An Asian foreign minister recently observed privately that the United States has been fighting but not winning in the Middle East for 20 years, while China has been winning but not fighting for 20 years. That captures much of the last two decades in a nutshell. It can’t go on. It’s worth thinking about how we got here and where we need to go.
Almost 20 years on, the U.S. approach to the Middle East remains rooted in the response to the 9/11 attacks. The war in Afghanistan started soon after and still rages. The U.S. military presence in Iraq started as a response to 9/11 and turned into an occupation with an accompanying counterinsurgency. That then morphed in a counter-terror operation, which led U.S. troops into a similar venture in Syria to fight the Islamic State group.
Fundamentally, though, counterterrorism rose to the top of U.S. priorities in the Middle East. In fact, counterterrorism rose to the top of U.S. security priorities worldwide, and it continues to be the one the U.S. public most widely supports.
But a war on terror, like a war on drugs or a war on poverty, is never done, and technology makes it worse. The spread of literacy and telecommunications has exposed billions of additional people to U.S. policies abroad and expanded the pool of potential anti-Americans dramatically in the last five decades. Equally importantly, it has allowed U.S. citizens to learn directly about anti-American protests, pronouncements, and actions in real time, anywhere in the world. The threshold for committing a terrorist attack is getting lower, and the publicity derived from such an attack is growing. Committing to a “war on terror” is committing to defeat; no wonder Americans draw a direct line between terrorism and the Middle East, and then with failure.
If U.S. troubles ended there, the situation for the United States in the Middle East would be much better than it is. But the United States has been approaching the region with a set of ambitions far out of scale with either its resources or abilities, which further entrenches perceptions of failure.
In Syria, for example, the United States has committed billions of dollars more than Russia, but it remains a minor player in the country’s future. Russia approached Syria with a quite limited set of goals (combined with a lack of concern for civilian casualties), and it sought out leverage from day one. The United States took for granted that it would have leverage in Syria and didn’t do much to develop more. U.S. efforts stalled and Russian-Turkish-Iranian discussions seem destined to have far more influence over Syria’s future shape than anything the United States will do. Russia and Iran also appear to have altered the foreign policy trajectory of Turkey, a NATO ally. It is not a win for the United States.
In addition, the growing U.S. confrontation with Iran has split the United States from its allies and partners, while neither prompting the collapse of the Iranian government nor forcing a change in Iran’s malign regional behavior. Instead, the Iranian government appears to have correctly read President Trump’s aversion to Middle East military action and has taken increasingly bold steps with seeming impunity. U.S. Arab allies in the crosshairs of Iranian aggression are now seeking some sort of accommodation with the Islamic Republic, isolating the United States even more.
It all fits into a pattern in which the United States has inspired much more confidence in its adversaries than its allies. The United States’ Middle Eastern allies are still smarting from President Trump’s October 9 declaration on Twitter , “GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY,” and they wonder what support he might give in times of dire threat. The recent record is not good.
But equally importantly, allies around the world wonder where the United States is trying to go and how they can be helpful to the most powerful country in the world. What they find, instead, is that the United States government has taken a transactional approach to all of them, from Japan to South Korea to Germany. The United States is seeking concessions from the opposite side of the table rather than working in partnership on common interests.
U.S. partners in the Middle East are responding to this shift. There, the United States has become more marginal to countries’ calculations than at any time in memory. Speaking with senior Middle Eastern officials, one gets the impression that they see U.S. actions like “noise”—loud, unpredictable, yet often unsustainable. As the region looks at a United States that is both fatigued by war and liberated by its growing self-sufficiency in energy, assuming the United States will again play the role it played for three-quarters of a century is a dangerous delusion.
Chinese policy has produced an almost entirely opposite situation in this period. China benefits partly from growing energy imports, friendly attitudes toward governments, and a famous aversion to intervention in others’ domestic affairs. But even more important is a widespread conviction around the world that China is the future. China projects confidence, and Middle Easterners project onto the China model what they hope the future will be.
While the United States cannot—and will not—adopt the Chinese approach, there are some lessons to be learned. First, it needs to recalibrate its policy on Iran. The United States is not leading a consensus or even forging one. Instead, it is increasingly alienating the very countries it needs for its Iran policy and provoking many to conclude that the United States and Iran are equally to blame for threatening peace and stability. The more Iran drives this into being a military conflict that the United States is unwilling or unable to conclude decisively, the more equal the two sides become. Iran is a country with virtually no allies, and the United States is a country with many allies that acts like it has none. It makes no sense.
Second, the United States needs to recognize that after 20 years of war, the stakes are higher for those in the region than they are for us. The United States can proclaim what it wants, but people who need to live with the risks and the consequences of policies will always have the upper hand. While the United States should not take a studied disinterest in internal developments in other countries like the Chinese do, more humility about what we can accomplish and how quickly is in order.
Finally, the United States needs to rethink a decades-long commitment to conditioning U.S. actions in order to force countries’ compliance with U.S. wishes. It is appealing to craft intricate provisions that seem to force changes in foreign governments’ behavior, but the long-term impact is often to drive a wedge between countries sharing common interests. While some conditionality is appropriate, it is no substitute for the U.S. government deciding that some governments’ actions are so odious that a close bilateral relationship is not warranted. The United States seems to pursue close relations with virtually every country. One thing it might learn from China is the utility of having a more prioritized set of relationships with regional governments.
Without question, part of the reason the United States has been fighting without winning in the Middle East is a consequence of its decision to fight in the first place. Fighting has the attraction of being immediate and decisive, and the United States has the ability to overmatch any potential adversary in virtually any theater. Yet, military instruments are a poor pathway toward achieving long-term goals. The United States should not mimic the Chinese approach to the Middle East. At the same time, it should learn from it.
Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.
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