Coping with Kaleidoscopic Change in the Middle East

Remarks to the 22nd Annual National Council’s Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference

I come before you this morning at this important conference with many questions and no answers.

Much of the Middle East is now in turmoil. It has always been a mosaic of tribes, sects, and peoples, but its previously largely static tableau has become a kaleidoscope. The pieces are being moved by conflicts between states, religions, sects, ideologies, and ethnic groups. The situation reminds one of other circumstances in which chaotic change has overwhelmed existing order. I recall the Chinese classic, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which describes such a time. Its first English translation was published about the time that Mr. Sykes and M. Picot gave the Levant its current borders. Its opening words are: “Empires wax and wane; states cleave asunder and coalesce.” The rest of the book vividly depicts the unpredictable course by which this can happen.

Our past actions in the Middle East account for more than a little of the current unpredictability of events there. Iraq continues the civil wars the U.S. occupation catalyzed. One thousand civilians are now dying there by political violence each month. The withdrawal of NATO and most, if not all U.S. forces from Afghanistan will leave behind a weak, incompetent, and corrupt regime, an unresolved insurgency, and a much bigger opium economy than before we decided to pacify the place. But why dwell on our strategic achievements when we have the future to talk about?

Too many forces are acting upon the Middle East kaleidoscope for anyone to know what pattern it will yield when it finally comes to rest, as — in time, perhaps after a considerable time — it will. The bitterly stalemated Israel-Palestine dispute was long the principal source of political radicalization and violence within the region. It has lost none of its power to inspire hatred but it has been joined in that role by other contests of equal or greater intensity. These include confrontations between Saudi Arabia, its allies, and Iran; between Iran and Israel; between Salafi Muslims, Copts, other Christians, Shiites, Alawites, and Druze; between Sunni Jihadis and Shiite apostles of both clerical rule and secularism; between traditions of shura led by an emir and winner-take-all electoral politics; between righteous secularism and Islamist populism; between generals and demagogues; between the street and security forces; between Arabs, Kurds, Persians, and Turks.

All of these contests find expression in multiple struggles. All have become tragic zero-sum games in which the interests of each side advance only at the expense of the well-being and domestic tranquility of another. The United States is implicated in many of them, but in none of them does or can it play a decisive role. How will these contests end? Will the geography of the region retain its Sykes-Picot contours? What new balances of power and relationships will emerge in the region? What the new mosaic will look like is, of course, of paramount importance to the shifting coalitions of states, sects, and tribes from which it is compounded, but it matters greatly to the United States and other great powers too.

That is because the Middle East occupies a pivotal geostrategic space. It lies athwart the routes between Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is where the world’s energy resources are concentrated. It has become a hub for global finance and business. It is where three of the world’s great religions originated and where they now collide. It is the epicenter of terrorism with global reach. What happens in the Middle East affects the world’s economic, political, and strategic equilibrium. The Middle East is too important to be left solely to Middle Easterners.

Yet, the Arab uprisings, revolutions, and coups of the past two-and-a-half years have repeatedly demonstrated that, for all our unmatched military power, Americans no longer command the ability to shape trends in the Middle East. Almost no one now expects us to do so. Delusions of imperial omnipotence die hard, but the question of the day is no longer how we or other outside powers will act to affect the Arab future. Both colonialism and neocolonialism are no more. For better or ill, the states of the region have seized control of their own destiny.  ما شاء الله  (masha’Allah) — and good luck to them!

As the pieces shift in the Middle East, will the relationships between its states and outside powers shift as well? It is impossible to imagine that they will not. Recent events have marginalized Turkey. What role will it now play? We have already seen a measure of estrangement between the United States and our traditional Arab security partners. Saudi Arabia’s refusal to take its seat in the U.N. Security Council reflects this. Riyadh has not just protested but opted to avoid daily interactions with the United States that would exacerbate bilateral tensions over regional issues. The course of events in Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria has exposed long-concealed differences in perspective between us and both Arabs and Israelis. Iran is now reaching out to us over the heads of both.

