Obama’s Foreign Policy and the Future of the Middle East

Presentation to the Middle East Policy Council’s 77th Capitol Hill Conference

A while back, the United States set out to reconfigure the Middle East. The result is that the region and our position in it are both in shambles. Much of what has happened seems irreversible. In the short time allotted to me, I want to talk about the region’s dynamics. I will conclude with a few thoughts about what might be done but probably won’t be.

To begin. If we are at all honest, we must admit that the deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East — in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iran, the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, and, peripherally, Afghanistan — is a product not only of the dynamics of the region but also of a lapse in our capacity to think and act strategically. We have answered the end of the bipolar order that characterized the Cold War with a mixture of denial, strategic incoherence, and inconstancy. False American assumptions and unrealistic U.S. objectives have helped create the current mess in the Middle East.

It is not news to anyone that American politics is uncivil and dysfunctional. We have a foreign policy elite that has its head up its media bubble, prefers narratives to evidence-based analysis, confuses sanctions and military posturing with diplomacy, and imagines that the best way to deal with hateful foreigners is to use airborne robots to kill them, their friends, and their families. We have leaders who can’t lead and a legislative branch that can’t legislate. In short, we have a government that can’t make relevant decisions, fund their implementation, enlist allies to support them, or see them through. Until we get our act together at home, those looking for American leadership abroad will be disappointed.

At West Point, President Obama accurately pointed out that “our military has no peer.” He sensibly added that: “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

True enough. Experience has amply justified hesitancy about the use of force. Our hammer blows in the Middle East were intended to showcase our power. Instead they convincingly demonstrated its limitations. These interventions worsened — not improved — the region’s stability, politics, and prospects. Our unmatched military prowess has not enabled us to impose our will in West Asia, in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere. The record of covert action at solving political problems in all of these regions has been no better.

The question then is: what alternatives to the military hammer and related kinetic instruments of statecraft does the U.S. presidency now have? Normally, the answer would be the political screwdriver of diplomacy or other non-percussive means of influence, like subsidies and subventions. But there is a reason the Department of State is the smallest and weakest executive department of our government. The United States seldom resorts to diplomacy in resolving major differences with other states. Gladiators trump diplomats anytime in terms of the spectacle they provide. And, even if they don’t work, coercive measures like sanctions and bombing are much more immediately satisfying emotionally than the long slog of diplomacy.

Then, too, aside from our reflexive militarism, we are broke. Our military commanders have walking-around money. Our diplomats do not. And the amateurism inherent in the spoils system further reduces the effectiveness of our diplomacy.

Jet-propelled seat-of-the-pants drop-bys with foreign leaders by secretaries of state have proven to be no substitute for either strategy or the patient cultivation of influence with those leaders or in their capitals. It’s hard to think of any American project in the Middle East that is not now at or near a dead end. This includes our policies toward Israel and Palestine, democracy promotion, Egypt, Islamist terrorism, stability in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant, Iran, and the Gulf.  Let me run very briefly through that list.

In April, our four-decade-long effort to broker a secure and accepted place for a Jewish state in the Middle East sputtered to a disgraceful end. In the tragicomic final phase of the so-called “peace process,” instead of mediating, the United States negotiated with Israel about the terms of Palestinian capitulation, not with the Palestinians about self-determination. The U.S. effort to broker peace for Israel is now not just dead but so putrid it can’t be shown at a wake. Israel didn’t believe in it, so it killed it. May it rest in peace.
From the outset, Israel used the “peace process” as a distraction while it created facts on the ground in the form of illegal settlements. Israeli expansionism and related policies have now made Israel’s peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians— and, thus, with Israel’s Arab neighbors — impossible. The United States created the moral hazard that enabled Israel to put itself in this ultimately untenable position. Forty years of one-sided American diplomacy aimed at achieving regional and international acceptance for Israel have thus perversely produced the very opposite — increasing international isolation and opprobrium for the Jewish state.

We will now “cover Israel’s back” at the United Nations as its ongoing maltreatment and intermittent muggings of its captive Arab population complete its international delegitimization and ostracism. We will pay a heavy political price for this stand globally, in the Middle East, and very likely in escalating terrorism against Americans abroad and at home. It may satisfy our sense of honor. But it more closely resembles assisted suicide than a strategy for the survival of Israel and our own position in the Middle East..

