Can America Really Rethink Its Approach to the Middle East?

As the P5+1 starts its negotiations with Iran on a comprehensive nuclear deal and President Obama heads to Saudi Arabia next month, there is more than the usual amount of speculation among Western (and other) pundits about the long-term trajectory of American grand strategy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.  We have argued for years—in our book, Going to Tehran, and in many other publications and media appearances—that America’s longstanding drive for Middle Eastern hegemony is not just quixotic; it is counter-productive.  Pursuing hegemony has actually made the United States weaker, in the Middle East and globally.  Consequently, the United States needs to abandon its destructive quest for hegemony (destructive for large numbers of Middle Easterners as well as for American interests) and realign its relations with important regional powers—most notably the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of course, the drivers of Washington’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East have deep roots in America’s political culture and in the discourse of its foreign policy elites.  But reality is asserting its presence in Americans’ collective political consciousness with ever greater resolution.  In particular, President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle following his declaration of intent to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August 2013 underscored for the whole world (including the American public) that, following strategically failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force in the Middle East.

In the wake of the Syria debacle—the effects of which have only intensified as the Syrian government grows stronger, the opposition grows ever more fragmented, and the rising prominence of al-Qa’ida-like jihadi fighters in opposition ranks becomes undeniable—could America’s foreign policy establishment actually begin to rethink the U.S. approach to the Middle East and Persian Gulf?  To open what we hope will be an ongoing conversation about this question, we want to highlight both an exceptionally interesting piece of analysis and a recent authoritative policy statement.

Earlier this month, Alastair Crooke, our colleague at the Conflicts Forum published a truly provocative (in the best sense of the word) piece in Al-Akhbar, “The Obama Doctrine and a New Equilibrium,” see here and here, about what’s really at stake in America’s evolving foreign policy debate.  We append the text below:

The Obama Doctrine and a New Equilibrium

Alastair Crooke

In David Remnick’s recent interview with President Obama in the New Yorker, Remnick quotes Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, saying that Obama’s “long game” on foreign policy calls for traditional categories of American power and ideology to be reordered—insisting that Washington simply had become “trapped in very stale narratives.”

Rhodes is not specific about what those ‘narratives’ are, nor does he analyse how they came about; but he adds this:  “In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention.”  He continues:  “In the Democratic Party, these debates were defined in the nineties, and the idealists lined up for military intervention.  For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya—to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist.  We spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and had troops there for a decade, and you can’t say it wielded positive influence.  Just the opposite.  We can’t seem to get out of these boxes.”

In short, Rhodes suggests that to be an idealist now has somehow become identified with having to support “humanitarian” military interventionism.  This conflation, he suggests, lies at the core of President Obama’s foreign policy dilemma:  Obama simply does not believe that military intervention is some sort of ‘joystick’ that allows an American President to pull the lever in this direction, or in that, to achieve precisely the outcome which the US desires.  Remnick quotes others who say that Obama sees change more as something organic—the result of invisible long-term dynamics, working to their own pattern and timetable, within society (which he calls “currents”)—rather than being something that can be sculpted into a desirable shape through military hammer and chisel.  The best that a (contemporary) President can do is to spot, and then work with any favourable current, hoping that it may take one in a good direction—but always unsure of the final destination.  Rhodes identifies Obama’s ‘bind’ as understanding this ‘limit to power’, whilst living in the American Beltway world where the imperative of humanitarian interventionism has come to define ‘foreign policy’ idealism.

Obama’s second insight is fundamental.  Carefully wrapped in guarded language, Obama suggests that the problem in the Middle East essentially derives from sectarian conflict:  “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told Remnick.  “And although it would not solve the entire problem … (with an Iranian solution) you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran, in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”  This is key:  if the problem primarily is one of inflamed historic Islamic animosities, military intervention from the Christian West has no place in it; or, is likely only to polarise it further.  The answer (to much of the tension in the Middle East) Obama clearly says, is that “If you can start unwinding some of that [Sunni-Shi’i hostility], that creates a new equilibrium.  And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained; it is expressed in ways that don’t exact such an enormous toll on the countries involved, and that allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there.”

