Ways to Rescue Mideast Policy
By Russell A.
Berman and Charles Hill
April 24, 2017
Trump administration inherits a Middle East foreign policy in tatters. The
aspirations of then-president Barack Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009 were never
met. Instead, failed states proliferate, nonstate actors amplify disorder, and
the stable rulers who remain rely on shaky legitimacy. The paradigm of a system
of nation-states may be disappearing before our eyes.The contradictions of
American foreign policy are most salient about Syria and Iran. While Washington
has given reconciliation with Iran a high priority, Tehran continues on a path
of unmodified belligerence toward the United States. Meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad,
Iran’s puppet in Syria, remains comfortably in power, despite Obama’s
insistence that he depart.
United States has succeeded neither in realizing its values of democratization
and human rights in the region nor in pursuing its security interests: on the
contrary, the relations with our traditional allies—Egypt, Israel, Saudi
Arabia, and Turkey—have all suffered. ISIS remains a threat throughout
the region and beyond, while a revisionist Russia has taken advantage of the
contraction of American power by laying claim to an ever larger role. In the
wake of American inaction, a human catastrophe has unfolded.Recently the
Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order of
the Hoover Institution convened a group of distinguished experts to discuss the
challenges to American foreign policy in the Middle East. The following
proposals synthesize key aspects of that discussion.
a region, the broad Middle East remains vital to US national interest.
of its importance, the United States cannot disengage from it. It is not an
irrelevant space that can be abandoned to our adversaries or to the chaos of
state failure. The region is on the edge of nuclear weapons proliferation. It is
a major incubator of international terrorism and a source of instability
for our European allies, particularly through mass emigration. In addition, the
Middle East includes trade routes crucial to international trade, and it is the
site of key oil and gas resources that will remain central to the global economy
for decades at least, no matter how energy and environmen-tal policies develop.
The United States must reaffirm its commitment to the region and our role in it.
United States needs to develop and articulate a strategic vision that defines
its desired political outcomes in the region.
the Obama administration, the United States knowingly carried out a strategy of
reducing its role and influence in the Middle East. Our reliability and
credibility have declined, as we have stayed engaged but never sufficiently or
steadily to the point of being successful on any significant issue, let alone in
reaching ultimate strategic goals. Because of the lack of a clear
strategy—other than that of withdrawal—political decisions in recent years
have been inconsistent, and a focus on tactical and operational issues has
obscured the determination of long-term goals and their achievement. Yet
contrary to some recent claims, the American public favors a strong US role in
the world. To succeed, American policy must articulate our political ends
and distinguish between them and the means deployed to attain them.
strategy must be defined above all in terms of US national interests.
of global challenges and the parameters of international organizations can play
into the understanding and pursuit of those interests, but a clear
prioritization of national interest over other concerns is indispensable. A
subordination of national interest to alternative concerns, globalist or
otherwise, is politically unsustainable and, by definition, inconsistent with
vital US goals. The definition of national interest must take into account our
security, our economy, and our values.
and Russia, powers adversarial to the United States, perceive an interest in
cooperating strategically with each other militarily, politically, and
has begun to probe the region for opportunities serving its interests. The IRGC
(Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) has de facto become an Iranian expeditionary
force for invading strategic Arab spaces, countering many decades of US support
for Arab states. The central regional conflict is Shia Iran versus Sunni Saudi
Arabia, with Iran far ahead in both strategic and tactical categories. Iran and
Russia are pursuing strategies to diminish and eliminate US influence in the
Middle East. Because of vital interests in the region, US strategy must be
designed to roll back Iranian and Russian ambitions in the region. This implies
the imperative of opposing Iranian client ambitions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and
is a de facto caliphate without declaring itself to be such.
is both a recognized legitimate state in the established international
state system and a dedicated religious-ideological enemy of the established
world order; it continues to play successfully on one side or the other as best
suits its interests on any given issue. The US government does not appear to be
aware of this double game, or simply accepts it. Iran is not a polity of
moderates and hard-liners; it is a revolutionary theocracy that controls and
makes use of governmental and diplomatic functions to appear to a deceived
outside world as a legitimate regime. The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of
Action) is the linchpin of US policy. It emerged as a one-sided “deal” under
which the United States has provided legitimacy and substantial support for the
regime, while leaving the regime free to take steps that exacerbate the Arab
world’s instability and to employ a variety of anti-US acts and
statements which are seen around the region as humiliations to the Americans.
The result of the JCPOA as it proceeds is to foster Iran’s rise to regional
hegemon. While the JCPOA has suspended a part of Iran’s nuclear weapons
program for a few years, it is seen from within the Iranian hierarchy as
providing it with needed time to advance its centrifuge capability and to
provide the United States with a face-saving timeframe during which to extricate
itself from the region. Yet US interests require ongoing presence in the region.
