U.S. Power and Influence in the Middle East: Part Seven

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Jon Alterman: President George W. Bush never intended to be a foreign-policy president. A former Texas governor, he was committed to making his mark on issues such as educational and immigration reform. The 9/11 attacks transformed the Bush presidency and transformed the United States. For the first time in almost two centuries, the continental United States had come under attack. Bush’s response was to uproot the sources of extremism that motivated the 9/11 hijackers by transforming the Middle East, relying heavily on military power. His logic was clear. In an address to the nation in September 2003, he said:

For a generation leading up to September 11th, 2001, terrorists and their radical allies attacked innocent people in the Middle East and beyond without facing a sustained and serious response. The terrorists became convinced that free nations were decadent and weak. And they grew bolder, believing that history was on their side. Since America put out the fires of September the 11th, and mourned our dead, and went to war, history has taken a different turn. We have carried the fight to the enemy. We are rolling back the terrorist threat to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power.

That fight against terrorism embedded the United States ever-more-deeply in the Middle East, which had been thrust to the center of U.S. strategic thinking. Although Bush surrogates had been skeptical during the presidential campaign of both nation building and using the military for operations other than war, 9/11 turned that thinking on its head. Bush saw reforming repressive societies as necessary for U.S. national security. As he explained to the National Endowment for Democracy later in 2003:

In Iraq, we are helping the long-suffering people of that country to build a decent and democratic society at the center of the Middle East. Together we are transforming a place of torture chambers and mass graves into a nation of laws and free institutions. This undertaking is difficult and costly–yet worthy of our country and critical to our security.

But in the two decades since, U.S. policymakers have come to a different conclusion. Few think that the Bush strategy was the right one. Even fewer think it was successful.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: Especially over the past two decades with the focus on the global war on terror and our quite militaristic approach to the region, I think that we have probably caused more harm than good. I think the obvious lesson is that if you're going to overthrow a leader in the region, you better have a plan on what to do after­­, and we did not have that plan.

Jon Alterman: That’s Dalia Dassa Kaye. She’s a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations and led the RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Public Policy from 2012-2020. That is not the only lesson policymakers have drawn.

Stephen Walt: They understand that most of the things that we've tried to do in that part of the world haven't worked very well over the last 25 years or so. They don't have the political capital to expend on a big Mideast peace push and conditions on the ground aren't appealing. They don't have partners anywhere to really back that, so why beat your head against the wall?

Jon Alterman: That’s Stephen Walt. He’s the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

They understand they're not going to transform the region into a sea of democracies the way that George Bush may have hoped to do. They're not going to get regime change in Iran the way that Mike Pompeo seemed to think he could.

Jon Alterman: Martin Indyk is a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was President Clinton’s senior Middle East staffer on the National Security Council and served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2000 to 2001. In between, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He says that a more modest U.S. approach to the Middle East is overdue.

Martin Indyk: I think that, because of our vast power and because U.S. presidents feel the responsibility to be the leaders of the free world and some sense of divine providence that we can go out and remake the world in our own image, we are prone to overreach. It's overreaching in the Middle East that has been our undoing. For many years, our ambitions got way ahead of our ability to achieve them. That was particularly in the case of the regime change policies we pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan. We really need to downsize our ambitions, especially because we have more pressing priorities in Asia and in Europe. The means which were always somewhat limited and much more limited today.

Jon Alterman: But some argue that the Middle East remains intimately connected to our other priorities and a more modest approach to the region creates an opening for U.S. adversaries. Michael Doran shares that view. He is now a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute. During the George W. Bush administration, he was a senior director for the Middle East on the National Security Council, a deputy assistant secretary of Defense, and a senior advisor in the State Department. He says that, even as the United States looks toward competition with China, it can’t afford to turn away from the Middle East.

Michael Doran: The Chinese are using the Iranians and the Russians as stalking horses, and our policy of drawing back from the hard power game in the Middle East is having the effect of driving our allies to China.

Jon Alterman: While Doran isn’t seeking to resurrect a Middle East-centric U.S. foreign policy, he thinks the United States still has to focus on the region.

What we want is a balance of power. We don't have to take on maximalist agendas and goals of entirely remaking the Middle East when we think in those terms.

