Responding to Failure: Reorganizing U.S. Policies in the Middle East

I want to speak with you today about the Middle East. This is the region where Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. It is also the part of the world where we have been most compellingly reminded that some struggles cannot be won, but there are no struggles that cannot be lost.

It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.

• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.

• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.

• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.

• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.

• Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.

• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.

• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.

• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.

• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests.


That’s quite a record.

One can only measure success or failure by reference to what one is trying achieve. So, in practice, what have U.S. objectives been? Are these objectives still valid? If we’ve failed to advance them, what went wrong? What must we do now to have a better chance of success?

Our objectives in the Middle East have not changed much over the course of the past half century or more. We have sought to

1. Gain acceptance and security for a Jewish homeland from the other states and peoples of the region;
2. Ensure the uninterrupted availability of the region’s energy supplies to sustain global and U.S. security and prosperity;
3. Preserve our ability to transit the region so as to be able to project power around the world;
4. Prevent the rise of a regional hegemon or the deployment of weapons of mass destruction that might threaten any or all of these first three objectives;
5. Maximize profitable commerce; and
6. Promote stability while enhancing respect for human rights and progress toward constitutional democracy.

Let’s briefly review what’s happened with respect to each of these objectives. I will not mince words.

Israel has come to enjoy military supremacy but it remains excluded from most participation in its region’s political, economic, and cultural life. In the 67 years since the Jewish state was proclaimed, Israel has not made a single friend in the Middle East, where it continues to be regarded as an illegitimate legacy of Western imperialism engaged in racist removal of the indigenous population. International support for Israel is down to the United States and a few of the former colonial powers that originally imposed the Zionist project on the Arabs under Sykes-Picot and the related Balfour Declaration. The two-state solution has expired as a physical or political possibility. There is no longer any peace process to distract global attention from Israel’s maltreatment of its captive Arab populations.

After years of deference to American diplomacy, the Palestinians are about to challenge the legality of Israel’s cruelties to them in the International Criminal Court and other venues in which Americans have no veto, are not present, or cannot protect the Jewish state from the consequences of its own behavior as we have always been able to do in the past. Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza are fueling a drive to boycott its products, disinvest in its companies, and sanction its political and cultural elite. These trends are the very opposite of what the United States has attempted to achieve for Israel.

In a stunning demonstration of his country’s most famous renewable resource — chutzpah — Israel’s Prime Minister chose this very moment to make America the main issue in his reelection campaign while simultaneously transforming Israel into a partisan issue in the United States. This is the very opposite of a sound survival strategy for Israel. Uncertainties about their country’s future are leading many Israelis to emigrate, not just to America but to Europe. This should disturb not just Israelis but Americans, if only because of the enormous investment we have made in attempts to gain a secure place for Israel in its region and the world. The Palestinians have been silent about Mr. Netanyahu’s recent political maneuvers. Evidently, they recall Napoleon’s adage that one should never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.

This brings me to an awkward but transcendently important issue. Israel was established as a haven from anti-Semitism — Jew hatred — in Europe, a disease of nationalism and Christian culture that culminated in the Holocaust. Israel’s creation was a relief for European Jews but a disaster for the Arabs of Palestine, who were either ethnically cleansed by European Jewish settlers or subjugated, or both.  But the birth of Israel also proved tragic for Jews throughout the Middle East — the Mizrahim.

In a nasty irony, the implementation of Zionism in the Holy Land led to the introduction of European-style anti-Semitism — including its classic Christian libels on Jews — to the region, dividing Arab Jews from their Muslim neighbors as never before and compelling them to join European Jews in taking refuge in Israel amidst outrage over the dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland. Now, in a further irony, Israel’s pogroms and other injustices to the Muslim and Christian Arabs over whom it rules are leading not just to a rebirth of anti-Semitism in Europe but to its globalization.

The late King `Abdullah of Saudi Arabia engineered a reversal of decades of Arab rejectionism at Beirut in 2002. He brought all Arab countries and later all 57 Muslim countries to agree to normalize relations with Israel if it did a deal — any deal — with the Palestinians that the latter could accept. Israel spurned the offer. Its working assumption seems to be that it does not need peace with its neighbors as long as it can bomb and strafe them. Proceeding on this basis is not just a bad bet, it is one that is dividing Israel from the world, including Jews outside Israel. This does not look like a story with a happy ending.

It’s hard to avoid the thought that Zionism is turning out to be bad for the Jews. If so, given the American investment in it, it will also have turned out to be bad for America. The political costs to America of support for Israel are steadily rising. We must find a way to divert Israel from the largely self-engineered isolation into which it is driving itself, while repairing our own increasing international ostracism on issues related to Israel.  

