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For What It’s Worth

As long as America remains committed to its ideals and interests, it will have a stake in the Middle East
February 9, 2020
For What It’s Worth
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 29: A tractor drives across the vast desert September 29, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. U.S., coalition, and Afghani troops continue to suffer losses in the region, once a Taliban stronghold, mostly from IED attacks and sniper fire. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It is no secret that Americans have renounced the flurry of ambitions and exertion that marked U.S. foreign and national security policy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The average American’s emotional stake in, or attention to, foreign intervention began to wane as America’s expeditions in the Greater Middle East proved more costly and protracted than anticipated. Public interest declined further with the financial crisis of 2008, and the sluggish economic recovery that followed. The Obama presidency signaled its design to constrain America’s role on the world stage, heeding the public’s unwillingness to pay the price of international leadership.

Nowhere has the reduction of American power and presence been more keenly felt and lamented than in the broader Middle East. Without the active maintenance of America’s leading role, the chaotic region has been left to find its own balance of power, with horrifying consequences. As Kim Ghattas records in her absorbing new book “Black Wave,” the underappreciated rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that erupted with the Islamic revolution in 1979 is responsible for so much of the mayhem gripping the region today. It shows no signs of abating.

On the contrary. It is patently clear that the struggle for regional hegemony between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, and their respective proxy and surrogate forces, can only be suppressed and supplanted by a renewed assertion of American power and purpose. Unless this cycle of dueling theocracies–one an absolute monarchy and the other a self-styled Islamic republic–is broken, the geopolitical competition among Middle Eastern powers will continue to beget sectarian strife, jihadist terror, humanitarian disasters, refugee crises, interruptions in international commerce, and the prospect of great power conflict. This, in case you were curious, is the recipe for “endless war.”

What advocates of America’s major retrenchment or outright disengagement fail to understand about this region is that its miseries and furies have betrayed a devilish tendency to multiply when American power penetrates its realm–and even more so when extracted. As long as the repressive and volatile status quo ante in the Middle East is kept intact, the region will remain a cauldron of violence and instability putting vital American interests at risk.

Nonetheless, there remains little public appetite to see the United States fill the void, and accept the imperial burden that would entail. To cite one example of the push for restraint in U.S. foreign policy “east of Suez,” you need only look to a recent essay by Martin Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore.” A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former diplomat in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Indyk is a liberal in good standing, but not the annoying sort. His essay is a broadside against present U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East while stopping short of advocating full disengagement. “There has been a structural shift in American interests in the Middle East,” he writes, that has rendered American leadership and American vigilance superfluous. Indyk concedes that America cannot afford to “turn its back” on the Arab-Muslim world (for reasons he does not explain), but also asserts that it has “few vital interests” at stake there, by which he means interests worth fighting for. 

To buttress this theory, Indyk cites the obsolescence of two priorities of American postwar diplomacy, the flow of Gulf oil and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the basis of this new “21st-century reality.” Although these are not the only vital interests that justify America’s deep involvement in the Middle East, they have certainly been salient ones. Still, Indyk’s presumption that they no longer obtain is misplaced. Let us examine each of these conditions in turn.

The first priority of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East after 1945 has been to keep Gulf petroleum flowing at reasonable prices. The shale revolution and the discovery and development of new energy sources has upended this old reliance by making the U.S. a net oil and natural-gas exporter. In an era of U.S. energy self-sufficiency, according to Indyk, global markets have become “surprisingly resilient in the face of chaos in the Middle East.” It’s certainly true that the fracking boom ensures that the Gulf bloc is no longer as crucial to the world economy as it used to be. But since oil is a globally traded commodity, there are obvious dangers in allowing an area with half of global proven oil reserves and one-third of oil production and exports to be subverted with impunity.