Jon Alterman: What should the U.S. posture in the Middle East look like going forward? While there is a broad consensus that the last two decades produced few successes, there is less agreement on exactly what the United States should do to produce more successes or if success is even the right metric for U.S. efforts. How should the United States engage with partners in the Middle East, and how should it engage with adversaries? How does the Middle East fit into U.S. global strategy, especially one with an increased focus on Asia?

Welcome to the U.S. in the Middle East podcast miniseries. In this series we talk to leading experts and former policymakers about the role of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East. I’m your host, Jon Alterman, senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. In this episode, we conclude the series by thinking about the role that the Middle East should play in U.S. global strategy.

For decades, the United States has invested blood and treasure supporting allies and partners in the Middle East. It gave tens of billions of dollars in grants and loans, sold hundreds of billions of dollars of military equipment, and established a string of U.S. military bases from North Africa through to the Gulf. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops deployed to reverse Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and hundreds of thousands more deployed after 9/11 to push Saddam Hussein from power. Even without a war, tens of thousands of U.S. troops continue to patrol the region.

But for years now, U.S. partners in the region have complained that the United States isn’t doing enough in the Middle East or it’s doing the wrong thing. Gulf partners and Israel complain that U.S. efforts to engage Iran diplomatically embolden Tehran and provide Iran the resources to further destabilize the region. They complain that muted U.S. responses to strikes by Iran and its proxies leave them feeling exposed. Capitals across the Middle East watched the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and wondered what it meant for the United States’ commitment to their security. Those events, combined with China’s rise as the United States’ principal national security priority, have left governments in the Middle East feeling vulnerable. As the perception of a U.S. regional withdrawal grows, they’re making new calculations in their relationship with the United States. Martin Indyk says that despite efforts to reassure U.S. partners in the Middle East, there’s not much that the United States can do to change that calculus.

Martin Indyk: I think we can argue until we're blue in the face that we're not leaving, but it's not going to make any difference. I find it very interesting that the perception of the United States’ withdrawal from the region and the perception of a vacuum that's been created has led to our allies and partners in the region turning around to us and saying, "Please, don't go." It's a psychological thing, where they think they can take us for granted and that we'll always be there to protect them in the extreme circumstances. They feel free to go off and misbehave in all ways that are deleterious to our interests.

Jon Alterman: Stephen Walt says that U.S. partners’ recent posturing is all part of a larger pattern of their taking U.S. support for granted.

Stephen Walt: U.S. policy in the Middle East for many years was based on more or less unconditional support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. We're seeing the limits of that policy. You don't get unconditional support back. These countries pursue their own interests as you'd expect them to.

Jon Alterman: He says that it’s time that the United States changed that approach.

Stephen Walt: Maybe a lesson there is that the United States should do more of that as well—not getting into fights for no good purpose. We must be willing to put more pressure on these partners when they're behaving in ways we don't like. I think the United States simply has to have candid conversations with countries like Saudi Arabia who are constantly complaining that the United States isn't supporting them, as well that we're not reliable, or asking what it means that we got out of Afghanistan. The United States can point to a pretty long track record of backing these countries when necessary and say, "Look, if you want to continue to be able to count on this, you can't be perceived in the United States as an ungrateful partner. We've done at least as much for you if not more than you have done for us." That's an act of diplomacy but it's one we shouldn't be shying away from at this point.

Jon Alterman: Martin Indyk agrees and suggests that the United States is at an inflection point with many of its Middle Eastern partners.

Martin Indyk: With dependence comes expectations. They want to act independently in the region, as they made clear when it comes to Iran, where they've said, "We don't like the deal you're going to do, and you go ahead and do it. We're not going to oppose it but, in turn, we don't expect you to object if we take military action against Iran." You can't have both. You can't act independently but then expect us to be always responsive to your needs.

Jon Alterman: The tension is especially visible on the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States sought allies’ solidarity in pushing back against the Russian move. It didn’t get much help.

Martin Indyk: They're all shucking and jiving and trying to walk between the rain drops. They don’t want to side with us on a matter of vital importance to the United States, one that we think should be a vital importance to them because it's about the way that the international system operates.

Jon Alterman: But, according to Indyk, U.S. partners trying to walk between the raindrops might actually be a step in right direction.

