The Middle East, America, and the Emerging World Order

Remarks to the National Research University Higher School of Economics

I want to speak today about the Middle East in global, not just American perspective.  Of course, as I’m sure you know, it was Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great American naval strategist, who first called West Asia and North Africa “the Middle East.”  As he saw it, this was the region between America’s “near east,” that is Europe, and its “far east,” meaning India.  For better or ill, the name stuck.  Even people in the region now use it.  Arabs say “ash-Sharq al-Awsat” to refer to where they live.

An Arab friend once told me that God waited till last to create the Middle East.  As He did so, He remarked to the Angel Jibril that He planned to make the region truly special.  God said He would put the Garden of Eden there as well as the three holiest cities on the planet, the world’s most magnificent desert landscapes, and some of its most beautiful coral reefs.  When God went on to say that He also intended to bestow three-fifths of the world’s energy reserves on the region, Jibril reportedly tapped Him on the shoulder to ask Him whether He didn’t think He was overdoing it.  God is said to have replied: “wait till you see the people I’m going to put there.”

The Middle East is where Africa, Asia, and Europe meet.  That, not the character of its peoples, is the main reason it has been at the center of so much human history.  The strategic interaction between North Africa, West and Central Asia, and Europe has been intense.  In both the Second World War and the Cold War, battlegrounds in these areas were closely correlated.  But their strategic inseparability had long been evidenced in repeated conquests of Europe and India from the Asian steppe; invasions of Europe from Africa by Carthage and the Arabs; the Greek and Roman annexations of large parts of West Asia and North Africa; Islam’s conquest of territories from Spain to India; Ottoman rule in southeastern Europe, North Africa, and West Asia; and latter day European empire building in Africa as well as in the Levant.  Eight centuries ago, when the Mongols ruled Eurasia, and again during World War II and the Cold War, the Mediterranean and Asia-Pacific regions were so conjoined strategically that they functioned as a single geopolitical precinct.

The Middle East is where the world’s three great monotheistic religions began, where religious fanaticism is most highly developed, where both ethno-religious and state terrorism are most widely practiced, and where the bulk of the world’s conventional oil and gas supplies are to be found.  All four attributes give the region exceptional geopolitical influence.  The Middle East today is a region in which American primacy is receding amidst an Islamist awakening, in which terrorists and the risks of nuclear proliferation are multiplying, and in which the political geography created by the colonial era can no longer be taken for granted.

The world’s 13.5 million Jews, 2.1 billion Christians, and 1.6 billion Muslims all revere the city of Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage.  All are emotionally invested, though from different perspectives, in the status of that city, its monuments, and the surrounding land of Palestine.  The displacement of much of Palestine’s mostly Muslim Arab population by the partial ingathering of the world’s Jews in a continuously expanding state of Israel has set in motion global trends of spreading religious animosity.  The malevolence this hatred fuels is now manifested in wars of religion.  These wars are as merciless as those that attended the death of the Roman Catholic order in Europe during the Thirty Years War, though not yet as destructive.  Like the Thirty Years War, the conflicts in the Middle East combine religious fervor with toxic politics and innovative ways of war.

Uniquely among religious communities, Jews also define themselves as a people.  The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians began under British colonialism, which fostered Jewish settlement in Palestine.  At the beginning, the competing nationalisms of the European Jewish immigrants and the indigenous Palestinian Arabs had few religious overtones.  With Israel’s independence, the contention widened to intermittent warfare between Israeli Jews and Arabs more generally.  It has since evolved into a planetwide religious conflict in which anti-Semitism competes with Islamophobia, and secularism contends with Islamism.

The violent antagonism in Palestine has helped to inspire terrorist reprisal against Israelis and their allies.  It has also spawned retaliatory interventions in the Muslim world that have catalyzed increasingly savage warfare between adherents of the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.  This process has now embroiled the United States and a growing number of Muslim societies in low-intensity wars of attrition that no one knows how to end.  Snowballing hostilities are an expanding threat to the peace of both Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere.