Last year, Iran ratcheted up its long-running campaign of piracy and brigandage in the Strait of Hormuz, a key chokepoint of international commerce. Iran or its proxies are believed to have launched attacks against four oil tankers anchored in UAE waters near Fujairah. The blasts left gaping holes in the vessels’ hulls, rendering them immobile and causing global oil prices to spike by 2 percent. This was followed by a brazen assault on the world’s largest petroleum processing facility in Saudi Arabia. Indyk seems to endorse President Trump’s contemptible reaction: “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.” Needless to say, these wanton acts of sabotage occurred with the U.S. Fifth Fleet lying at anchor nearby. In a world without naval patrols at crucial transit chokepoints, what does Indyk think would be the endgame of Iranian saber-rattling? A major disruption in global oil supplies under such circumstances is not hard to imagine.

To deter and contain such naked aggression, Indyk suggests that “China and India need to be protecting the sea lanes between the Gulf and their ports, not the U.S. Navy.” No mention is made of smaller states without the capacity to deploy far-flung blue-water naval forces to defend their own seaborne commerce from malign state or nonstate actors. How will those states secure their oil and other vital commodities from raids by Somali pirates? How will they respond the next time Iran decides to turn the Strait of Hormuz—the conduit for one-fifth of the world’s traded oil and a quarter of its liquefied natural gas—into a gauntlet?

If history is any guide, such beleaguered nations will behave in one of two ways: The first is the way of Barbary, by paying ransom to marauders in exchange for laissez-passer on the high seas. Needless to say, to greet predatory behavior with tribute is to reward the forces of menace, earning their disdain and stimulating their appetite for more. The second way to ensure that international commerce isn’t choked off for smaller powers is for them to align with larger, powerful nations that can credibly guarantee their shipping routes. This would maintain some modicum of freedom of maritime navigation, at least in the short term, but only at the considerable expense of enhancing, say, Beijing’s sphere of influence while reviving security competition that has been largely suppressed in the postwar era.

The second priority of traditional U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been to ensure Israel’s survival. Although this objective is no longer in question, Indyk may go too far in presuming how secure Israel will invariably be if America dramatically pared down its regional commitment. American economic and military largess and close security cooperation have made Israel the best claimant to be primus inter pares in its neighborhood. But its vulnerabilities are legion, and have been exacerbated considerably by Russia’s supplanting the U.S. as the arbiter of the region’s political future. Meanwhile, the consequences of the Islamic Republic of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability are too terrible to bear consideration.

Since it is in the gravest doubt whether Israel, acting on its own, could effectively thwart Iran’s aspiration to join the nuclear club, Indyk wisely justifies the potential use of U.S. military force to prevent an Iranian bomb. With this caveat duly accounted for, Indyk notes that “it is today’s nuclear-armed Israel that has the means to crush Iran, not the other way around.” This almost certainly goes too far. Israel’s (unofficial) status as a nuclear power is an effective deterrent at a certain level of conflict, but there are innumerable symmetric and asymmetric means of attack available to Iran and its surrogate forces that would pose intolerable dangers and entail devastating consequences for the Jewish state. Preventing the proliferation of unconventional weapons is therefore a necessary but insufficient condition of Israeli security and regional order.

Indyk also advances the argument that reconciling Israel with its Arab neighbors is no longer vitally important to regional stability. Since 2012, when the IDF began to forcibly counter Iran’s expeditionary forces and the Shiite sphere of influence being manufactured on Israel’s borders, the predominantly Sunni Arab Gulf states have been effectively in alliance with Israel against Tehran. But it would be a mistake to presume this strategic comity will continue in perpetuity. 

The liabilities of this strategy are plain. For one thing, illiberal autocratic states invariably have different sets of values and interests that will invariably clash, perhaps violently, with those of Israel. For another, such tribal regimes—what the Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir famously deemed “tribes with flags”—are more brittle than they appear. If harbingers of crisis continue to roil the Islamic republic, or if popular insurrections threaten to overturn Gulf monarchies, Israel’s friends might be given to worry about the advisability about making alliances with such narrow and retrograde regimes.

Moreover, it isn’t at all clear, as Indyk would have us believe, that “a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem is not a vital American interest.” Indyk rightly notes that Palestinian self-determination is a vital interest if Israel is to remain a Jewish democracy, but he doesn’t seem to recognize that Israel’s survival in that condition is something more than a vestigial American interest. The failure to grasp that the absence of Palestinian self-determination (due to both Israeli rapaciousness and Palestinian rejectionism) goes hand in hand with paranoid and destructive behavior from Arab dictatorships has been a costly mistake in American diplomacy for decades. This may not seem like a vital interest today, but it certainly did on September 12, 2001 and it will again.