Martin Indyk: For Israel to be taking its distance from us in this is a shocker but it is a reflection. The Biden administration's reaction to this has been to give them slack and not to criticize them. In fact, the administration has praised their efforts of mediation, which I think was a pretty transparent attempt to avoid taking sides. Their mediation didn't have much visible effect. That tolerance on the part of the Biden administration is driven by what I call “a calculation of slack for slack” meaning we expect Israel to give us slack on the Iranian nuclear deal. I think there's a convenient arrangement here where we'll tolerate their calculation of their interests and they'll tolerate ours, which is a more mature relationship.

Jon Alterman: To Indyk, these “mature” relationships with partners will be more balanced than bilateral relationships have been in the past. In this new environment, the United States realizes that partners are going to act more independently but also that they don’t have a blank check.

Martin Indyk: That is a true reflection of the price of retrenchment. If we are not going to be present and dominant in their region, we have to expect that they're going to look for other alternatives and calculate their interests in a different way. The fact that they are not lining up in the way that we have reason to expect is a manifestation of this change in the relationship. I don't think it's a bad thing. I think it's a maturing of the relationship. As long as we can still work together on our common interests, it's fine–it's even better because we don't have the bandwidth to do what we used to do there.

Jon Alterman: Dassa Kaye thinks an even broader rethinking of U.S. relationships in the region is overdue.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: Frankly we don't have actual allies in this region, we have partnerships. At times we have aligned interests—at times we don't.

Jon Alterman: And she says that it’s about time that the United States started examining just what those partnerships do for the United States.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: I think we need to ask hard questions. What is the value of our Middle East partnerships today? What are we getting from them? We’re selling billions of arms to this region. At the same time, we’re hearing endless complaints–and rightly so–that we are not there all the time for these countries' security, especially in the Arab Gulf. We're getting the worst of both worlds. We're not really getting credit from anyone. Our partners are disappointed that we're not doing enough. We continue to arm the region in ways that are very destabilizing. A lot of people are asking, what are we getting out of these partnerships?

Jon Alterman: Mike Doran says he has an answer:

Michael Doran: The question is: how are we going to square the circle between the imperative of remaining the dominant power in the Middle East and the reality of not being able to do that through significant application of U.S. military force? The answer is: we have to do it through allies, and when you look at the number of allies in the Middle East with four-star intelligence capabilities, four-star military capabilities, and a willingness to use those capabilities, the number is very small. Israel is at the top of the list. I would argue that Israel is more important to the United States than ever before. We're not doing Israel a favor by helping it with the security. We're doing ourselves a favor.

Michael Doran: All of our discussions should start from a consideration of war in the Middle East. If war breaks out, what does it look like? Who are our allies? The diplomacy should flow from that. The three major allies that we have in the region are Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. They are all crucial for the effort of containing Iran and deterring it. Relations in that golden triangle are not good, historically or at present.

Jon Alterman: He says that the United States’ recent tensions with partners are largely of its own making. As the United States looks to the exits, he says partners have been left to fend for themselves.

Michael Doran: For the moment, their defense is tied to us. Our position is so unique that they don't have a ready option to leave us, but we are alienating them to an extent that is really shocking. When you rake your allies over the coals and begin treating the Russians and the Iranians as valid interlocutors for the United States for stabilizing the Middle East, then you have to deal with the consequences. Your allies are going to follow your example. If you're the Israelis, operations in Syria are vital to your interests, and the United States has made the Russians the dominant power in Syria. What choice do you have?

Jon Alterman: But Walt thinks that when the United States creates more distance from its partners, tensions actually diminish.

Stephen Walt: We have seen in the past few years that the relations among the various Gulf states and Iran sometimes improve when U.S. support doesn't seem to be quite so automatic. When the Trump administration didn't respond as vigorously to some of the things Iran was doing, the reaction in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf was to suddenly say, "Okay, we need to lower the temperature with Iran." They began talking again, in ways they hadn't in a long time. If you got a lowering of the temperature between the United States and Tehran so that we don't seem quite so reflexively willing to back them, you actually give our partners in the region an incentive to try and work things out with Iran as well.

Jon Alterman: Where Walt sees opportunity, Doran sees a brewing disaster.

Michael Doran: Merely by engaging Iran in the way that we've been engaging it, we are building it up. If we go through with the nuclear deal, we're going to build it up even further. At the same time, we are telling our allies that we will only help them defend their territory from Iranian attacks. We will not engage in any activities against Iran designed to deter it. The effect is that we are emboldening Iran. It's obvious to me, and it should be obvious to every observer, that U.S. policy today is emboldening the Iranians. We're not emboldening our allies.