As America recedes in prestige in the region, Russia seems to be returning to a position of diplomatic influence. Will Europe, China, and others with a stake in the restabilization of the Middle East also now assert themselves as independent actors there? Regional actors are redoubling their efforts to recruit outside powers to support them. This could produce some startling geopolitical realignments.

Before we get to some of these possibilities, let me briefly review current trends and events, beginning with the interactions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Attention is now focused elsewhere, but the Israel-Palestine issue remains at the core of Arab indignation and disbelief in America. Secretary of State Kerry’s frenetic effort to drag Israel and the usual Palestinians into talks has not cured this. Very few, if any, in the region assign any potential value to this latest iteration of the now notoriously unproductive series of American-organized counterfeit “peace processes.” The only effects to date of this latest round have been to delay Palestinian efforts to take Israel to the International Court of Justice and to accelerate the Jewish state’s drive to judaize the West Bank and set the stage for more ethnic cleansing when and if regional chaos produces the political cover to carry it out.

So far, the intermittent meetings between Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erakat look like yet another political distraction rather than a path to peace. It would be nice to be proved wrong, but it’s hard to see anyone other than Israeli construction companies engaged in settlement-building gaining anything from what is mostly not going on.

The very structure of the talks emphasizes their futility. Most Palestinians are unrepresented in them. The Palestinian Authority is on the Israeli and American payrolls. It has been appointed to represent the Palestinians by Israel and the United States but its authority to speak even for the inhabitants of the West Bank is in doubt. It certainly has no mandate to negotiate on behalf of those in Gaza, in the refugee camps, in diaspora, or living as second-class citizens in Israel. In the unlikely event that the PA were to come to some sort of agreement with its Israeli masters, few Palestinians anywhere would consider themselves bound by this. How Jerusalem is dealt with will decisively affect the stand of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims on any agreement. A peace viewed by most as contracted by an illegitimate party and by many as unjust would evoke violent backlash rather than acquiescence. By bringing the decades-long effort to produce a negotiated solution to a discreditable conclusion, it could ignite renewed terrorism against both Israelis and their American allies.

If, as most expect, the talks sputter to a fruitless end next July, the U.N.-recognized but largely fictive State of Palestine can be expected to take its case against Israel’s violations of international and humanitarian law to the courts of international public opinion and the Hague. The movement to boycott, disinvest, and sanction Israel has already begun to take hold in Europe. It will gather global momentum. “Palestine” itself is nearly powerless, but neither Israel nor the United States have credible counters to Israel’s progressive self-delegitimization through behavior that all but diehard Zionist bigots find abhorrent. 

The antipathies stoked by Israel’s treatment of its captive Arab populations and its belligerence toward its neighbors are a longstanding factor in international resentment of the United States and in anti-American terrorism. Nothing is in train to change this. The Israel-Palestine issue is overshadowed at present by the dramatic events in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. But it remains a Pandora’s box whose lid could blow off at any time.

The ongoing bloodbath in Syria is even more troubling and potentially at least as consequential.

The use of nerve gas in a suburb of Damascus resurrected horrified memories of mass death among both Israelis and Iranians. But sarin is irrelevant to the outcome in Syria, unless it falls into fanatic hands and is used to perpetrate the genocide that some justly fear. Apprehension about what Syria’s rebels and their Jihadi allies might do with chemical weapons is one reason — the ill-considered U.S. “red line” is another — that the Assad government agreed to turn them over to international control for destruction. The removal of chemical weapons from Syria will not prevent genocide. It will just keep massacres up close and personal.

Since March 2011, perhaps 130,000 Syrians have died at the hands of other Syrians and their foreign allies. The dead include about 17,000 rebels, 36,000 government troops, and 20,000 militia members, informers, and other regime supporters. Over 50,000 civilians have died — almost one-fourth of them children or women.

The carnage in Syria is beside the point for those determined to wrest it from Iranian influence, sever Hezbollah’s supply lines, and flank the pro-Iranian regime in Iraq. Inconclusive conflict serves the interests of both Jihadis and those who fear a victory by them in Syria. Fear of genocide or intolerable oppression by religious totalitarians guarantees that the religious minorities associated with the Assad regime will fight to the death. So the fighting goes on as outside suppliers ensure that Syrians are ever-better equipped and trained to kill each other.