For anyone with the ability to listen, the causes of virulent anti-Americanism and its spread in the Muslim world are not hard to understand.  The fanatics who assaulted New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 went out of their way to describe their motivations.  They also outlined their objectives to anyone who would listen.  America turned off its hearing aid.  It’s still off.  The grievances that catalyzed 9/11 remain not simply unaddressed but ignored or denied by Americans.

The Islamist goal is not to impose Islam on non-Muslim countries.  It is to expel non-Muslim influence from Muslim lands.  But, rather than analyzing the Islamist challenge in its own terms, the United States has analogized the struggle to past contests for global supremacy, like World War II and the Cold War.  It has compounded this error by responding to the challenge of Islamist terrorism with a series of military and paramilitary campaigns that are unlinked to any political strategy.  Lacking such a strategy, America has sought no ideological allies in the Muslim world. Not surprisingly, the results of this misconceived approach have been counterproductive.  There is little, if any, prospect that it will yield anything but increasingly costly failure in future.

Al Qaeda saw 9/11 as a counterattack against American policies that had directly or indirectly killed and maimed large numbers of Muslims.  Some of those enraged by these policies were prepared to die to achieve revenge.  The chief planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, testified under oath that a primary purpose of al Qaeda’s criminal assault on the United States was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people . . . .”  In so-called “fatwas” in 1996 and 1998, Osama Binladin justified al Qaeda’s declaration of war against the United States by reference to the same issue, while levying other charges against America.  Specifically, he accused Americans of directly murdering one million Muslims, including 400,000 children, through the U.S. siege and sanctions against Iraq, while “occupying” the Muslim heartland of Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda members have described the war strategy they ultimately adopted as having five stages.  Through these, they projected, the Islamic world could rid itself of all forms of aggression against it.

In stage one, al Qaeda would produce massive American civilian casualties with a spectacular attack on U.S. soil in order to provoke American retaliation in the form of the invasion of one or more Muslim countries.  In stage two, al Qaeda would use the American reaction to its attack to incite, energize, and organize expanding resistance to the American and Western presence in Muslim lands.  In stage three, the U.S. and its allies would be drawn into a long war of attrition as conflict spread throughout the Muslim world.

By stage four, the struggle would transform itself into a self-sustaining ideology and set of operating principles that could inspire continuing, spontaneously organized attacks against the U.S. and its allies, impose ever-expanding demands on the U.S. military, and divide America’s allies from it.  In the final stage, the U.S. economy would, like that of the Soviet Union before it, collapse under the strain of unsustainable military spending, taking the dollar-dominated global economy down with it.  In the ensuing disorder, al Qaeda thought, an Islamic Caliphate could seize control of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East and complete the expulsion of non-Muslim influence from the region.

This fantastic, perverted vision reflected al Qaeda’s belief that if, against all odds, faith-based struggle could bring down the Soviet Union, it could also break the power of the United States, its Western allies, and Israel.  This strategy seemed ridiculous when al Qaeda first proclaimed it.  It is still implausible, but sounds less preposterous than it once did.

Strategies can only be evaluated in terms of their objectives.  The objective of the 9/11 attacks was to provoke the United States into military overreactions that would enrage and arouse the world’s Muslims, estrange Americans from Arabs, stimulate a war of religion between Islam and the West, undermine the close ties between Washington and Riyadh, curtail the commanding influence of the United States in the Middle East, and overthrow the Saudi monarchy. The aftershocks of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 kamikaze operation against the United States have so far failed to shake the Saudi monarchy but — to one degree or another — the operation has achieved its other goals.

Among other things, the violent interaction between America and the Muslim world since 9/11 has burdened future generations of Americans with over $5 trillion in war debt, with more debt yet to come.  This has thrust the United States into fiscal crisis.   The 9/11 attacks evoked reactions that have eroded the rule of law at home and abroad, tarnished the global appeal of Western democracy, and militarized American foreign policy.  They precipitated military interventions in the Middle East that have energized reactionary religious dogmatism among Muslims.  In other words, the continuing struggle is reshaping the ideologies and political economies of non-Muslim and Muslim societies alike.  And most of the changes are not for the better.