Jon Alterman: He says that leaving U.S. partners to Iran’s ambitions in the region and ignoring their security concerns has left them with little chance but to look for help elsewhere.

Michael Doran: We’ve made our allies defense orphans. They're starting to gravitate toward the Chinese, hoping that they can moderate the Iranians through Beijing. They can put pressure on us as well by showing that they're interested in moving to Beijing.

Jon Alterman: Walt dismisses the idea that engaging with Iran drives partners toward China. In fact, he argues the opposite is true.

Stephen Walt: The most obvious way we could compete with China in the Middle East is to end the marginalization or the ostracism of Iran. The place where probably China has the greatest opportunities to make inroads in the Middle East is with Iran, because we don't do business with them at all. To the extent that Iran still has to try and export oil and China desperately needs reliable energy supplies, that's the most obvious connection.

Jon Alterman: But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think China’s growing engagement in the region poses a challenge for the United States.

Stephen Walt: I think we are going to see the emergence of a more competitive diplomatic environment there, but it's not one where we lack resources to play the game so long as we're realistic about what we can expect. Countries in the Middle East are going to try and play China and the United States against each other, and that's going to require some careful judgment on our part. It doesn't, however, require us to do absolutely everything for countries in the Middle East that start flirting with China.

Jon Alterman: But for Doran, the threat of China’s growing engagement in the Middle East is a little more immediate and existential.

Michael Doran: We're now in a very significant competition with the Chinese in the Middle East, as well as with the Russians and the Iranians. I believe that the Chinese, the Russians, and the Iranians are in an alignment designed to undermine the U.S. order in the world.

Jon Alterman: Martin Indyk isn’t so sure that China wants to replace the United States in the Middle East.

Martin Indyk: I don't see them coming in to challenge us by trying to be dominant in the Middle East. They're very wary about getting dragged into the Middle East vortex. They don't want to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example. They want to have good relations with both. If you want to be a player in the region using your power to influence developments in the region, you're going to have to decide which side you're on. You can't be a superpower that dominates the region if you're trying to have zero problems. You will generate many problems by having that aspiration.

Jon Alterman: Dassa Kaye fears that a strategy to fight Chinese influence is self-defeating.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: This is only going to fuel more competition and can backfire. Chinese engagement to date has largely been economic–if you look at their military engagement, it's been pretty limited. Of course, we're worried about it, but if we engage in this new Cold War mentality with China, we may just be encouraging them to expand that military engagement. Currently, China is not a military threat. Let's not make it one.

Jon Alterman: Doran says that threat is already here.

Michael Doran: They make no secret about wanting to be the dominant military power in the world. We need to be very concerned about military facilities. They were building a military facility of which we don't know the exact nature in the UAE. They have a base in Djibouti.

Jon Alterman: He thinks that’s a role that the United States shouldn’t give up so easily.

Michael Doran: The United States should want to remain the dominant power in the Middle East because of the importance of the Middle East–if for no other reason than its central position in global energy markets. If we cede that to the Chinese, which we are in danger of doing, the Chinese are going to exploit that position in order to become the dominant power, not just in the Middle East, but in all of Eurasia. The contest we're in with China is a contest for Eurasia.

Jon Alterman: Walt thinks a U.S. effort to dominate the Middle East is misguided.

Stephen Walt: The fundamental U.S. interest is not in controlling the Middle East. The fundamental U.S. interest is making sure that nobody controls the Middle East, that it's geopolitically divided, and that the energy that the global economy needs keeps flowing out to world markets. We don't care where it goes, as long as it's part of the larger reservoir of energy out there.

Jon Alterman: Dassa Kaye says that, like it or not, the United States’ chance to play that domineering role has passed.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: We are just not predominant anymore. We're important. We have to be present but we're not the only player. We're going to have to figure out when and how we work with other powers to bring about different outcomes. We need to think about regional security architecture that's nimble, where we work with other partners that have regional buy-in so that everybody sees a value in it.

Jon Alterman: She says that, as U.S. policymakers embrace the new reality in the Middle East, they also need a new focus.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: We need to be clear about where we stand, and this gets to a broader challenge with US policy in the region–we're often focused on what we're against. We're against al-Qaeda. We’re against the Islamic State Group (ISG). We’re against Iran. In the old days, we were against the Soviets. Now we're against China. Everything's about trying to get the bad guys out of the region. What are we for? What's a positive vision for this region?