One- third of Syrians have been displaced by the fighting. They are seeking safety in the company of their own kind. There are now at least three distinct zones in Syria, each ruled by a different mix of ethnic or religious communities, flying its own flag or flags, and fielding its own armed forces. Could the ongoing fragmentation of Syria lead to partition along confessional and ethnic lines and the dismemberment of neighboring states like Lebanon? It is looking more and more as though it could.

If the Syrian slaughter does end in partition, what might that mean for the five countries that border Syria and for their allies in the region and beyond it? Partition would suit the interests of some inside and outside Syria, while others would oppose it. It’s not too soon to think about its implications. When the blood dries and the dead are buried, will there still be a Syria, a Lebanon, an Iraq, or a Jordan as we have known them? Ninety-seven years after its birth, the Middle East Mr. Sykes and M. Picot conceived seems to be disintegrating. Outside powers created that Middle East. Indigenous forces are now tearing it apart.

Many aspects of the fighting in Syria are a reminder that the Middle East is where disregard of the United Nations Charter and Security Council resolutions and aggressive contempt by the strong for the sovereignty of weaker nations first became routine. It is where “might” again came to impersonate “right.” It is the region in which the justifications for pernicious doctrines like preemptive attack and assaults on civilian populations in the name of counterterrorism were first elaborated. Intervention in a sovereign foreign state to overthrow its government is as much an act of war as an attempt to conquer it. It used to be that, in deference to international law, those who engaged in such intervention did so on a basis that was plausibly deniable. In the Middle East no one now bothers to conceal attacks on states and societies through air and commando raids, official kidnappings and assassinations, arms deliveries, intelligence support, training, cyber operations, or support for terrorist groups.

The Middle East has thus become a region where international law is routinely rebuffed, subverted, or ignored.  Many norms of civilized behavior have been done to death there. So it is a particularly pleasant surprise that the most recent use of chemical weapons in the Middle East has finally led to their effective outlawing by the international community.

The Russian-brokered agreement to gather up and destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal is a major step toward establishing an international norm banning the possession as well as the use of chemical weapons. Perhaps not incidentally, Russia has also given the world a stake in the integrity of the Assad regime’s command and control of its forces. This is essential to prevent chemical weapons from being dispersed. But, beyond the danger of their use against Syria’s beleaguered minorities, the disposition of chemical weapons has no bearing on the issues of concern to most Syrians or to others in the region. It does not shift the balance of power on the battlefield in Syria. It does not offer any hope of halting the continuing slaughter of civilians there.

If Russia has demonstrated the ability of sophisticated diplomats to seize opportunities to solve problems — even if they are peripheral problems that few in the region care about, it has also shown that the resolution of one problem almost always brings us to another. Syria built its chemical weapons to deter Israel’s use of nuclear weapons. The orderly destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles shifts the spotlight to Israel, which is now one of only two states in the world to threaten its neighbors with all three kinds of weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, and nuclear. (The other is the far less formidable but more vociferously aggressive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) The issues presented by Israeli WMD can no longer be excluded from discussions of regional security.

This brings me to Iran.  Iran is a resentful country that scares all but one of its Arab neighbors as well as Israel.  Ironically, however, despite the Israeli and Gulf Arab-led campaign against Iran’s effort to build the capacity to field a nuclear deterrent, Iran currently possesses no weapons of mass destruction:  neither nuclear, nor chemical, nor biological. Iran’s development of a deliverable nuclear weapon would cost Israel its nuclear monopoly in the region. It would very likely provoke other countries, like Saudi Arabia, to acquire their own deterrent capabilities through arrangements with one or more of the world’s nine de facto nuclear weapons states.