Let me turn, very briefly, to the second U.S. objective in the region, security of access to energy supplies. Triumphalist nonsense about North American energy independence has just suffered a major comeuppance, as Saudi Arabia has shown its capacity to let oversupply rip, bankrupting or sidelining frackers and forcing mass layoffs in our previously booming oil and gas industry. The Middle East, where two-thirds of global fossil fuel reserves are located, still matters.

The question, therefore, is not whether untrammeled access to the energy resources of the Persian Gulf is essential to global prosperity. It is. Rather, it is whether the United States should or even could indefinitely bear the sole burden of ensuring access to Gulf energy resources on our own. Should we seek to share responsibility for assuring energy security with Europe and countries like China, India, Japan, and Korea that are far more dependent on Middle East oil than we are? Current U.S. policy assumes that “no” is the answer. Watch that space!

The third U.S. objective, sustaining freedom of transit through the region, is more subtle still. Tens of thousands of U.S. military flights transit Saudi and Egyptian airspace annually en route between Europe and Asia. Flight clearance is a fundamental privilege of sovereignty. It is done  in the region on an incredibly labor-intensive ad hoc basis. There are no agreements obligating countries there to grant it. The prevailing overflight regime reflects relationships with the countries of the region that are now fraying. Transit is not currently in jeopardy but it cannot be counted upon. Every once in a while, to remind us of this reality, the Saudis refuse permission for overflight. These refusals remind us of the importance to our position as a world power of cordial relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other countries of the Red Sea-Persian Gulf area.

Our fourth objective has been preventing the rise of a serious threat to Israel, energy flows, or freedom of navigation through the region’s air and sea space.

First: a little history.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and regional allies like Egypt and Syria seemed to pose such a threat. The United States balanced it with our own security partnerships. In 1964, we dropped our arms embargo on Israel. Nine years later, in 1973, we delivered massive military assistance to Israel to enable it to avoid defeat in war with Egypt and Syria. We have since become committed to sustaining Israel’s military supremacy in the region. To keep Egypt at peace with Israel, since 1979 we have provided it with generous subsidies. In 1994, we added Jordan to this equation.

After the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, we first bolstered Saudi Arabia as a counter to the Islamic Republic of Iran and then helped Iraq avoid defeat in its eight-year war with Iran. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq annexed Kuwait and threatened to dominate the region and hence global oil prices, we and the Saudis organized coalitions including Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait, reduce its power to levels that Iran could balance, and thus end the threat it posed to the Gulf Arab states. So far so good.

But in 1993, the Clinton Administration abruptly abandoned the effort to use Iraq to balance Iran. Instead, it proclaimed a policy of “dual containment,” under which Washington undertook unilaterally to balance both Baghdad and Tehran simultaneously. This made sense in terms of our interest in protecting Israel from either Iraq or Iran, but it placed the primary burden of defending Persian Gulf energy resources on the United States rather than on the Gulf Arabs or the international community. It secured a place for U.S. forces astride the routes between Asia and Europe. But it also required the creation of a long-term U.S. military presence in the Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom was strapped for cash but we wanted  it to pay for our presence and, amidst popular resentment, it did. The stationing of U.S. troops on soil considered by many Muslims to be sacred and off-limits to unbelievers was a political irritant that helped stimulate the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

A fully justified and brilliantly executed U.S. punitive raid on al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan somehow morphed into a military campaign to pacify Afghanistan and save it from militant Islam. Most Muslims, like the rest of the world, stood with Americans on 9/11. We have long since squandered that support. Over time, we began to kill Muslims we suspected of opposing us with drones — remote-controlled robots that rain death from the sky, killing militants along with their families, friends, and coreligionists as well as innocent bystanders.  The practical effect of this is that we kill one (possible) terrorist and get ten free.    

Meanwhile, our invasion of Iraq in 2003 accomplished none of its declared objectives but ended domestic tranquility in that country and resulted in a huge number of Arab deaths. No country, other than Israel, had urged us to attack Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction were found there. We were not welcomed as liberators. We staged elections but did not transform the country into a democracy. Iraq neither embraced Israel nor became our ally. In 2011, at Iraqi insistence, we withdrew, leaving behind a divided, shattered, and embittered country. We not only failed to impress the world with our power, as the proponents of the war hoped we would, we demonstrated our limitations. We showed that our military can defeat armies and militias but that it cannot bend foreign societies to our will, pacify their populations, or refute their ideas.