Jon Alterman: She says that one way the United States could advance that positive vision is by working with partners and adversaries alike to simmer down tensions in the region.

Dalia Dassa Kaye: Look, I don't think we should set our sights very high, but, in the Middle East, even a low bar would be an improvement. We have no regional forum for security cooperation now. We need a forum where countries who are adversaries can sit in the same room and talk through their problems, develop hotlines, and try to at least prevent unintended conflict. You're not going to be able to prevent conflict that a leader or a state for various reasons is intent on, but you can at least prevent unintended conflict. You can increase transparency so that a nuclear accident in a facility doesn't look like some attempt to launch a nuclear attack, so that an earthquake that someone reads as something more militarily intended isn’t misinterpreted. Right now, we don't have channels of communication among adversaries in this region. That is not normal. That is not healthy. We need to be thinking about inclusive, regional security architecture in a much more serious way.

Jon Alterman: Walt sees the benefits of that kind of an arrangement, too.

Stephen Walt: I've never been powerfully attracted to those models but I've over time come to have more respect for them in a number of contexts. Things get worse when the parties aren't talking at all. Having informal channels of communication, being able to deal with functional issues that aren't particularly political—navigation, humanitarian assistance, emergency operations, and sometimes even mundane questions like migration, refugees—turns out to be pretty useful. That starts to get embedded into a regional framework or discussions about what would be an appropriate regional security architecture.

Jon Alterman: Like Dassa Kaye, he doesn’t think we should set the bar too high.

It's tricky in the sense that now, the United States is not in a position to lead that process. If we were to announce that we wanted to do a big new Geneva-style comprehensive regional security discussion, I think our past behavior has made us a less credible convener than we might have been at earlier periods. If local powers want to do that, however, we should encourage that kind of thing to happen. But the ability of all the parties here to throw monkey wrenches into this process at awkward moments is pretty world class.

Jon Alterman: Some wonder just how long the United States is going to need to care about the Middle East. As Stephen Walt notes:

Stephen Walt: The modern Middle East has been shaped as much as anything by its central role as an energy source since World War II–maybe a little bit before that. If that role is coming to an end, let's say by 2050 or 2060, it's hard for me to believe that doesn't have really dramatic effects on how the countries in the region will relate to one another—and how the other major powers outside the region will think about that part of the world.

Jon Alterman: That doesn’t sit well with Mike Doran.

Michael Doran: If I'm around in 30 or 40 years, and we have transitioned away from fossil fuels, I'd love to have that discussion. I probably will not be around, but any strategy today that makes reference to the transition that's going to happen in 30 years is a bad basis for policy.

Jon Alterman: The 9/11 attacks not only focused U.S. policymakers on the Middle East but persuaded many of them that the United States needed a bold and transformative plan to remake the region and remove threats to U.S. interests. Decades of war, the shifting tactics of non-state actors, and the durability of Middle Eastern authoritarianism have left that strategy with few advocates. Yet, there is less agreement on what Middle East strategy should replace it.

Some argue that the Middle East remains a linchpin of the global system and that the United States needs to maintain a robust presence there to keep adversaries in check. Others argue that the Middle East should be a secondary concern. To some, any sensible strategy in the region requires even closer ties to allies and partners, while others suggest that we have arrived at a point where more “mature” relationships mean that all countries should give each other leeway to pursue their national interests as they see fit. Where some see a reduced U.S. presence contributing to regional accommodation, some see it promoting a free-for-all of bad behavior, unbridled competition, and hedging. Some sort of regional security framework may play a constructive role reducing tensions in the coming years but, ultimately, the most important factor may be an external one. The global energy transition is likely to transform the policy economy of the Middle East over the next three decades, and it will transform the regional security environment as well. Two decades ago, President George W. Bush declared the centrality of the Middle East to U.S. national security thinking. Two decades into the future, it is much harder to predict what the region will look like and what role it will play in U.S. thinking. But for those who remember how the United States got embroiled in the Middle East, two or three decades is not that long a period of time.

Thank you for joining us for this miniseries on U.S. Power and Influence in the Middle East. Liz Pulver produced the podcast. Caleb Harper provided research and writing. And I’m your host, Jon Alterman.