In practice, the choices for such extended deterrence arrangements come down to America, India, Israel, Pakistan, or Russia, with Pakistan the least problematic. Britain and France have neither the will nor the way to extend a nuclear umbrella. China is not interested in such foreign entanglements. Until it makes peace with the Palestinians, Israel will remain unacceptable as a an overt partner and security guarantor for any Arab or Muslim country. Most Arabs see India as anti-Muslim but in many ways closer to Iran than to them. In Syria, Moscow has gone out of its way to show that its friends can depend on it, but it has yet to gain the trust of other Arabs. Recent events, including but not limited to the several changes of regime in Egypt, have convinced many that the United States is an unreliable protector. Pakistan has the weapons, the will, and the financial desperation to fill the need.

If it is not hard to see how Iranian nuclear weapons could be balanced and deterred by Israel and Pakistan, it is far more difficult to see how a stabilizing conventional balance of power in the Gulf region might be restored. Iraq is now aligned with Iran and no longer available to balance it. Arabs nervously recall that Iran, not Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was once the principal American security partner in the region. An end to hostile relations between Washington and Tehran remains unlikely but is no longer unthinkable. Suspicious minds in the Gulf imagine that a reduction in tensions between the United States and Iran might lead in time to renewed security cooperation between the two countries. This possibility, however remote, poses a major strategic dilemma for our Arab partners in the Gulf. As Egypt and the Gulf Arabs ratchet back their expectations and their reliance on America, to whom will they look for support?

The simple world of colonial and superpower rivalries is long vanished. The notion that one is either “with us or against us” has lost all resonance in the modern Middle East. No government in the region is prepared now to entrust its future to foreigners, still less to a single foreign power. So the role of great external powers in the region is becoming variable, complex, dynamic, and asymmetric rather than comprehensive, exclusive, static, or uniform. There is room for new as well as old players but all will dance to tunes composed in the region, not in their own capitals or those of other outside powers.

It is in this context that we must anticipate some expansion of Russian influence in the Middle East. Russia is on the other side of the Caspian Sea from Iran. If it can be persuaded to do so, Russia can balance and constrain Iran from the north without a footprint in the Gulf. It has a history of close relations with the armed forces in Egypt, Syria, and some other Arab countries. If the United States or other Western powers deny arms sales or suspend deliveries, Russia has the capacity to provide Arab armed forces with the kind of weapons and training they have been denied. When the interests of the oil-rich GCC countries are at odds with those of Western powers, as they now appear to be in Egypt, Russia is a potential alternative partner. Gulf Arab credits or grants to Russian arms suppliers can offset Western weapons delivery or aid suspensions.

In this limited respect, China is also becoming a potential alternative to the West, as Turkey’s recent purchase of a Chinese air defense system underscores. Old monopolies of influence and market dominance are giving way to a more competitive environment in the Middle East. In U.S. – Arab relations, much less can be taken for granted than before.

There is also a contest of ideas underway in the Middle East. Tolerance is almost everywhere in retreat. Passionate divisions favor extremism and the continuation of conflict. Drone warfare has helped anti-American terrorism to metastasize throughout the realm of Islam. Al-Qaeda and others of like mind are gaining ground. They spread by exploiting turmoil and popular resentment of worsening political, economic, and social problems. The use of force can’t resolve these problems but there are no obvious political solutions to them either, and expectations of progress are low. In the Middle East, diplomacy has come to serve mainly as camouflage for aggression, not as the antidote to it.

Given continuing regional and domestic disorder, could the totalitarian Islamist vision of al-Qaeda expand beyond the tiny minority of Muslims who now embrace it? Islamism and democracy have become increasingly identified. How can moderate forms of Islamist populism be prevented from degenerating into extremism and entrenching xenophobic dogmatism in places like Egypt and Palestine?

This is a problem for the West, which favors democracy but is disturbed by Islamism. Is the interest in stability of the United States and its allies consistent with the revolutionary idea of democracy? To put it that way is to shift the question from the realm of ideology to that of statecraft. So, which is it? The domestic tranquility and regional stability imposed by autocracy or the unrest and volatility that accompany democracy? These are issues that pose an even bigger challenge to countries in the region — and not just those with mass-based Islamist movements. Political Islam is a special threat to regimes that derive their legitimacy from piety but reject electoral politics in favor of shura and other traditional governmental practices.