The net effect of our invasion and occupation of Iraq was to install a pro-Iranian Shiite-majority government in Baghdad that tyrannized Iraq’s Sunni minority. Thus, we at once added Iraq to the list of Iran’s client states and incubated a new crop of anti-American terrorists.

Earlier, we had driven Iran’s enemies from power in Afghanistan. In 2006, Israel’s aerial maiming of Lebanon elevated the Iranian-supported Shiite Hezbollah to the commanding heights of Lebanese politics. We did not respond to efforts by Damascus to dilute its dependence on Iran by establishing a more cooperative relationship with us.

In sum, we carelessly sponsored the rise of the very sort of anti-Israel and anti-Gulf Arab alliance our policies were aimed at precluding. We handed Iran dominant influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The Arab uprisings of 2011 added Bahrain to the list of places where Iran can exploit Shiite grievances. Now pro-Iranian Houthi tribesmen have seized control of much of Yemen. The Gulf Arabs see Iran encircling them.

The Saudis and others in the Gulf remember the days when the United States saw the Shah’s Iran as the regional gendarme. Their fears that those days might come again are far-fetched but understandable, given all that has happened. As a result of U.S. bungling in Iraq and elsewhere Iran has, after all, greatly expanded its reach in the region. Gulf Arab apprehension about the proposed agreement to cap and constrain Iran’s nuclear programs is less about a military threat from Iranian nuclear weapons than about the possibility that we and other members of the U.N. Security Council will effectively acknowledge, if not endorse, Iran’s new proto-hegemony in the region.

America is at war with the renegade Islamist insurgency that calls itself “the Islamic State.” (I see no reason to dignify it with that title and, like most people in the region, I prefer to call it by its pretentious Arabic acronym, “Daesh.”) For many reasons, the Gulf Arabs doubt our reliability. Iran has emerged as the most effective regional opponent of Daesh. The Gulf Arabs fear that we Americans may be driven to make common cause with Iran to combat Daesh.

Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s recent public hysteria about Iran and his efforts to demonize it, Israel has traditionally seen Iran’s rivalry with the Arabs as a strategic asset. It had a very cooperative relationship with the Shah. Neither Israelis nor Arabs have forgotten the strategic logic that produced Israel’s entente with Iran. Israel is very much on Daesh’s list of targets, as is Iran.

For now, however, Israel’s main concern is the possible loss of its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. Many years ago, Israel actually did what it now accuses Iran of planning to do. It clandestinely developed nuclear weapons while denying to us and others that it was doing so. Unlike Iran, Israel has not adhered to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or subjected its nuclear facilities to international inspection. It has expressed no interest in proposals for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. It sees its ability to bring on nuclear Armageddon as the ultimate guarantee of its existence.

Unlike Israel, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and seems prepared to settle for more conventional means of ensuring its security. Despite all the pain our sanctions have inflicted and whether the current nuclear negotiations with it succeed or fail, Iran seems destined to exercise strategic suzerainty in a major part of the Middle East

Like the Israelis, the Saudis do not trust Iran to halt at nuclear latency if there is a deal with it by the United States and its Security Council partners. But unlike the Israeli prime minister, Riyadh judges that, if the negotiations with Iran fail to produce an agreement, this will precipitate an Iranian decision actually to build a nuclear deterrent. An agreement would confer added prestige on Iran.  That’s bad. A nuclear deterrent would give Iran added freedom from U.S. or other coercion. That’s worse.

The Saudis have little confidence in U.S. protection, given America’s inadvertent  empowerment of Iran and incubation of Daesh, as well as the erratic behavior of the United States during the Arab uprisings that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They now seem to be building a coalition to counter Iran and contain Daesh, with or without the United States.

In recent weeks, King Salman has met in rapid succession with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan, President Al-Sisi of Egypt, and President Erdoğan of Turkey. After initially seeing Daesh as a useful opponent of Iran’s allies in Damascus and Baghdad, the Saudis have concluded that it is a menace that they must confront. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is Daesh’s next intended battleground. It is also the Saudi gateway to Syria, in whose affairs Turkey is also a key player. The threat to Jordan is such that Amman  may now finally be regaining the regional backing it lost when it sided with Saddam Hussein in 1990.

Egypt and Turkey have been at odds over the Muslim Brotherhood and related issues. Egypt fears the Brotherhood, while Turkey sees it as a democratic Islamist movement that is not only legitimate but a potential pan-Arab antidote to Daesh. King Salman has begun an effort to persuade the Egyptians and Turks  to reconcile and resolve their differences. This will not be easy but, given the stakes for his Kingdom, Salman is likely to persist.

King Salman’s interest in convening the recent flurry of dialogue was, however, far from limited to Daesh and matters of religious interpretation. His main concern was undoubtedly how to balance and contain Iran.  There is a potential division of labor between the countries with which he met. Pakistan could extend nuclear deterrence to the Gulf Arabs. Egypt could provide the military mass and manpower the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs lack. Turkey’s powerful army could flank Syria and Iran to the north.

All three of these countries have significant armaments industries. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs are the world’s largest importers of armaments. There are real synergies to be gained by cooperation among the parties who have just gathered in Riyadh. The fact that these are being explored signals momentous change.

In 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice infamously proclaimed the birth of a “new Middle East.” A new order in the Middle East is now belatedly coming into being. But it is not the one Secretary Rice envisaged. The influence of the United States and the prospects for the peaceful integration of Israel into the region have both been adversely affected by the events of the past fifteen years.

To many, Israel now seems to have acquired the obnoxious habit of biting the American hand that has fed it for so long. The Palestinians have despaired of American support for their self-determination. They are reaching out to the international community in ways that deliberately bypass the United States. Random acts of violence herald mayhem in the Holy Land.

Daesh has proclaimed the objective of erasing the Sykes-Picot borders and the states within them. It has already expunged the border between Iraq and Syria. It is at work in Lebanon and has set its sights on Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.

Lebanon, under Saudi influence, has turned to France rather than America for support. Hezbollah has intervened militarily in Iraq and Syria, both of whose governments are close to Iran. Egypt and Turkey have distanced themselves from the United States as well as from each other. Russia is back as a regional actor and arms supplier.

The Gulf Arabs, Egypt, and Turkey now separately intervene in Libya, Syria, and Iraq without reference to American policy or views. Iran is the dominant influence in Iraq, Syria, parts of Lebanon, and now Yemen. It has boots on the ground in Iraq.

And now Saudi Arabia seems to be organizing a coalition that will manage its own nuclear deterrence and military balancing of Iran.

To describe this as out of control is hardly adequate. What are we to do about it?

Perhaps we should start by recalling the first law of holes — “when stuck in one, stop digging.” It appears that “don’t just sit there, bomb something” isn’t much of a strategy. When he was asked last summer what our strategy for dealing with Daesh was, President Obama replied, “We don’t yet have one.” He was widely derided for that. He should have been praised for making the novel suggestion that before Washington acts, it should first think through what it hopes to accomplish and how best to do it. Sunzi once observed that “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” America’s noisy but strategy-free approach to the Middle East has proven him right.

Again the starting point must be what we are trying to accomplish. Strategy is “the discipline of achieving desired ends through the most efficient use of available means” [John Lewis Gaddis].Our desired ends with respect to the Middle East are not in doubt. They have been and remain to gain an accepted and therefore secure place for Israel there; to keep the region’s oil and gas coming at reasonable prices; to be able to pass through the area at will; to head off challenges to these interests; to do profitable business in the markets of the Middle East; and to promote stability amidst the expansion of liberty in its countries. Judging by results, we have been doing a lot wrong.

Two related problems in our overall approach need correction. They are “enablement” and the creation of “moral hazard.” Both are fall-out from  relationships of codependency.

Enablement occurs when one party to a relationship indulges or supports and thereby enables another party’s dysfunctional behavior. A familiar example from ordinary life is giving money to a drunk or a drug addict or ignoring, explaining away, or defending their subsequent self-destructive behavior.  Moral hazard is the condition that obtains when one party is emboldened to take risks it would not otherwise take because it knows another party will shoulder the consequences and bear the costs of failure.

The U.S.-Israel relationship has evolved to exemplify codependency. It now embodies both enablement and moral hazard. U.S. support for Israel is unconditional.  Israel has therefore had no need to cultivate relations with others in the Middle East, to declare its borders, or to choose peace over continued expansion into formerly Arab lands. Confidence in U.S. backing enables Israel to do whatever it likes to the Palestinians and its neighbors without having to worry about the consequences.

Israel is now a rich country, but the United States continues to subsidize it with cash transfers and other fiscal privileges. The Jewish state is the most powerful country in the Middle East. It can launch attacks on its neighbors, confident that it will be resupplied by the United States. Its use of U.S. weapons in ways that violate both U.S. and international law goes unrebuked. 41 American vetoes in the United Nations Security Council have exempted Israel from censure and international law. We enable it to defy the expressed will of the international community, including, ironically, our own.