As Islamist terrorism has gained global reach, it has provided political justification for a general retreat from civil liberties and ethical standards of governance in secular societies everywhere, not just in the United States.  Russia is not an exception to this trend.  Ironically, the Middle East was where the moral values upon which modern societies are founded had their origin.  The European Enlightenment transformed these norms into secular ideals of reason, tolerance, and human and civil rights that spread widely throughout the world.  Trends and events in the Middle East are now setting back prospects for the advance of tolerance in that region even as they drive a widening deviation from the values of the Enlightenment elsewhere.

Although there is a long tradition of heroic sacrifice in Islam, the use of self-immolation as a weapon by Muslims began only in the early 1980s, when Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to the widening and ultimately successful Shiite use of suicide bombings against Israeli, American, and French forces.  By the early 1990s, Sunni Palestinians had embraced the suicide belt as a means of resistance and reprisal to the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza.  As this century began, various forms of explosive self-destruction began to be widely employed in acts of terrorism against non-Muslims outside the Middle East, including with tragic regularity here in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, in the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and subsequently in the capitals of Western Europe.

When the U.S. invasion of Iraq catalyzed bitterly lethal strife between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, suicide bombing quickly became the weapon of choice for Sunni extremists there.  By the middle of the last decade, this technique had begun to be widely used in Afghanistan.  What began as a means of last-ditch resistance to invasion and occupation is now a preferred means of retaliation against foreigners seen to have offended the peace of the Muslim umma.  Although it is completely contrary to Islamic scripture, suicide bombing has become a predictable aspect of civil strife everywhere in the Islamic world and beyond it.  And civil strife is widespread.  Much-resented foreign intrusions into Muslim lands have exacerbated intra-Muslim sectarian differences.

Al Qaeda’s kamikaze attack on the United States drew America into a punitive raid in Afghanistan.  This soon became a campaign of pacification there.  It eventually grew into a widening circle of armed interventions in other Muslim societies.  These include the now-ended, tragically counterproductive American attempt to transform the political culture of Iraq and the frustrating, continuing effort by the United States and NATO to do the same in Afghanistan.

It has long been said that Afghanistan is where empires go to die.  Many would argue that the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan was what finally broke both its spirit and its treasury.  Most Muslims believe this.  They also believe that America’s misadventures in the Middle East are having a similar, if so far less decisive effect on the United States.  As they see it, a great deal of the melancholy among Americans today derives from mounting recognition that U.S. military campaigns in Muslim countries are failing to accomplish their objectives, even as they become both apparently endless and ever more unaffordable.

America’s almost nine-year war in Iraq claimed at least 6,000 American military and civilian lives.  It wounded 100,000 U.S. personnel.  It displaced 2.8 million Iraqis and by conservative estimate killed at least 125,000 of them, while wounding another 350,000.  The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq will ultimately cost Americans at least $3.4 trillion, of which $1.4 trillion represents money actually spent by U.S. government departments and agencies during combat operations; $1 trillion is the minimal estimate of future interest payments; and $1 trillion is future health care, disability, and other payments to the almost one million U.S. veterans of the fighting.  The war failed to achieve any objective other than the removal from power of Saddam Hussein.  The U.S. invasion and occupation traumatized Iraq, set it ablaze with sectarian strife that has since spread to Syria and elsewhere, and left the security of Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs in doubt.  It destroyed the balance of power in the region, allied Iraq with Iran, and estranged Iraq from its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf.

After eleven years of combat in Afghanistan, the United States alone has spent about $580 billion there.  Leaving aside other NATO members, almost 2,000 Americans have died and 16,000 have been seriously wounded in Afghanistan.  In the end, the Afghan war is likely to cost Americans about $1.5 trillion.  That’s about $50,000 per Afghan.  The per capita income in Afghanistan is about $1,000.  The United States and NATO are now headed for the exits, with no workable plan to deny Afghanistan to terrorists with global reach, contain the effects of India’s and Pakistan’s strategic rivalry, or insulate the rest of Central Asia from the spillover effects of continuing disorder there.