The violent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical offshoots risks creating conditions conducive to the long-term spread of instability, revolutionary Islamism, and terrorism. If Islamists who win elections cannot form governments or retain power till the next election, what is their alternative to violent politics? No one can hope to govern a country like Egypt for very long without a workable plan to reverse the deterioration of its economy and its investment climate. But neither those now in power nor their Islamist opponents have coherent economic philosophies or cures for the socio-economic miseries of the Arab world beyond the oil-rich Gulf.

Economic desperation creates environments in which people can conclude that they have nothing to lose from self-destructive violence. Subventions from Gulf Arab countries are neither a short- nor long-term solution to Arab poverty. Intelligent policies foster development; subsidies offset the absence of such policies. They underwrite underdevelopment, induce complacency, and facilitate dependency and sloth. But the era when the countries of the Middle East could expect to depend on handouts from foreign aid agencies is coming to an end. The region has seized control of its own politics. It must now take responsibility for its economics.

What, then, is to be done by those of us outside the Middle East?

I think we must begin by acknowledging that we have lost intellectual command and practical control of the many situations unfolding there. The relationships we now have with regional actors are no longer the reliable ties of “wasta” (واسْطة), in which friendship and mutual regard compel mutual assistance. Our relationships, sadly in my view, are now mainly transactional, with each side weighing requests from the other in terms of what’s in it for itself, not how it might best honor the norms of interdependence. If we are not responsive to the interests of our partners in the region, they will neither respect our interests nor avoid contradicting them. We need to listen more and prescribe less.

We must acknowledge the reality that we no longer have or can expect to have the clout we once did in the region. The practical implication of this is that we must cooperate with others — strategic competitors as well as countries with whom we are allied in other contexts — in order to serve our regional partners’ interests as well as our own. The United States remains the most powerful external actor in the Middle East, but American primacy has been slain by the new assertiveness of the region’s inhabitants.  If we give others space to displace us, they will.

We need to rediscover diplomacy. By this I mean something radically contrary to our recent militarism and the related concept of “coercive diplomacy” through sanctions.  Both assume that human beings are motivated only by threats and that their response to a credible threat will be a rational weighing of costs and benefits followed by capitulation. There is no evidence for either proposition and a great deal of experience that suggests that both are pernicious superstitions. Americans do not employ this approach to managing our own personal relationships and we should not assume it will work with foreign countries.  

Diplomacy, like the successful management of interpersonal ties, lies in the replacement of zero-sum problem definition with frameworks that promote the recognition of common interests. It presupposes empathetic, if reserved, understanding of adverse points of view. It incentivizes good behavior. It avoids vocal denial of the legitimacy of the other side’s interests. It relies on convincing the other side that its objectives can best be achieved by doing things our way, and that it’s in its own interest to change its policies and practices to do so. We seem have forgotten how to do diplomacy in this sense.  At least, it’s been a long time since we tried it in the Middle East.

We need to listen to our partners in the region and pay due regard to their interests. We cannot, for example, deal with Iran as though Israel is the only regional party at interest and the only one whose opinions we heed. What we do with Iran will have a profound effect on countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain. It will affect our relations with Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey as well as Syria. If we do not weigh the interests of our friends appropriately as we form our policies, they will respond with equal indifference to ours.

Most of all, we cannot afford to assume that the future will resemble the past in the Middle East. Whatever it looks like, it will certainly differ from what we have seen over the past century. We no longer have automatic partners in the region. Neither Israel nor our Arab friends trust us or are willing to defer to us. We will have to try harder to tend our relationships with them if we are to convince them to work with us toward common ends and not to suffer further estrangement from them.

This conference is a unique opportunity to hear views from the region as well as to listen to those who listen to them. I may have things wrong. Please keep an open mind as you participate in the discussions that are now about to begin. There are many in this room with the capacity to help forge productive approaches to meeting the challenges of the Middle East as change in the region accelerates and its impact accumulates.  We owe it not just to our friends in the region but to ourselves to make the effort to acknowledge the multiple transitions now in progress and to work together to cope with them wisely.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.; President emeritus, Middle East Policy Council)

Washington, DC

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