A purported aim of the JCPOA—to find and bolster so-called moderates in
Tehran—is an illusion.Relations with Iran should henceforth be based on a
clear recognition of the consistently hostile character of the regime. The
unraveling of the JCPOA, already under way in the last months of the Obama
administration, requires, secondarily, that US diplomacy make clear to the
Europeans, partners in the JCPOA, that international security interests
outweigh the prospects of commercial opportunities in the Iranian market.
has used military power to replace the United States as the most employable
potent and credible outside force in the region.
US trends toward cooperating with Russia and Assad’s military operations
(nominally) against the Islamic State, while declaring American opposition to
Vladimir Putin’s international actions and ambitions—and simultaneously
enabling Iran’s rise to hegemony—amount to a web of contradictions. If the
United States attempts to recover some of the influence it has lost over the
past several years, it is likely to find itself nearly checkmated from several
directions. Russia can become a significant structural obstacle to the pursuit
of US interests and could develop substantial relations with traditional US
allies Egypt and Turkey, reducing or possibly displacing US influence.
strategy should limit Russian power by preventing the stabilization of the Assad
regime as a Russian client state. The Syrian state should, however, be
enabled to survive within its formal borders. This requires negotiated
understandings on the need for autonomous regions, so that the several
distinctive communities within Syria may be able to coexist in semi-indepen-dence.
It is necessary to avoid the perpetual chaos and warfare that would follow any
evaporation of Syrian statehood. Ultimately, Assad will have to hand over power
to a newly designed constitutional polity. Rather than stand by the side,
the United States must play a defining role in this process.
is not the enemy.
enemy is jihadi Islamism. The United States has to clarify this distinction in
order not to be misperceived as an enemy of Islam. Clarity on this point is a
precondition for a reaffirmation of traditional US support for Arab regimes.
Furthermore, the JCPOA, understood in the region as proof of an American tilt
toward Shia Iran, has left the impression that the United States is hostile to
Sunni Islam. A correction is required, in particular by repairing and
strengthening relations with the Sunni powers Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
Similarly, relations with Israel need to be reaffirmed and strengthened. Israel
is the only strong partner for the United States in the region, a fact that
should be recognized and appreciated by Washington. A crucial result of the
regional upheavals of the past few years has been the development of productive
working relationships between parts of the Sunni Arab world and Israel. The
United States should encourage this emerging cooperation and not, by its own
actions regarding the issues of Jerusalem or settlements, in effect force the
Arab states to turn against Israel and return to rigid rejectionist positions.
is a threat to regional stability.
continued existence, whether in its territorial “caliphate” in Syria or in
its worldwide terrorist activities, has been used by Iran to draw Shia Islam
under its sway. Yet the perception of a primary American focus on combatting
ISIS has obscured the greater threat of Iran. US strategy, especially in Syria
and Iraq, needs to rebalance these concerns. The US campaign against ISIS should
not be pursued in ways that effectively strengthen the Assad regime to the
benefit of its Iranian and Russian supporters. The perception of an American
pro-Shia bias has fueled Sunni radicalization. A visible American response to
Iranian aggression, most likely in the gulf, is needed to reduce the attraction
of ISIS by undermining its claim that the United States favors Iran.
strength depends on military force, but also on the credibility of our values
through promotion of democratic institutions.
United States should encourage democratic reforms and support elements of civil society
that pursue them. At the same time the United States should recognize that it
must not impose its values in ways that undermine the stability of friendly
regimes. Support for the development of democratic institutions needs to be
balanced by the pragmatic concerns for alliances in a diverse world.
is a scourge of contemporary society, in the Middle East, in the West, and in
the rest of the world.
particular concern is the potential for large-scale attacks, another 9/11 or
worse, that would lead to public calls for dramatic political consequences, such
as severe restrictions on civil liberties. To forestall such events, expansive
counterterrorism intelligence is necessary. In fact, US counterterrorism efforts
have been impressively successful. They have been justified as necessary for the
defense of the American homeland. But their success has also been misused
as grounds for the United States to reduce its traditional leadership role in
the maintenance of international peace and security, along with the
counterinsurgency and “nation building” efforts that the latter requires.
Thus, one essential part of US grand strategy, counterterrorism, has been used
to justify abandoning another essential part of grand strategy, which is the
indispensability of an American commitment to world order. In the context
of a renewed emphasis on the responsibilities of allied powers, a clear
reaffirmation of the primacy of the United States in preserving international
order is needed.
A. Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of
Hoover’s Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the
International Order, and the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at
Stanford University. Charles Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover
Institution and co-chair of the Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on
Islamism and the International Order.