The ‘box’—mentioned by Rhodes, but left undefined—from which Obama seeks to escape, however, is made explicit in a further Obama comment:  “With respect to Israel, the interests of Israel…are actually very closely aligned with the interests of the Sunni states.”  To this, we (Conflicts Forum) could add that both European, American and most think-tank elites, too, have very much aligned to the interests of Sunni states (and Israel) – and have unconsciously absorbed and uncritically adopted the narrative of Sunni ‘victimhood’ in respect to the Shi’i ‘resurgence’.  As a consequence, there is considerable anger directed at his Iran policy, which Obama implicitly acknowledges.

Of course, many (particularly humanitarian interventionists) will rush to deny Obama’s central observation.  They will say that ‘sectarianism’ is a bogus ploy designed to cover up, and divert from, the true roots of Middle East conflict, which lie with political failure, societal and economic failures.  And there is some truth to this complaint.  The Sunni ‘awakening’ was essentially an anti-system eruption.  It is also true that the ‘Arab system’ and all alternative national ‘models’ (Gulf, Turkish, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) are widely and deeply deprecated in Middle East societies.  It is also true that the power-plays by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the reactionary, counter-revolutionary interventions to unseat and destroy the MB, have used sectarianism for their own political purposes.  But nonetheless, sectarianism has been inflamed, and the West has played its part in this—in Iraq, where it promoted firstly Shi’i militia to fight Sunnis, and then launched ‘Awakening’ Councils (Sunni militia) who in many cases attacked the Shi’i—as much as have the actors in the region been responsible for sectarian recrudescence.

The animosities kindled by sectarianism however are psychologically very real. Deep vulnerabilities, fears (and prejudice) lie behind them.  The balance between the Shi’i and Sunni has oscillated many times over the centuries.  Once, much of Syria (then including Lebanon), Iraq and Palestine (and Egypt) were Shi’i.  And people remember.

More recently the entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades.  As Giandomenico Picco has noted, these began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle, when Saudi Arabia entered the war in Afghanistan, and a bitter Sunni-Shi’i struggle ensued (little noticed by the West)—as Iran backed the Northern Alliance against the Saudi supported Taliban.

It was the Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Iran however, which convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making.  There followed the Iraq-Iran war, a conflict instigated in part to halt a Shi’i resurgence; and then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  As Picco notes, “Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative.  In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and ‘the land of the two rivers’ came under the control of the Sunni minority.  Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites in a contemporary Iraq where the Shi’i were a majority.  Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.”  In the wake of the 2006 war, in which Hizbullah successfully halted Israel’s attempt to destroy the movement, Gulf anxieties soared as Hizbullah and Iran were lionised in the Arab street.  And with these heightened anxieties, so too soared the Gulf anti-Shi’i rhetoric of sectarianism, which has so empowered, and on its own terms legitimized, the Sunni extremists.

President Obama surely is right in his insight that a lowering of sectarian tension—though not in itself a sufficient condition to solve all the region’s many problems—nonetheless may be the key to finding a new geopolitical equilibrium.  But the consequences of ‘equilibrating’ between Shi’i and Sunni power will be profound—if he manages to carry them through.  It will resonate well beyond the Middle East; but for Saudi Arabia and Israel, it will require a fundamental ‘re-set’ of their policies, as their grip over American policy-making, becomes loosened.

For much of the 20th century, successive US Presidents have sought to prevent any single country from dominating the centers of strategic power in Europe and Asia.  The Carter doctrine simply refocused this basic principle of foreign policy specifically onto the Middle East, where no power that was not friendly to the US (or Israel) would be entertained, or permitted.

Events in Syria—particularly the Chemical Weapons Accord—have changed this paradigm:  Russia, partly as a consequence of its Syrian and Iranian diplomacy has re-established itself as a Eurasian ‘power.’  An accord with Iran will unleash another Eurasian economic and political power.  Not only is the Carter doctrine being overturned, but the seminal underlying American thinking—‘for the new (American) century’—is by implication being consigned to the category of ‘stale narrative.’  Eurasia is rising (and it rising on a tide of natural and energy resources).

Recall that it was Zbig Brzezinski who earlier had written in his The Grand Chessboard, “Ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the centre of world power.”  [Eurasia here means the Middle East and Central Asia]…it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America:  In that context, how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical.  A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.  A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania (Australia) geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent.  About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil.  Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”

Well, this is what is happening now:  the structures for containing Eurasia are eroding.  Europeans should take good note too.  They must consider their foreign policy. Do they remain with their relationship heavily weighted towards the US and become ‘peripheral’ to the world’s central continent (in Brzezinski’s words), or should they re-orient towards the new centre of power?