We Americans are facilitating Israel’s indulgence in denial and avoidance of the choices it must make if it is not to jeopardize its long-term existence as a state in the Middle East. The biggest contribution we could now make to Israel’s longevity would be to ration our support for it, so as to cause it to rethink and reform its often self-destructive behavior. Such peace as Israel now enjoys with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians is the direct result of tough love of this kind by earlier American administrations. We Americans cannot save Israel from itself, but we can avoid killing it with uncritical kindness. We should support Israel when it makes sense to do so and it needs our support on specific issues, but not otherwise. Israel is placing itself and American interests in jeopardy. We need to discuss how to reverse this dynamic.

Moral hazard has also been a major problem in our relationship with our Arab partners. Why should they play an active role in countering the threat to them they perceive from Iran, if they can get America to do this for them? Similarly, why should any Muslim country rearrange its priorities to deal with Muslim renegades like Daesh when it can count on America to act for it? If America thinks it must lead, why not let it do so? But responsible foreign and defense policies begin with self-help, not outsourcing of military risks.

The United States has the power-projection and war-fighting capabilities to back a Saudi-led coalition effort against Daesh. The Saudis have the religious and political credibility, leadership credentials, and diplomatic connections to organize such an effort. We do not.

Since this century began, America has administered multiple disappointments to its allies and friends in the Middle East, while empowering their and our adversaries. Unlike the Gulf Arabs, Egypt, and Turkey, Washington does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran. Given our non-Muslim identity, solidarity with Israel, and recent history in the Fertile Crescent, the United States cannot hope to unite the region’s Muslims against Daesh.  Daesh is an insurgency that claims to exemplify Islam as well as a governing structure and an armed force. A coalition led by inhibited foreign forces, built on papered-over differences, and embodying hedged commitments will not defeat such an insurgency with or without boots on the ground.

There is an ineluctable requirement for Muslim leadership and strategic vision from within the region. Without it, the existing political geography of the Arab world — not just the map drawn by Sykes-Picot — faces progressive erosion and ultimate collapse. States will be pulled down, to be succeeded by warlords, as is already happening in Iraq and Syria. Degenerate and perverted forms of Islam will threaten prevailing Sunni and Shi`a religious dispensations, as Daesh now does. If indeed Saudi Arabia is finally prepared to organize a regional coalition to enable it to deal directly with these issues, we should welcome this and give it our backing, while seeking to assure that it does not damage Israel’s security, impede our transit through the region, or otherwise harm our interests.

I come at last to our objectives of promoting trade and liberal values.

The need for considered judgment and restraint extends to refraining from expansive rhetoric about our values or attempting to compel others to conform to them. In practice, we have insisted on democratization only in countries we have invaded or that were otherwise falling apart, as Egypt was during the first of the two “non-coups” it suffered. When elections have yielded governments whose policies we oppose, we have not hesitated to conspire with their opponents to overthrow them. But the results of our efforts to coerce political change in the Middle East are not just failures but catastrophic failures. Our policies have nowhere produced democracy. They have instead contrived the destabilization of societies, the kindling of religious warfare, and the installation of dictatorships contemptuous of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

Frankly, we have done a lot better at selling things, including armaments, to the region than we have at transplanting the ideals of the Atlantic Enlightenment there. The region’s autocrats cooperate with us to secure our protection, and they get it. When they are nonetheless overthrown, the result is not democracy or the rule of law but socio-political collapse and the emergence of  a Hobbesian state of nature in which religious and ethnic communities, families, and individuals are able to feel safe only when they are armed and have the drop on each other. Where we have engineered or attempted to engineer regime change, violent politics, partition, and ethno-religious cleansing have everywhere succeeded unjust but tranquil order. One result of our bungled interventions in Iraq and Syria is the rise of Daesh. This is yet another illustration that, in our efforts to do good in the Middle East, we have violated the principle that one should first do no harm.

Americans used to believe that we could best lead by example. We and those in the Middle East seeking nonviolent change would all be better off if America returned to that tradition and forswore ideologically motivated hectoring and intervention. No one willingly follows a wagging finger. Despite our unparalleled ability to use force against foreigners, the best way to inspire them to emulate us remains showing them that we have our act together. At the moment, we do not.

In the end, to cure the dysfunction in our policies toward the Middle East, it comes down to this. We must cure the dysfunction and venality of our politics. If we cannot, we have no business trying to use an 8,000-mile-long screwdriver to fix things one-third of the way around the world. That doesn’t work well under the best of circumstances. But when the country wielding the screwdriver has very little idea what it’s doing, it really screws things up.

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

Sarasota, Florida

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