There is no reliable estimate of the expense of ongoing American combat operations in places such as the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and now — post-Benghazi — in North Africa.  Together, however, the various wars the United States has conducted or is conducting in Muslim countries or against Islamist guerrillas and terrorists will ultimately cost something approaching $6 trillion dollars.  The evidence strongly suggests that this effort is creating many more terrorists than it is killing.  There is no end in sight and no strategy for achieving one.

Terrorists are people with a grudge and a bomb but no air force — and so far no drones — with which to inflict bodily harm on their enemies.  Suicide bombing allows otherwise impotent peoples to destroy politically important targets.  It reflects the unfortunate facts that human bravery is the most effective means of breaching security perimeters and that the human brain is the most reliable guidance system yet invented for delivering bombs to targets.  Until Muslim extremists are either drained of their resentment or convinced that there are nonviolent means to register their grievances, they will continue to make their political point through terrorist acts.  Some of these will involve the willing death of those carrying them out.  Others will rely on innovation, much as improvised explosive devices have evolved on the battlefields of Afghanistan.  The struggle will not be limited to the Middle East.  It will extend to the homelands of those carrying out military operations in Muslim lands.

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism.  In default of one, I defer to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.  Speaking as Secretary-General, he defined terrorism as “any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or compel a government or international organization to carry out or abstain from any act.”  

Given the tendency of enemies to copy each other, it is ironic but perhaps not surprising, that counterterrorism has come to rely upon terrorism to combat terrorists.  America’s expanding drone wars along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier and in Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel, and elsewhere fit the definition of terrorism except for the fact that they are directed against loosely associated Islamic civilian militants rather than a government or an army.  Israel’s occupation and gradual annexation of Palestine as well as its brutal siege and occasional battering of Gaza also rely heavily on state terrorism intended to intimidate Palestinians into passivity.  Quite aside from the betrayal of traditional values and the forfeiture of the moral high ground that this represents, using terrorism to fight terrorism invites rather than discredits terrorist retaliation, especially when the political drivers of terrorist violence remain unaddressed.

History strongly suggests that the only way to end terrorism — short of the genocidal annihilation of intransigent populations — is to take action to address the grievances and apprehensions that inspire the terrorists.  Jewish terrorism against the British in Palestine ended when the United Nations General Assembly authorized what became the State of Israel.  Irish terrorism against the United Kingdom ended when Britain took advantage of mutual exhaustion on the battlefield to redress political and social grievances in Northern Ireland while opening the political process to its terrorist opponents.

More recently, the successful suppression of terrorism in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has famously involved the rehabilitation through religious reeducation of would-be terrorists and their subsequent reintegration in society.  It has also entailed ruthless action to kill or bring to justice those who actually engage in terrorism.  But the prerequisites for progress against terrorism in the Kingdom have been the removal of the politico-religious irritant of the U.S. military presence on Saudi soil and, even more importantly, a well-conceived, state-sponsored religious campaign to refute and discredit Islamist justifications for terrorism.

Terrorists are inspired by passionate resentment of perceived injustice and by the belief that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of halting this injustice.  To end terrorism, both these motivations — that is, the sources of the resentment and the absence of an alternative to violent means of curing them — must be addressed.  Given the large role of American policies in stoking the anger that powers terrorism with global reach, this means that there must be major adjustments in U.S. policy.  Unfortunately, given the range of difficult domestic issues now confronting America, it is unlikely that such policy adjustments will take place for the foreseeable future.  The American paramilitary contention with Islamist terrorists is therefore much more likely to escalate than to subside.  This suggests that the threat to the security of both the American homeland and Americans abroad will also escalate.

The implications of this dynamic are dire, not just for the United States but for other non-Muslim nations afflicted by Islamist terrorism. Nations that support Israel or have disgruntled Muslim minorities on their soil will face a protracted struggle to sustain domestic tranquility.  The United States will continue to support Israel.  So, I believe, will Russia.  The Russian Federation borders the Middle East and includes restive Muslim minorities.  Russians can expect to continue to suffer terrorist attacks.  The countries of Western Europe have too many Muslim immigrants to be insulated from the spreading violence.  U.S. and Israeli policy may bear a disproportionate share of the blame for the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism, but it is not a purely American or Israeli problem.