Americans like to have a moral foundation for policy. In the Middle East — and not just with respect to Israel — the geology has proven too complex to allow one. Take our professed desire to promote democracy. In practice, the United States has made a real effort at democratizing only countries it has invaded — like Iraq and Afghanistan — or those it despises — like Palestine, Iran, and Syria. The rest we carp at but leave to their hereditary rulers, dictators, generals, and thugs. When democratic elections yield governments to which we or our allies object — as in Algeria, Palestine, and Egypt — Washington contrives their overthrow and replacement by congenial despots. If democracy is the message, America is not now its prophet.

Our willingness to rid the region of troublesome democrats has appeased Israel and the Gulf Arab states. But it has greatly tarnished our claim to seriousness about our values. It has produced no democracies. But it has pulled down several before they could institutionalize themselves.

Egypt is a case in point. After raising hopes of a democratic Arab awakening and electing an Islamist government that proved to be incompetent, Egypt is now an economically sinking military dictatorship, distinguished from other tyrannies only by the grotesque parodies of the rule of law it stages. Not much we can do about this.

U.S. concerns about Israel’s security dictate support for Egypt regardless of the character of its government or how it put itself in power. America’s Gulf Arab partners are committed to military dictatorship and suppression of Islamism in Egypt. It is hard to think of a place where a starker contradiction between American ideals, commitments to client states, and interests in precluding the spread of terrorism than in contemporary Egypt.

It’s tempting to conclude that, if we’re going to be hardheaded realists, we should just skip the off-putting hypocrisy about democracy and human rights and get on with it. That seems to be what we intend. How else is one to interpret the president’s proposal for multiple partnerships with the region’s security forces to repress Islamist terrorism?  Today’s Egypt is the outstanding example of regional cooperation in such repression. We have no other model to build on.

But, by leaving no outlet for peaceful dissent, Egypt is forcing at least part of its pious majority toward violent politics. This risks transforming the most populous of all Arab countries into the world’s biggest and most deadly breeding ground for Islamist terrorists with global reach. It’s true, of course, that Egypt is not the only incubator for such enemies of America.

Americans went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. We found them and bred more. Some have already followed us home. Others are no doubt on their way. That’s why we have an expanding garrison state. Our counterterrorism programs are everywhere nurturing a passion for revenge against the United States.

We gave a big boost to the spread of Islamist terrorism when we invaded Iraq. Our stated purpose was to deny weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist to terrorists who weren’t there. Having removed functioning government from Iraq, we thought we might as well engage in hit-and-run democratization of the place. So we replaced a secular dictatorship with a sectarian despotism. Not only did that not work; it set off a religious war that ultimately gave birth to the Jihadistan that now straddles the Syria-Iraq border.  

What we did in Iraq has resulted in its breaking into three pieces. Now, in practice, we’re working on dismembering the rest of the Levant. Israel is gnawing away at what remains of Palestine. A transnational coalition of jihadis is vivisecting Syria and Iraq. With our help, Syria is burning, charring Lebanon and scorching Jordan as it does. The Kurds are making their escape from the existing state structures.

The Syrian government is loathsome but we fear that, if — as we wish — it is defeated, it could be replaced by even more frightful people. Bombing can’t prevent this, so in a triumph of magical militarism we propose instead to arm a force of mythical Syrian moderates. We expect this latest coalition of the billing to fight both the Syrian government and its most effective opponents while nobly refraining from making common cause with the latter or transferring weapons to them. Sounds like a plan for pacifying Capitol Hill, if not Syria. And if our objective is to keep Syria in flames, it’s a plausible plan.

Perhaps that is what we really want. After all, the anarchy in Syria is a drain on Iran, which we have identified as our main enemy in the region. Destabilizing Syria arguably adds to the pressure on Iran to give up the nuclear weapons program that Israel’s and our intelligence agencies keep telling us it doesn’t have and that Iran’s leaders have said they don’t want because it would be sinful. Our frequent threats to bomb Iran seem to be a devilishly clever test of its leaders’ moral integrity. If we give them every reason we can think of for them to build a nuclear deterrent, will they still not do it? Judging from Friday’s news, this experiment will go on for at least four more months.

