An End to Magical Thinking in the Middle East

Smoke rises over Islamic State-held Baghouz, the last territory held by the militants in Syria, as U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pound the area with air strikes and artillery on Monday, March 11, 2019.

AP / Maya Alleruzzo

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Smoke rises over Islamic State-held Baghouz, the last territory held by the militants in Syria, as U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pound the area with air strikes and artillery on Monday, March 11, 2019.

It’s time to abandon the dogma that’s driven our foreign policy and led to so much disaster in the region.

President Donald Trump’s October decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria produced a rare moment of bipartisanship in foreign policy. With a shared sense of alarm, Republicans and Democrats alike accused Trump of betrayal.

Certainly, it was a betrayal of the Kurdish partners who bled for us in the fight against the Islamic State. It was also a betrayal of process—leaving our military leaders and diplomats struggling to keep up with tweets, our allies in the dark, our messaging all over the map, and chaos on the ground.

If all this episode engenders, however, is a bipartisan dip in the warm waters of self-righteous criticism, it will be a tragedy—or worse, a mistake. We have to come to grips with the deeper and more consequential betrayal of common sense—the notion that the only antidote to Trump’s fumbling attempts to disentangle the United States from the region is a retreat to the magical thinking that has animated so much of America’s moment in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.

I served as a career diplomat throughout most of this era, sharing in our successes as well as our failures. Despite important achievements, we all too often misread regional currents and mismatched ends and means. In our episodic missionary zeal, especially after the terrible jolt to our system on 9/11, we tended to overreach militarily and underinvest diplomatically. We let our ambitions outstrip the practical possibilities of a region where perfect is rarely on the menu, and second- and third-order consequences are rarely uplifting. The temptations of magical thinking, the persistent tendency to assume too much about our influence and too little about the obstacles in our path and the agency of other actors, led to indiscipline and disappointments—steadily diminishing the appetite of most Americans for Middle East adventures.

Related: 10 Ways America’s Situation in the Middle East Will Get Worse

Related: The Consequences of Donald Trump Washing His Hands of the Middle East

Related: China’s Risky Middle East Bet

That leaves American policy at a crossroads. Our moment as the singular dominant outside player in the Middle East has faded, but we still have a solid hand to play. The key to playing it well will be neither restoration of the inflated ambition and over-militarization of much of the post-9/11 period nor sweeping disengagement. Instead, we need a significant shift in the terms of our engagement in the region—lowering our expectations for transformation, ending our habit of indulging the worst instincts of our partners and engaging in cosmic confrontation with state adversaries, finding a more focused and sustainable approach to counterterrorism, and putting more emphasis on diplomacy backed up by military leverage, instead of the other way around.

America’s post–Cold War journey in the Middle East looked a lot more promising at first than it does today. Blessed with a stronger geopolitical position than its successors, the George H. W. Bush administration was also less prone to magical thinking. The administration brought discipline to the challenge of mobilizing the Desert Storm coalition—and to resisting the temptation to pursue fleeing Iraqi forces to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State James Baker masterfully orchestrated the Madrid peace conference between Arabs and Israelis, but kept his expectations in check, careful not to overpromise what might come of the long slog of negotiations.

Bill Clinton built on that foundation, with painstaking progress throughout the 1990s but a debilitating setback at the Camp David Summit in 2000. George W. Bush’s modest successes, such as persuading Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya to abandon terrorism and a rudimentary nuclear program, were overwhelmed by the massive failure of the Iraq War in 2003. That tragically unnecessary conflict laid bare the deep and violent fissures of Iraq, opened the playing field for Iranian ambitions, and unsettled Arab partners already drowning in their domestic dysfunctions. The War on Terror crowded out other priorities. To the extent that the administration tried to press other concerns—about the political and economic stagnation on which terrorists fed, for example—the debacle in Iraq and our own War on Terror abuses made us unpersuasive messengers.

Barack Obama was the last person who needed to be convinced that America’s fantasies in the Middle East were often self-defeating, and he was clear-eyed about the need to shift our approach. But he never managed to escape his inheritance. His early, lofty hopes for a “new beginning” fell victim to the unsynchronized passions of the region and its leaders, most visibly during the Arab Spring and most painfully in the Syrian civil war. The ambitions of his long game—redirecting America’s focus to the Asia-Pacific, reversing the inversion of force and diplomacy, and reducing the U.S. military footprint—collided with the vexations of the region and the tactical missteps of our short game.

Despite the notable accomplishment of the Iran nuclear deal, adjusting the terms of our engagement was harder than Obama had anticipated. Most of the region’s players were accustomed to America’s centrality in their world, and schizophrenic in their simultaneous resentments and expectations of American influence. While we saw the Arab Spring as a window of opportunity and the Iran agreement as a demonstration of the value of hard-nosed diplomacy, most of our friends saw them as existential dangers. They continually exaggerated our ability to affect events, and we did the same.

Trump’s diagnosis of the pathologies of U.S. policy in the Middle East was in some ways similar to Obama’s, and his anti-establishment view struck a chord with many Americans. As Trump saw it, we were suckers for taking on too much and gaining too little in the Middle East, where people had been fighting for millennia, and where we had no obvious responsibility or capacity to fix things. Trump’s prescription, however, has been crudely drawn and ineptly executed, a reflection of his own distinct brand of magical thinking.