Continuing challenges to the internal security of nations perceived to be persecuting Muslims will guarantee continuing pressure on domestic civil liberties and the tightening of police controls on freedom of movement, expression, and religious belief everywhere.  In the face of protracted struggle with Islamist extremists, America is more likely than not to continue its pull-back from the rule of law abroad as well as at home.  Other nations will react with their own parallel measures.  We must anticipate a period of increasing illiberalism in the world’s industrial democracies and a relapse into authoritarianism in many societies that have aspired to leave it behind.

In these circumstances, the United States is certain to remain heavily invested in the Middle East.  This means, among other things, that America is very unlikely to have either the resources or the leadership time to address the challenges to its primacy in other regions, like the Indo-Pacific.  The pivot to Asia may turn out to be a pirouette, as the Middle East refuses to release America from its various preoccupations there.  But continuing heavy investment by the United States in the Middle East does not mean a reversal of America’s ebbing sway there.

The United States no longer makes any pretense of the evenhandedness that once enabled it unconditionally to support Israel while simultaneously maintaining cordial relations with the major nations of the Arab world.  The U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians has lost all credibility in the region and internationally.  Israel has deliberately overwhelmed the two-state solution with “facts on the ground” in the form of illegal settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank.  As a byproduct of this strategy, Israel has evolved a political order that treats the Arabs in its charge as second-class citizens in Israel proper, as helots — wards of the state with no rights — in the West Bank, and as objects of sadistic punishment in Gaza.

A shrinking part of the Jewish population outside Israel remains identified with Zionism and prepared passionately to defend it.  A clear majority does not wish to bear the taint of such association.  A growing number of Americans, including Jewish Americans, are disturbed by Israel’s policies and resentful of its leaders’ contemptuous dismissal of U.S. interests and views.  The more thoughtful members of the Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere understand the risks to their standing in their own societies of their being implicated in Israel’s morally unacceptable behavior. Still, a significant minority remains committed to Israel, right or wrong.  This minority contains many individuals of considerable wealth and consequent political influence.

The question of how to deal with the issues posed by Zionism and its consequences for the Arab population it has subjugated promises to be increasingly divisive in the United States and other countries long committed to the Jewish state.  The United States remains committed to Israel but demands for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions against Israel are growing.  Racism of the sort now built into the Israeli political system is a problem Americans understand from our own experience, see as fundamentally wrong, and have repudiated.  Similarly, the world decisively rejected apartheid in South Africa.  It is most unlikely to accept it in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Arab uprisings promise to strip Israel of even the minimal acceptability that past American diplomacy had won for it in its region.   The Arab world is no longer sleepwalking through history.  Its governments now seek legitimacy in the support of their people, not in endorsements or subventions from foreign protectors.  Arab political parties increasingly identify with Islam and reject secularism.  The clear trend is toward both greater religiosity and greater identification with the Palestinian cause.

Arab governments have long been prepared to make peace with Israel but Arab peoples have yet to be convinced that Israel can be an acceptable part of the Middle East mosaic.  Israel’s cruelties to its captive Arab population, its scofflaw settlement practices, its periodic maimings of Gaza and Lebanon, and its short-sighted, self-destructive alienation of powerful neighbors like Turkey call into question the continuing viability of a U.S. Middle East policy aimed at achieving a secure place for Israel in the regional order.  It is becoming harder to paper over the gap between American and Israeli values and the tensions between Israel’s purposes and competing American interests and strategic concerns.

Since 1979, the Camp David accords have been the linchpin of U.S. policy in the Levant.  They are now in jeopardy.  Egypt has begun to demand that Israel, too, fulfill its promises at Camp David.  (Israel’s treaty commitments included its withdrawal from the territories it seized in 1967 and facilitation of Palestinian self-determination there.  Instead, it has swallowed up the land for itself, while ghettoizing its Palestinian inhabitants.)  Jordan now faces simultaneous demands for domestic political reform and a less accommodating posture toward Israel.  The Camp David accords were conceived as a platform on which to build a broader peace.  With no such peace in the works, the platform itself is beginning to wobble and show signs of future collapse.