It is strange that Indyk overlooks other vital U.S. interests that almost certainly require America’s forward presence and activism in the Middle East. In the first crisis of the post-cold war order, Saddam Hussein laid claim to Kuwait as “Iraq’s 19th province,” and ordered the invasion and annexation of this neighboring sovereignty. Even after this aggression was reversed by an American-led coalition, Iraq continued to defy international law and support jihadist terrorism, and represented a permanent menace to its neighbors—all of which kept in place a robust security armature to contain the predations of the Baathist regime in Baghdad. This kind of inveterate hostility to global order now distinguishes the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is not Iran’s bid for regional supremacy, however, that allows Indyk to imagine any kind of U.S. military campaign, but only its quest for a nuclear weapon. 

But this view is shortsighted and rears its head again when Indyk cites the destruction of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate as the warrant for a smaller U.S. footprint. Given that the residual cadres of both that group and al Qaeda can be vanquished “by small numbers of U.S. troops, combined with close cooperation and support for local partners,” he cautions against anything more than a sharply curtailed military mission. The success of this formula is not assured, since it does not contest the growing influence of Iran and Russia, and would court the risk of a reconstituted caliphate in the process.

By failing to arrest or even obstruct the malign influence of Russia and Iran, such a negligible U.S. commitment will allow the inflaming of sectarian animosities that bring Sunni jihadism to a boil. If ISIS manages to reclaim the initiative, as it has before, would Indyk permit coalition airstrikes to impede their advance? If not, his strategy would not have prevailed against the caliphate in the first place. But if so, why wouldn’t it be preferable to pursue a comprehensive strategy that eliminates the stirrings of Islamic militancy before it begins to march? However, Indyk would resolve that matter, his support for even a modest contingent of forces in the land between the two rivers fits awkwardly in a proposal to extricate the U.S. from “endless wars.”

“It is time,” Indyk writes, “for the U.S. to find a way to escape the costly, demoralizing cycle of crusades and retreats.” In its place, he argues that the United States pursue a “sustainable Middle East strategy based on a more realistic assessment of our interests.” No argument there. Few observers would defend the schizophrenic tradition of U.S. foreign intervention,  as Henry Kissinger put it: “In our foreign involvement, we have oscillated between exuberance and exhaustion, between crusading and retreats into self-doubt.” Fewer still would consciously base Middle East strategy on an unrealistic assessment of U.S. interests. What does Indyk really mean to say with this boilerplate rhetoric?

A clue is revealed when Indyk concludes that America must “eschew never-ending wars and grandiose objectives.” The examples he gives—pushing Iran out of Syria, overthrowing Iran’s ayatollahs or resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—are certainly grandiose but should by no means be eschewed. These are strategic objectives crucial to the long-run flourishing of the Middle East. Were the U.S. to forsake this expansive strategy or the means to achieve it, the nations and partners and movements that look to the United States for protection and assistance in this domain would make other arrangements far less conducive to U.S. interests, to say nothing of U.S. ideals.

A few years back, Indyk wrote in favor of a “global strategy” for the United States premised on discharging its far-flung responsibilities and securing its strategic, political and economic interests across the world. “It cannot focus on one critical region to the detriment of others.” He left no doubt in that essay that the Middle East was vital to U.S. interests, and could not be left to its own devices. The Obama administration, he claimed, was jeopardizing those interests by its callous disregard for the “difficult struggle for democracy in the Arab world” and its failure to lead “the effort to bring about a peaceful democratic outcome in Syria.” The transition to democracy in Syria was never going to be peaceful so long as Bashar Assad remained on the throne, but Indyk’s instinct was right that the failure to even try to bring down the tyrant in Damascus was a shameful abdication of U.S. foreign policy.

It’s a pity that Indyk forgot what he once knew: that the surest way for the United States to cease to be a global power is to cede prestige and influence in any critical region. By any reasonable measure, the Middle East will continue to be such a region for the foreseeable future.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.