Naturally, Obama already is being accused of ‘losing’ the Middle East to Tehran and Moscow.  But the withdrawal of Britain from India and Pakistan was punctuated with similar cries of ‘sell-out’, and grave warnings of how much the Indians would regret the British passing.  But how obvious Britain’s loss of will, and its need to exit, all seems now.  Now it is the West as whole, and not just Britain or America, that is undergoing a new period of introspection as categories of thought erode, and the World Order shifts in new directions.  The cold truth is that which Obama told Netanyahu and the Senators:  the ideal –“the absolutist benchmark” is not available—“it is not achievable.”

The difficulty here is that the ‘narrative’ of striving for the ‘ideal’ has been so deeply rooted into the American psyche—and then grafted onto the European (and western think-tank) psyche too.  More than two years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, some figures at the US Council for Foreign Relations launched a confidential project which came to be known as the ‘war and peace studies’, with financial support from State Department.  They foresaw—even then—that the outcome of the expected war in Europe would leave America in a dominant position, economically and politically.  They also warned against America repeating the mistake of the British, by pronouncing an American ‘empire’ (though that is what effectively they were advocating).  Instead of imperialism, America should espouse a narrative of ‘ideals.’  Its ‘Empire’ should be founded not just in military might, but also in a ‘narrative’ of progress, democracy and liberty.  The task, these policy-formulators believed, was how to use America’s unrivaled military, economic, and political power to fashion an international environment conducive to its interests—wrapped in the narrative of progress, democracy and liberty:  In short, a foreign policy pursued in the cause of utopia.

But as one philosopher noted more than two thousand years ago, the ‘hero’ of virtue and the pursuer of a mission civilisatrice ultimately becomes emired in its own ambiguities. Why?  Because, as the CFR researchers were advocating, America had set itself the aim of achieving ‘doing good’ as an object.  Once America came to see ‘the good’ as some ‘thing’ to be attained, it becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape:  between the present in which America is not yet in possession of what it seeks; and the future, in which Americans believe they will get what they desire—a future made present by their efforts to eliminate evil.

From the moment that the ‘idealists’ set their values as objects to be attained, these values lead to delusion and alienation:  Since the more one concentrates on the means to attain ‘progress, democracy and liberty,’ and the more it becomes an abstract, treated as something to be attained by special military techniques (special forces, drones, etc.—remember Samantha Power, the former self-proclaimed “genocide chick”, “promoting democracy whenever and wherever … at the point of a cruise missile if necessary”), the less ‘real’ it becomes.  As it becomes less real, it recedes further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability.  In short, the more one concentrates on the means to one’s mission, the more the means become elaborate and complex, until finally the mere concentration on shaping the world becomes so demanding that all effort must be concentrated on this—and the end loses its true meaning.  The conclusion of this early thinker was that ‘the good” which is preached and exacted by the moralist and idealist, finally—and paradoxically—may become an evil.

It seems from David Remnick’s account that President Obama intuitively grasps this, and is seeking to orient America away from this pursuit of a mission civilisatrice, in favour of a more limited goal of creating the ‘space’ for positive currents to grow in their own way.  The ‘idealists’—the humanitarian interventionists—(and of course the neo-conservatives) may never forgive him—they will conclude that he is giving way to the ‘evil’ they believe stands in the way of having something (the mission achieved), which one does not have, and which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it becomes unattainable.

We are not sure whether President Obama is really seeking to orient American grand strategy in the greater Middle East and Eurasia toward “creating the ‘space’ for positive current to grow in their own way”—but Alastair’s piece offers a brilliant assessment of what that task entails and how politically and culturally challenging it is for Washington to carry out.

As a public indicator of how the Obama administration’s foreign policy thinking might be evolving, we also want to highlight an important address earlier this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.  For a video and a transcript of the address, “A Renewed Agenda for U.S.-Gulf Partnership,” see here.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


America and the Middle East: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again


Strikingly, today, February 11, is both the anniversary of the victory of the 1979 Iranian Revolution over the U.S.-installed Shah and anniversary of the 2011 overthrow of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (another American puppet)—surely the high point of what so many came to call the “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Spring.”