Egypt and Jordan are not the only neighbors of Israel whose future orientation is in doubt.  Despite the hard line Damascus has traditionally taken on Israel-Palestine issues, Syria has been reliably passive as an enemy of Israel.  In contrast, Syria today is a wild card in Middle East politics.  No one can be sure of its future roles and orientation vis-à-vis Iran, Israel, and Lebanon, not to mention Turkey and the Arab Gulf states.  It is hard to predict when and how Syria will emerge from its current anarchy but it is even harder to imagine that, when it does so, it will sustain its past pattern of coexistence with Israel.

The existing diplomatic mechanisms for managing Israeli-Palestinian relations no longer have credibility.  Talk of a resumption of the so-called “peace process” evokes cynical sarcasm.  The convening of the “Quartet” is greeted with indifference.  Things have changed.  Everyone in the region knows that Israel is obsessed with land.  No one now believes it is interested in peace.  Mr. Netanyahu’s mid-November assault on Gaza has simply reinforced the regional view that Israel is an enemy with which it is impossible peacefully to coexist.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank remains committed to a two-state solution based on self-determination in a mere 22 percent of the original Palestine Mandate.  Hamas has indicated that it is prepared to go along with this.  But it has been almost twenty years since there has been any progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  Israel’s seizure and settlement of land beyond its 1967 borders now effectively preclude a separate Palestinian state.  The trend in Palestine and abroad is therefore shifting rapidly toward support for a struggle for equal civil and human rights within an unpartitioned Palestine.

The Arab reawakening of 2011 was accompanied by the beginnings of an intense political conversation among all 340 million Arabs.  Within this newly aroused Arab community, change has taken place one Arab nation at a time, reflecting national rather than pan-Arab circumstances, interests, and concerns.  Still, there are some trends that span the Arab world.  All Arab states are trying to attenuate their dependence on their previous foreign protectors and to diversify their international relations.  None seems likely to be willing in future to rely exclusively on a particular foreign power.  All seek new balance in their international orientation.  The nations of the Middle East were once subjected to European colonial powers, then divided into spheres of American and Soviet influence, and finally dominated by the post-Cold War United States.  They are now promiscuously engaged in building relationships with a widening list of external powers.

Aided by the eclipse of American influence, the diplomatic lassitude of a self-absorbed Europe, and the rise of Islamist populism, Middle Easterners, not foreigners, are deciding what happens in their region.  New coalitions are forming between them.  In the new Middle East, outsiders no longer call the shots.  They are business partners, mercenaries, potential hired help, or simply bystanders.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria.  The strife there is the product of domestic turmoil inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere.  It is also the outcome of foreign covert action intended to overthrow the Assad government and install a Sunni Muslim regime, thereby depriving Iran of Syria as an ally, isolating Hezbollah in Lebanon, and flanking Shiite-ruled Iraq.  Given the linkages between Syria and its neighbors, civil strife in Syria could easily spread more widely in the region.   The division of Syria and Lebanon was an artifice of French colonialism.    If Syria disintegrates, Lebanon will almost certainly do likewise.  If Syria comes under unchallenged Sunni Muslim domination, it will suppress both Shiite political sway and Iranian influence in Lebanon.  That, presumably, is one factor motivating states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the mostly Sunni Syrian opposition to Alawite rule in Syria.

Short of the obvious implications of developments in Syria for the continued existence of Lebanon as an independent state, the potential regional impact of what is happening in Syria is far-reaching  The situation of Syria’s Kurds affects Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.  Syria’s Sunni Arabs have tribal as well as religious links to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.  Syria’s ruling Alawites are linked to Alawites and other Shiites in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and even farther afield.

Syria’s current distress devalues it as a strategic asset for Iran almost as much as regime change might.  Despite their protestations of concern about the humanitarian costs of the fighting in Syria, governments bent on undercutting Iran’s influence in the region feel no real urgency about ending the conflict there.  Iran remains traumatized by its historical experience of Arab, Russian, British, and American dominion over it.  Iran’s theocratism estranges it from much of the rest of the Muslim world.  The peculiar separation of powers inherent in the doctrine of “guardianship by jurists” — wilayat al faqih— raises doubts about who has the authority to speak for Iran internationally.  The Shiite doctrine of “calculated deception” — taqiyyahadds to this perplexity by inspiring distrust of Iranian policy statements and assurances.

