This article appeared in our Spring 2017 Newsletter.
More than ineffective, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been counter-productive and destructive.
The policy has been ineffective because the U.S. has not been able to show true leadership, play the role of honest broker, and ensure a just peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.
It has been counter-productive be-cause longstanding U.S. support for autocratic rulers and for Israel, and its military presence in the region, has engendered radical Islamist movements that have targeted the U.S. (“the far enemy”) as well as Arab states (“the near enemy”).
It has been destructive because of the dreadful (criminal) decisions to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, and to respond to the Arab Spring by over-throwing Libya’s Gaddafi, supporting an armed rebellion in Assad’s Syria, and encouraging Saudi Arabia’s wan-ton bombardment of the poorest country in the region, Yemen.
When 19 young men – 15 of them from Saudi Arabia – used passenger planes to attack U.S. cities on September 11, 2001, the assault seemed to show that the post-WWII international order was no longer stable and that the U.S. was incapable of containing conflict, disorder, and challenges to its authority.
Regime change in Iraq was meant to showcase US military might and its global power. Instead, it opened up a Pandora’s box of resistance, grievances, protests, regime reprisals (e.g., the violent crackdown on the Green Protests in Iran in 2009), labor unrest, the Arab Spring uprisings, sectarian conflicts, the expansion of terrorism, and intra-regional competition for domination (notably between Iran and Saudi Arabia).
It seems almost superfluous to add that confidence in democracy has greatly diminished in the region. Both the 2008 global recession and the Arab Spring caused much economic havoc, worsening the already high unemployment rates across countries.
The Obama Administration, notably during John Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state, carried out some admirable diplomatic moves, including the nuclear agreement with Iran and the refusal to send troops to Syria. (The rapprochement with Cuba was an-other positive achievement.) Still, it dispatched deadly drones; armed “moderate” rebels in Syria and allowed Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to provide logistical and military support for any and all kinds of rebels; did nothing while Saudi Arabia set about destroying Yemen, its people and its cultural heritage; and provided Israel with billions of dollars in military aid. Mean-while, Russia has emerged/re-emerged as a dominant actor in global politics, and this is anathema to the U.S. political establishment.
Trump has now walked onto this world stage. And his views and plans seem to be all over the place. Initially, I was hopeful about his calls to work with Russia (especially to defeat ISIS and bring about peace and security in Syria), end America’s destructive wars, focus on infrastructural development, and ensure trade agreements that would benefit American workers. But he also has spoken of allocating trillions of dollars to the U.S. military, has assumed a very belligerent stance on China and the agreements with Cuba and Iran, and has appointed an extremely right-wing Zionist as his ambassador to Israel – a man who has used hate speech against progressive American Jews.
The year 2017 began on a dreadful note – the New Year’s terrorist assault at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, and two bombings in Iraq. These are just a few examples of the ISIS reign of terror. More promising has been the ceasefire in Syria, brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, an accomplishment that previously eluded the U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations. We should be encouraged and hopeful by this, and we should call on the Trump administration to work with Russia and Iran to end the conflict in Syria, restore that country’s sovereignty, help rebuild its infrastructure and institutions, enable the return of refugees and internally displaced citizens, and ensure that Arab neighbors no longer meddle in Syria’s affairs. If this means compelling U.S. allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, to end support for the rebels in Syria by with-holding the sale of arms, it would be a small price to pay to help stop the spread of violence and terrorism.
While I am on my wish list, let me add three other suggestions for the Trump administration. First, the U.S. should work with Russia, China, and other U.N. Security Council members to pass a resolution calling for a halt to all armed interventions and hostilities in the Middle East region, including Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen.
Second, U.S. standing in the region would be infinitely enhanced were it to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran so as to end the hostility between the two countries and to point out that defeating the common enemy, ISIS, requires cooperation and not competition among countries in the region.
Third, the Trump administration needs to honor the nuclear agreement with Iran – not disparage and undermine it – and encourage U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel to do the same. Fourth, if the U.S. can afford billions in military aid to Israel and trillions for its own military, surely it can afford several billion dollars to support the democratic transition in Tunisia through socially responsible investments for job creation and infrastructural development. What a different world that would be.
Val Moghadam is professor and director of international affairs at Northeastern University.