For the occasion, Al Jazeera has published Hillary’s latest Op Ed—see here; we also append the text below.  In it, Hillary argues that, in their approach to Egypt’s (now aborted) revolution and other manifestations of the Arab Awakening, Washington elites seem to have learned nothing from their predecessors’ destructive and counter-productive response to the Iranian revolution.

As long as Washington clings to the murderous illusion of its hegemonic “leadership” in the Middle East, it needs cooperative autocrats to facilitate its imperial project.  This means that the United States cannot endorse moves toward truly representative governance in the region.  For any regional government accountable to its own people and not to Washington will pursue foreign policy independence.

As Hillary writes, “Putting US strategy in the Middle East on a more positive and productive trajectory will require Washington to accept the region on its own terms, to deal straightforwardly with all relevant (and authentic) actors, and to admit that trying to coercively micromanage political outcomes in Muslim-majority societies isn’t just incompatible with claims to respect popular sovereignty—it is unsustainable and counter-productive for long-term US interests.”  Until that happens, the bloody and self-damaging results of America’s Middle East policy will continue to mount.

As always, we encourage you to post comments both here and on the Al Jazeera Web site.

America and the Arab Awakening:  Déjà Vu?

by Hillary Mann Leverett

Three years ago, Washington experienced its own dose of “shock and awe”—the PR phrase used to sanitise its brutal invasion of Iraq—when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary Arabs took to the streets to demand the overthrow of leaders more interested in Washington’s approval than that of their own peoples.  But American policy elites’ professed surprise was primarily a function of their own self-imposed amnesia and delusion.

No one in Washington seemed to realise or care that Egyptians forced their pro-American dictator from power on February 11, 2011—32 years to the day after the Shah of Iran’s military conceded to the will of the Iranian people, giving birth to the Islamic Republic of Iran and bringing down a pillar of American dominance in the region.  On the eve of Iran’s revolution, as a deep and abiding thirst for independence was sweeping through Iran, President Jimmy Carter toasted the shah, in “great tribute…to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”

Thirty-two years later, US foreign policy elites seemed to have learned little.  When similar revolutionary fervour threatened another pillar of US dominance in the Middle East—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—the Obama administration appeared to be following the example of its 1970s predecessor.  Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed that Mubarak wasn’t “a dictator” because he was an American ally and a friend of Israel—thereby highlighting that the only way an Arab leader can be those things is by being a dictator.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already declared “President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family.”

But with security forces marauding through Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square, killing nearly 1,000 people by the time Mubarak finally resigned—and drawing more people to protest, instead of repelling them—alarm set in among Washington’s foreign policy elite.  Could the US really lose the Egyptian pillar it had so assiduously co-opted after its Iranian pillar was tossed out in 1979?

When Washington finally understood that Mubarak’s days were numbered, as Carter had finally understood with the shah, the Obama administration tried to orchestrate a “transition” to Mubarak’s reviled intelligence chief.  Omar Suleiman was the man responsible for “rendering” Egyptians to be tortured for the CIA and for collaborating with Israel to keep the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza under siege.  When that did not work, Washington set out to co-opt and then abort what it termed the Arab Spring—a Western phrase meant to depict movement toward secular liberalism rather than toward participatory Islamist governance.

Unchanging foreign policy

Mubarak’s departure brought into uncomfortably stark relief a reality that US policymakers had denied since the overthrow of the shah thirty-two years before. US efforts to use cooperative autocrats—autocrats willing to facilitate US military aggression, to torture alleged “terrorists” (their own citizens) for the CIA’s benefit, and to tolerate a militarily dominant Israel engaged in open-ended occupation of Arab populations—to promote American hegemony over the Middle East were unacceptable to the vast majority of people there.

As protests unfolded in Egypt, large numbers of demonstrators in Yemen demanded that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh—a major US counter-terror collaborator—resign.  Three days after Mubarak’s removal, large-scale protests paralysed Bahrain—home of the US Fifth Fleet—underscoring the threat to America’s regional hegemony even more dramatically.

US foreign policy elites were not just concerned about a precipitous erosion of the US strategic position in the Middle East.  They also worried about what the spread of popular demand for leaderships accountable to their peoples, not to Washington, would mean for the hegemonic house of cards the US had imposed on the region.