Iranian-American relations are at their lowest level since the two countries first began to deal with each other officially 137 years ago.  There is much talk of war but no serious dialogue between the two governments.  People-to-people exchanges between the U.S. and Iran are nearly nonexistent, and media on both sides are biased and inaccurate in their reporting about the other.  The United States has effectively outsourced its Iran policy to Israel.  The issue Israel cares about is whether Iran acquires nuclear weapons, not Iran’s aspirations for hegemony in the Persian Gulf region, its struggle with Saudi Arabia for leadership of the world’s Muslims, or its search for strategic advantage in Bahrain.  In virtually every respect, the official American view of Iran mirrors Israel’s rather than that of the Arabs.

Israel’s perspective consists in part of psychotic fears that Iran might attempt to annihilate the Jews in the Holy Land.  It also proceeds from entirely rational apprehensions about the impact on Israel’s military freedom of action if it loses its nuclear monopoly in the region.   Few outside Israel believe that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would embolden it to attack Israel, given Israel’s ability to obliterate Iran in response.  And no one has suggested that Iran might attack Israel with anything other than nuclear weapons — which it doesn’t yet have.  But Israel’s threats to attack Iran give Iran a very convincing reason to secure itself by developing a nuclear deterrent.  Given this logic, Israel’s fear of losing its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East seems likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Iran claims that, inasmuch as nuclear weapons are immoral, it will not acquire them.  Yet Iran seems to be reenacting Israel’s clandestine weapons development program of five decades ago, developing capabilities to build and deliver nuclear weapons while denying that it intends actually to do any such thing.  Israel lacks the capability to eliminate Iran’s nuclear programs but keeps threatening quixotic military action to do so.  Israel’s purpose is clearly to force the United States into a war with Iran on its behalf.

As an alternative to war, the United States, joined by some of its allies, has bypassed the UN to impose what American politicians describe as “crippling sanctions” on Iran.  American pundits gloat over the suffering these are causing the Iranian people.  Real as this suffering is, however, it has not caused Iran to change course.  The belief that it will is an expression of faith rather than reason.  Washington has so far offered Tehran no way to achieve relief from these sanctions other than complete capitulation to U.S. and Israeli demands.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has provided generous funding to efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime. America is working with Israel and the Mujahedin-e Khalq to carry out cyber warfare and assassinations inside Iran.  By any standard, these are acts of war that invite reprisal.  There is no negotiating process worthy of the name underway between the United States and Iran. 

On the other hand, there are also no good military options for Iran, Israel, or the United States.  Iran is too realistic to start a war it could only lose.  An attack by Israel on Iran would thrust the entire region into turmoil and deal a heavy blow to the world economy, while stoking Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Such an attack would damage but not cripple Iran’s ability to go nuclear.

American air and related attacks on Iran could set back its nuclear program more substantially but would still not eliminate Iran’s capability to build nuclear weapons.  Any attack by either Israel or the United States would, in fact, unite Iranians in demanding that their government develop and field a nuclear deterrent.  It would result in Iranian retaliation against Israel and the Arab countries of the Gulf, while creating a far more active, long-term Iranian threat to the region than at present.  It would also further inflame Muslim opinion against the United States, making the continuing American military presence in the Gulf Arab countries politically precarious and precipitating an upsurge in anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism.

So far the world’s diplomacy toward Iran resembles its approach to north Korea.  In the absence of major adjustments in policy to facilitate a compromise, this diplomacy seems likely to yield the same result with Tehran that it did with Pyongyang.  The most likely prospect is therefore that Iran, like north Korea, will eventually get its bomb.  This will ensure that other countries in the region seek their own nuclear deterrents, either on their own or through arrangements with powers like Pakistan to station nuclear weapons on their territory.

The world has come to rely upon American domination of the Middle East to serve the global interest in stability and secure access to energy supplies there.  American military strength remains without peer but the political and economic capacity of the United States to be able indefinitely to play the role of stabilizer of balances and lubricator of interactions between states and peoples in the Middle East is now in doubt.

The United States has neither the political will nor the diplomatic credibility to resurrect the defunct peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.  There is no apparent substitute for the past American role as the manager of that conflict.  But without some new temporizing proposition, the Camp David framework and other elements of the status quo have a limited half life, and the cycle of Islamist terrorist action and U.S. and other non-Muslim military reaction will continue to escalate.

America has demonstrated the capacity to organize severe economic pressure on Iran but not the ability to curtail Iran’s regional influence, to carry on a strategic dialogue with it, or to persuade it to provide credible guarantees against its acquisition of nuclear weapons.  Israel will not give up its own nuclear arsenal to preclude others from acquiring one.  Nuclear proliferation looms as a real possibility for the Middle East sometime in this decade.

The conflict in Syria also has the potential to transform the map of the Middle East in highly destabilizing ways.  The United States is part of the conflict in Syria, but not a plausible source for an answer to it.  For varying reasons, no great power wishes to see the Libyan precedent applied to Syria.  The Libyan experience stiffened international disagreement about the permissibility of humanitarian intervention in sovereign states.  NATO transparently abused the UN’s authorization of a no-fly zone in Libya in order to engineer regime change there.  The outcome of that regime change has been sobering for those who sponsored it.  Mutual mistrust between the region’s and the world’s great powers and their differing stakes in what happens ensure that the outcome in Syria will be decided by Syrians, regardless of the views of outsiders.

Israelis and Palestinians, too, are entering an era in which their own actions and interactions, not those of outsiders, will be decisive.  Israel would be in difficulty even if America’s ability to protect it from the regional and global political consequences of its actions were not rapidly weakening.  The only credible threat to Israel’s existence is internal, not external.  It arises from Israel’s deviation from its own founding values and its inability to find a way to grant dignity and equality to its captive Arab populations.  Israel remains a state isolated and alienated from its own region, dependent on external support for its survival, and devoid of a sustainable basis for governing the territories and peoples it controls.  Like apartheid South Africa, it is a vigorous democracy for some of its people and a harsh tyranny for others.  This is not a sustainable status quo.

What is different is that there is now nothing the United States or any other external actor can do to help Israel resolve the existential dilemmas it faces.  The two-state solution having been precluded, the achievement of peace for Israel now depends on fundamental change in Israel itself.  As in South Africa, such change cannot be imposed from outside, though outside pressure for it can help.  Solutions must be crafted by Israel itself with Palestinians and other Arabs.  And if there is to be a mediator in this process, it can no longer be the United States.  It would take years of effort to rebuild the lost confidence of the parties in such an American role.  There is not time to do this.

There is no current possibility of a renewed balance of power in the Persian Gulf, given Iraq’s alliance with Iran.  Thanks to new technologies that allow the exploitation of oil and gas in shale deposits, the United States is moving rapidly toward energy self-sufficiency.  Self-sufficiency will reduce American concern about supply disruptions.  Arguably, the American willingness to continue unilateral guarantees for global access to Middle Eastern energy could be affected.  Still, oil prices everywhere, including North America, are set by the global balance between supply and demand.  The United States will continue to have an interest in assuring that this balance is not upset by instability in the Persian Gulf.  It is not too soon to begin to discuss how the burden of sustaining peace and freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf region could be shared more equitably by the world’s energy producers and consumers.

The changes that are taking place in the Middle East are part of a broader evolution toward a more pluralistic world order in which international affairs are regulated more at the regional than at the global level.  In the case of the Middle East, as American dominance and influence recede, the direction of events is being taken up by regional powers and by political Islam.  A region accustomed to looking to the United States for answers to its multiple dilemmas is now challenged to craft its own diplomatic processes and solutions.  As it struggles to do so, the rest of the world is being reminded that the Middle East is too important to be left to its own devices.  But the rest of the world, like the Middle East itself, has yet to organize itself to deal with the changes that are taking place there, still less their consequences.  Those consequences are potentially far-reaching and grave.  The argument for a concerted international effort to deal with them is compelling.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Moscow, Russia

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top