This brings me to a key point of policy difficulty. We’ve repeatedly told people in the Middle East they must be either with us or against us. But they remain annoyingly unreliable about this.

Iran’s ayatollahs are against us in Syria, Lebanon, and Bahrain but with us in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Assad regime and Hezbollah oppose us in Syria and Lebanon but are on our side in Iraq. The Salafi jihadis are with us in Syria but against us in Iraq and elsewhere. Israel’s government is with us on Iran but against us in blocking self-determination for Palestinians while favoring it for Kurds. Saudi Arabia is with us on Iran and Syria but against us in Iraq. It was for us and then against us before it was for us in Egypt. It’s against the Jihadistan in the Fertile Crescent but nobody can figure out where it stands on Salafi jihadis in other places.

How can you have a coherent strategy to manage the Middle East when people there are so damnably inconsistent?  The answer is that outsiders can’t manage the Middle East and shouldn’t try. It’s time to let the countries in the region accept responsibility for what they do rather than acting in such a way as to free them to behave irresponsibly..

It’s time to recognize that the United States can’t solve the Israel-Palestine issue, can no longer protect Israel from the international legal and political consequences of its morally deviant behavior, and has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by continuing to be identified with that behavior. Israel makes its own decisions without regard to American interests, values, or advice. It would make better decisions if it were not shielded from their consequences or had to pay for them itself. America should cut the umbilicus and let Israel be Israel.

It’s time to stop pretending the United States assigns any real importance to democracy, the rule of law, or human rights in the Middle East. We pay for gross violations of all three by Israel, support their negation in Egypt, and do not interfere in the politics of illiberal monarchies like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Clearly, U.S. policy is almost entirely about interests, not values.

If that’s the case, let’s not violate our laws by dishonestly claiming that there have been no misuses of American weaponry by Israel and no coups, judicial horrors, or severe human rights violations in Egypt. We should not have laws that require us to be scofflaws. If the real interests of the United States in Syria relate to Iran and its contests with Israel and Saudi Arabia as well as to our new cold war with Russia, let’s admit that and behave accordingly. This would mean axing the farcical format of the Geneva conference on Syria. That excluded key parties, making it a public relations stunt, not a serious effort to bring peace. Only if we include all the parties engaged in proxy wars in Syria, including Iran, can we hope to end the mass murder there.

It’s time to do that for more than humanitarian reasons, compelling as those are. Ending the fighting in both Syria and Iraq is the key both to containing Jihadistan and to halting the further violent disintegration of the region. We should not be upping the ante in Syria by pumping in more weapons (many of which are likely to end up in jihadi hands). We should be trying to organize an end to external involvement in the fighting there and focusing on preventing the emergence of an expanding terrorist bastion in the Fertile Crescent and Levant that will serve as a homeland for the growing legions of enraged Muslims our drone warfare rallies to the black flag of Islamism.

The Jihadistan calling itself “the Islamic State” is a menace to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Distasteful as they might find it to work with each other, they have a common interest to discover. The new “state” was born of geopolitical and religious rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran and can only be contained by their cooperation. Depending on how US-Iran relations develop, America might be able to help them do this. But, if the United States and Iran remain enemies, the obvious alternative for the United States would be to accept the inevitability of an expanded Salafi-dominated state that will replace much of the political geography in the region, to work with Saudi Arabia to tame extremist tendencies within such a state, and to yoke it to a regional coalition to balance Iran, as the Iraq U.S. intervention destroyed once did.

Any and all of these approaches would demand a level of diplomatic imagination and skill the United States has not shown in recent days. The more likely outcome of our current blend of baffled hesitancy, diplomatic ineptitude, and militarism is therefore that events will take their course. That means the growth of a credible existential threat to Israel, a prospective political explosion in Egypt, the disintegration of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria along with Palestine, and the diversion of a considerable part of the resources of these countries to terrorism in the region and against the American homeland. We can and should do better than this.

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

Washington, DC

  • 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