It was clear—and has become ever clearer over the past three years—that the majority of population in the Middle East want to vote for their leaders and to have a voice in decision-making on issues affecting their daily lives and social identities.  But they also want that to happen in an explicitly Islamic framework – not in some secular, liberal “Spring” context, divorced from their identities and ability to assert real independence.

When given the chance to express preferences about their political futures, Middle Eastern Muslims do not embrace the sort of secular liberalism that America might be able to countenance as an alternative to pro-Western autocracy.  Rather, they vote for Islamists espousing the integration of participatory politics and elections with Islamic principles—and with a commitment to foreign policy independence.

Thus, in early 2011, Washington was anxious that the Arab Awakening would ultimately benefit the Islamic Republic of Iran.  For the Islamic Republic is the Middle East’s only political system that, since 1979, has actually tried to integrate participatory politics and elections with principles and institutions of Islamic governance.  It has also been an exemplar of foreign policy independence, embodied in its consistent refusal to submit to the imperatives of a pro-US regional order.

Three US goals in the Middle East

Faced with these risks to its hegemonic ambitions, the US could not simply declare its opposition to popular sovereignty in the Middle East.  Instead, the Obama administration crafted a policy response to the Arab Awakening that had three major goals.  In the course of pursuing these goals, the administration—with strong bipartisan backing in Congress—has imposed even more instability and violence on the region.  It has also set the stage for further erosion of the credibility and effectiveness of US policy in a vital part of the world.

The Obama administration’s first goal was to prevent the Arab Awakening from taking down any more US allies.  To that end, the administration tacitly (but happily) acquiesced to the Saudi-led military intervention in Bahrain on March 14, 2011 to sustain the Khalifa monarchy.  As a result, the monarchy continues to hold on to power (for now) and US naval forces continue operating out of Bahrain.

At the same time, Washington’s support for suppressing popular demands for political change there through Saudi Arabia’s armed intervention has helped fuel a dangerous resurgence of sectarian tensions across the Middle East.  This, in turn, has given new life to al-Qaeda and similar jihadi movements around the region.

The Obama administration’s second goal was to co-opt the Arab Awakening for US purposes, by showing that, somewhere in the Middle East, the US could put itself on the “right” side of history.  So, when Saudi Arabia offered the Arab League “cover” to intervene in Libya and arm anti-Gaddafi rebels, President Barack Obama overrode objections by his defence secretary and military leaders to order US forces into action.

On March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council narrowly adopted a resolution authorising use of force to protect civilian populations in Libya.  In short order, Team Obama distorted it to turn civilian protection into coercive regime change.  The results have been disastrous for US interests and for the region:  Worsening violence in Libya, a growing jihadi threat in North Africa, a dead US ambassador, and more polarised US relations with Russia and China.

The Obama administration’s third goal was to show that, after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and near-misses in Bahrain and Yemen, it wasn’t just authoritarian regimes willing to subordinate their foreign policies to the US that were at risk from popular discontent.  In particular, Washington wanted to demonstrate that it was also possible to bring down regimes with clear commitments to foreign policy independence—and, in the process, weaken not just Iran’s strategic position but that of Islamists across the region promoting participatory Islamist governance.

Soon after unrest started in Syria in March 2011, the Obama administration saw an opening, declaring that President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and goading an externally supported “opposition” to undermine him—if not bring him down. It was clear from the start that arming a deeply divided opposition would not bring down the Syrian government.  Nevertheless, Washington joined with its so-called allies in Riyadh, Paris, and London in an almost desperate attempt to roll back Iran’s rising power.

Almost three years on, Iraq, as well as Iran, have been hurt by this misadventure—but the American and the Syrian people have paid a much higher price.  Washington has paid in terms of its regional standing, intensification of the regional resurgence of violent extremists, and further polarisation of relations with Russia and China; Syria, of course, has paid with over 100,000 Syrians killed (so far) and millions more displaced.

More recently, the Obama administration’s tacit backing for the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president in July 2013 has removed any residual doubt that the US, intent on clinging to its hegemonic prerogatives in the Middle East, can endorse moves toward real democracy in the region.  Putting US strategy in the Middle East on a more positive and productive trajectory will require Washington to accept the region on its own terms, to deal straightforwardly with all relevant (and authentic) actors, and to admit that trying to coercively micromanage political outcomes in Muslim-majority societies isn’t just incompatible with claims to respect popular sovereignty—it is unsustainable and counter-productive for long-term US interests.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett