasing or decreasing Russian activity is equated with U.S. retreats or advances. This conception is flawed. There is no global ideological competition comparable to that between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the Middle East, there is no regional ideological corollary to Nasserite Arab socialism. Russian and U.S. interests in the region are not zero-sum. And besides, any Cold War–style scorecard would show that Moscow’s long-standing position in Syria is about its only direct and long-term presence in the region, and is far more modest than the U.S. positions from Egypt to Bahrain and much else in between.
One of the principal characteristics of the Middle East pertinent to policymaking during the next U.S. administration is the fallout of the Arab Awakening. The region is still trembling from upheaval; hopes for democracy and stability are all but dashed. Objectives of outside powers, including the United States, should be couched in terms not of any grand new direction for the region but rather of limiting damage from what is going on there already. Lines of conflict in the region are at least as complex as anywhere else in the world, with ethnic, religious, national and ideological affinities intersecting in ways that defy efforts to simplify. Oversimplifications represented by such concepts as axes of evil, region-wide lineups of moderates versus extremists or a Russia-Iran-Syria axis as the defining attribute of security problems in the region should be consigned to the garbage.
The Middle East is the scene of serial and recent U.S. military misadventures. The biggest of those misadventures, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, still accounts for much of the regional shaking, having stimulated civil warfare in Iraq, region-wide sectarian conflict and the birth of what became ISIS. The one win on an otherwise losing scorecard—the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991—was a response to a situation unlikely to recur during the next few years: naked aggression in which one state swallows another. Policymakers should take this history not as a basis for fear of using the military instrument but rather as a reminder to consider carefully its limitations and side effects before applying it to Middle Eastern problems.
WITH THAT background in mind, the 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.
U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be made with attention not just to addressing immediate problems but to what comes afterward, and what comes after that—the sort of attention that was sorely lacking with the decision to invade Iraq. Policymakers in Washington also need to consider carefully how their actions shape wider perceptions of the United States. Overall U.S. policy toward the Middle East in recent decades, especially including U.S. military activity there, has driven the perception that the United States is anti-Muslim—a perception that fuels violent anti-U.S. extremism and has reverberations beyond the Middle East itself.
THESE PRINCIPLES diverge in some obvious ways from prevailing public and political discourse in the United States about foreign policy. There is a strong tendency to assume that the United States can solve any significant problem overseas if it puts its mind (and its heart and its resources) to it. There is a propensity to think of the Middle East in terms of friends and foes, and of loyally supporting the former while confronting or isolating the latter. Certainly there is a politically driven inclination to think more about immediate situations, and to be seen doing something about them, than to focus on long-term repercussions. In some respects, the biggest challenge to the new administration will be in dealing with the inevitable domestic political opposition. Realistic policy proposals must consider the need to overcome that opposition, while remembering that sound policy cannot cave in to it.
Syria will be a prime subject of the most immediate clamoring for action. But the extremely complicated war—actually, a collection of wars—in Syria is a classic case of a mess with no good solution. Much criticism of current policy has consisted of exasperation over continuation of the deadly mess while giving insufficient attention to the inadequacies and uncertainties of any alternative. The difficulty of trying to pursue a good cause without also aiding bad ones is symbolized on the ground by the cooperation and intermixing of supposedly moderate opposition forces with the local Al Qaeda affiliate.
The United States does not have a significant interest in the political composition of a future regime in Damascus. “Assad must go” slogans should be discarded. The Assads provided the closest thing to stability that an independent Syria has ever known. The only conceivable alternatives in sight would be no better on the stability front and apt to be even less appealing ideologically. Bashar al-Assad will not realize his declared aim of recovering every inch of Syria, but neither is there a resolution of this war in sight that does not leave his regime, with Russian and Iranian backing, with the western spine of the country that it currently controls.
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. Being multilateral means going beyond the U.S.-Russia duopoly that crafted so many failed cease-fires and including Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states. U.S. diplomacy should build on shared interests in not seeing carnage continuing indefinitely, while recognizing relative motivations behind those interests that differ. Like it or not, Russia’s motivation to maintain its decades-old foothold in Syria, even with a client regime that rules only part of the country, is stronger than any corresponding U.S. interest there. The Assad regime’s motivation to continue to exist is stronger still.
The United States, meanwhile, continues to have an interest in the collapse of the ISIS ministate. Reduction of that entity already has enough momentum that the questions facing the new administration will be less about how to speed up that collapse than about cultivating conditions that are not conducive to violent extremism. There is no net gain to U.S. interests if less of ISIS means more of something like the Levant Conquest Front, the renamed Al Qaeda affiliate that has been fighting alongside “moderate” opponents of the Assad regime. In some places, the regime may be the least bad replacement for ISIS, as with the regime’s recapture of Palmyra earlier in 2016.
Next door in Iraq, ISIS will likely be dispossessed of Mosul by the time the new U.S. administration takes office. Specific questions will concern who gets to provide civilian administration over recaptured territory and how to manage what will probably be a lingering counterinsurgency in surrounding portions of northern Iraq. The United States does not have a stake in exactly how the lines of control and responsibility are drawn; it does have an interest in minimizing the infighting among opponents of ISIS that perpetuates instability and conflict in that part of Iraq. Several of the pertinent actors—including Turkey, Kurdish militias and the central government in Baghdad—are friends of the United States, which can use its good offices to reduce the fallout.
The next administration must confront larger issues in Iraq by helping Baghdad stand on its own feet. At the same time, a sustainable, stable Iraq will require a decentralized power structure. The Iraqi government does not face anything like the externally backed challenges to its existence that the regime in Damascus does, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has shown commendable understanding of the need for inclusiveness in governing the country. The United States should use its aid to encourage acting on that understanding, and use diplomacy to encourage others, especially the Gulf states, to support Abadi’s government. An open-ended presence of U.S. troops should not be part of this formula; such a presence does not buy long-term stabilizing habits of inclusiveness, as was demonstrated by the earlier failure of a much larger U.S. troop presence to buy such habits. It instead negates the concept of the regime standing on its own feet and introduces moral hazard by shielding any narrow-minded Iraqi policies from their security consequences.