by Graham E. Fuller
October 31, 2017
Washington media, think tanks, various commentators and now John McCain continue hammering on an old theme— that the US has “no policy towards the Middle East.” This is fake analysis. In fact the US very much does have a long-standing policy towards the Middle East. It’s just the wrong one.
What, then, is US policy in the Middle East—under Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton (and even earlier)? When all the rhetoric has been stripped away, we can identity quite clear, precise, and fairly consistent major strategic policy positions.
First, Washington accedes to almost anything that Israel wants. This is an untouchable posture, a third rail, beyond any debate or discussion lest we anger the powerful Zionist lobby of AIPAC and end up being labelled “anti-Semitic.” The New York Times does not even allow us to know that In Israel itself these issues are indeed seriously debated—but never in the US. Small tactical issues aside, there is zero American discussion about whether the far-right government of Israel should be the lode-star of US policy-making in the Middle East.
-Second, we oppose all Iranian actions and seek to weaken that state. Not surprisingly this reflects a key Israeli position on the Middle East as well. Admittedly the US has its own grudges against Iran going back a long way, while the Iranians bear grudges against the US going back well before that.
-Oppose almost anything that Russia does in the Middle East and routinely seek to weaken the Russian position in the region.
-Destroy armed radical jihadi groups anywhere—unilaterally or via proxy.
-Support Saudi Arabia on nearly all issues. Never mind that the Saudi state is responsible for the export of the most radical, dangerous and ugly interpretations of Islam anywhere and is the prime promoter of extremist Islamist ideas across the Muslim world.
-Maintain a US military presence (and as many US military bases as possible) across the Middle East and Eurasia.
-Maximize US arms sales across the region for profit and influence. (There is of course a lot of competition here from the UK, Russia, France, China, and Israel.)
-Support any regime in the Middle East—regardless of how authoritarian or reactionary it may be—as long as it supports these US goals and policies in the region.
-“Protect the free flow of oil.” Yet that free flow of Middle East oil has almost never been threatened and its chief consumers—China, Japan, Korea—should bear whatever burden that might be. But the US wants to bear that “burden” to justify permanent US military forces in the Gulf.
But what about “American values” that are often invoked as goals—such as support for democracy and human rights? Yes, these values are worthy, but they receive support in practice only as long as they do not conflict with the paramount hierarchy of the main goals stated above. And they usually do conflict with those goals.
Far from a “lack of Middle East policy,” all this sounds to me like a very clear set of US policy positions. Washington has consistently followed them for long decades. They largely represent a solid “Washington consensus” that varies only slightly as the think-tankers of one party or the other revolve in and out of government.
Donald Trump has typically upset the apple cart somewhat on all of this—mostly in matters of style in his spontaneous policy lurchings of the moment. But official Washington is pretty good in keeping the range of foreign policy choices fairly narrowly focused within these parameters. Indeed, some might say that this policy mix is just about right. Yet these US aspirations have fairly consistently failed.
The most prominent US policy failures are familiar and proceed from the goals.
-If unquestioning support to Israel is the top priority, Washington has not failed here. But Israel remains about as truculent as ever in maintaining its own priority of extending territorial control and creeping takeover of all Palestinian lands and people. Washington has not been able to protect Israel from itself; Israel has never been more of an international pariah than now in the eyes of most of the world, including large numbers of Jews.
Actually it would actually serve American interests to officially abandon the absurd theater of the “peace process” which has always served as Israeli cover for ever greater annexation of Palestinian land. Instead the US should let the international community assume the major voice, yes, including the UN, in holding Israel to international norms. By now the “two-state solution” is unreachable; the issue is how to manage the very difficult and painful transition to an inevitable “one-state solution” for Palestinians and Israelis—in a democratic and binational secular state.
-Russia is today stronger and more important in the Middle East than since Soviet days. Moscow has been outplaying the US in nearly every respect of the policy game since 9/11. US influence has meanwhile has declined in both relative and absolute terms. Yet Washington’s determination to maintain its own absolute primacy across the world firmly excludes any significant Russian role in global issues. However, if Washington can bring itself to abandon the zero-sum game mindset and work towards a win-win approach with Moscow, it will find much to cooperate with Russia about. As it stands, persistent confrontational policies guarantee unending rivalry, a never-ending self-fulfilling prophesy.
-Contrary to stated US policy goals, Iran has emerged the massive winner from nearly all US policies in the region over two decades. Yet Turkey and Iran represent the only two serious, developed, advanced, stable states in the region, with broadly developed economies, serious “soft power,” and a flexible policies that have gained the respect of most Middle Eastern peoples, even if not of their governments. Yes, Erdogan’s Turkey is at the moment a loose cannon; but Turkish political institutions will certainly survive him even as the clock is ticking on his power grip. Iran’s elections are more real than virtually any other Muslim state in the area. It may be convenient for some to lay virtually all US troubles in the region at Iran’s door, but such analysis upon serious examination is quite deliberately skewed.
-US policies and actions against radical and violent Islamist movements in the Muslim world represent a serious task. Sadly, it is the ongoing US military actions themselves that help explain much of the continued existence and growth of radical movements, starting with major US military support to Islamist mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Later the US destruction of state and societal structures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, to some extent even in Syria and Yemen, have further stirred up anger and radical jihadism.
What can be done? Withdrawal of US boots on the ground and the chain of military bases across the region and into Asia would represent a start, but only a start, in allowing the region to calm down. The region must work out its own problems and not be the object of incessant self-serving US helicopter interventions. Yes, ISIS is a target deserving of destruction, and US policies have been a bit wiser in at least allowing many international forces to play a role in that campaign. But radicalism invariably emerges from radical conditions. There are few military solutions to radical social, political, economic and identity problems. And autocratic rulers will always greet a US presence that helps maintain them in power.
Saudi policies that view Iran as the source of all Middle Eastern problems are erroneous and self-serving, and ignore the real roots of the region’s problems: unceasing war (primarily launched by the US), vast human and economic dislocations, self-serving monarchs and presidents for life, and the absence of any voice by the people over the way they are ruled.
The militarization of US foreign policy everywhere is ill-designed to solve regional problems that call for diplomacy and close cooperation with all regional powers—not their exclusion. Yet these US policies increasingly resemble the late days of the Roman Empire as it found itself up to its neck in barbarians.
Most of the world would welcome shifts in US policies away from the heavy focus on the military option. One reason the US has been losing respect, clout and influence in the region is due to this failing military focus. The rest of the world is now simply trying to work around US fixations. Donald Trump is exacerbating the problem but he is in many ways the logical culmination of decades of failed American policies. Even a kinder gentler Trump cannot solve systemic US foreign policy failures that are now deeply institutionalized.
So repeating the mantra that the US lacks a Middle East policy serves only to conceal the problem. The US very much does have a clear policy. It’s just been dead wrong.
* Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com