Rather than rebalancing diplomacy and force, he has so far abandoned the former and misplayed the latter. His big idea was the flawed notion that you could shoehorn American strategy into a grand coalition against Iran, stretching from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel to Gulf Arab autocracies. The result has been spectacularly corrosive for American interests. Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear accord and launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, untethered to realistic goals, an idiosyncratic model of coercive diplomacy that was all coercion and no diplomacy. Iran made clear that it had a vote too, escalating tensions in the Gulf and edging steadily away from nuclear limits. The U.S. dispatched 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia just as the president was insisting that he was scaling back the American military presence in the region.

That same illogic played out in Syria. Our modest military deployment in northern Syria couldn’t be sustained indefinitely, and gave us only limited diplomatic leverage. But there was a smart way and a dumb way to manage that reality. Trump chose the latter: In one hasty phone call, he surrendered our leverage, offering a green light for a Turkish offensive and a boost for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Russians, and the Iranians. While most American forces remain—their redeployment thinly disguised, in a bow to presidential vanity, as an effort to “keep the oil”—the sad reality is that ISIS may prove the ultimate beneficiary, resurrecting itself out of the nasty muck of grievance and insecurity we are leaving behind.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to indulge the overreach of Arab authoritarians at home and abroad, convinced that strongmen are the optimal custodians of regional stability. His talk of a “deal of the century” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict camouflaged a methodical tilt toward the Israeli right, all but obliterating any vestigial hope of a two-state solution. Never has American diplomacy given away so many negotiating cards so fast for so little.

So where do we go from here? American policy is in a deep hole in the Middle East, the product of decades of intermittent digging, a major excavation project in Iraq in 2003, and now more determined Trumpian burrowing. Climbing back to more stable terrain post-Trump will require at least three ingredients.

First, we need to rightsize our ambitions and realign our tools. In relative terms, the Middle East matters less to us than it did at the outset of our unipolar moment 30 years ago. Our economy is less directly dependent on its energy resources, and we face more consequential geopolitical challenges elsewhere.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Middle East doesn’t matter at all to U.S. interests anymore—but it does mean that American policy will have to be more rigorous and discerning about where and how we invest scarce resources and take risks. For the foreseeable future, we will still have several familiar core interests: ensuring freedom of navigation and access to hydrocarbons in the Gulf; guarding against a regional or external hegemon who might endanger the security of long-standing friends such as Israel or key Arab states; and working with others to prevent the emergence of terrorist groups with reach beyond the region and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, either of which could put the U.S. homeland at risk.

We won’t be able to solve every threat to those interests, but we can manage them at acceptable cost if we’re disciplined about priorities and mindful of limits. The brute fact is that the post-9/11 expenditure of U.S. resources and risk taking—especially our regime-change and societal-reengineering projects, and our penchant to confront rather than contain adversaries such as Iran—has too often undermined, rather than safeguarded, those interests. We can’t have it all anymore, and we don’t need to.

Second, we need to recalibrate our relationships across the region in order to contribute to some long-term semblance of order. With Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, that means much more of a two-way street. We ought to support them against legitimate external security threats, from Iran or anyone else, and back serious political and economic modernization. They need to stop acting as if they’re entitled to a blank check from us, end the catastrophic war in Yemen, stop meddling in political transitions in places such as Libya and Sudan, and manage their internal rivalries. And we need to find a way back to an updated nuclear deal with Iran. That will not be a miracle cure for all our serious differences with the current regime in Tehran, from its regional aggression to its domestic repression. It will, however, be an essential starting point for countering its threats and eventually reducing them.

A lot will depend on the prospects for Saudis and Iranians finding some basis for regional co-existence—built not on trust or the end of rivalry, but on the more cold-blooded assumption that they both have a stake in stable competition. Tentative contact between them, over the war in Yemen for example, suggests that they are beginning to awaken to that reality. Our instinct should be to reinforce and encourage their dialogue, not sabotage it.

The Levant is likely to remain tangled for decades. Our commitment to Israel’s security is deep-rooted, and its emergence as a military and economic powerhouse in the region is a remarkable story. And yet it is hard to see how Israel’s long-term security interests, let alone its future as a Jewish democracy, are served by the emergence of a one-state solution, with Arabs in the majority in the land Israel controls from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

In that circumstance, Hashemite Jordan, a sturdy partner of the United States for many years, could be collateral damage, with the Israeli right reviving its efforts to export Israel’s demographic problem to the other side of the Jordan River. The U.S. needs to pay attention to that risk, especially given the challenge it already faces in shoring up Syria’s neighbors as the Assad regime continues to regain control of the country it has destroyed to preserve itself.

Third, we need to find a better balance between a counterterrorism effort that we can’t afford to neglect and a longer-term drive to help address regional economic and political malaise that we can’t ignore either. Rationalization and gradual reduction of our vast counterterrorism footprint are long overdue.

The trade-offs involved won’t be easy. We simply don’t have the power, or the dexterity, to transform political or economic systems, or change regimes to suit our preferences. Nor will it be easy to encourage authoritarian regimes such as Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt to slowly open up their economies and their politics, given their conviction that they’re both too big to fail and too fragile to reform.

We also won’t have a new Marshall Plan to wave around—that sort of massive investment is not only a wildly unrealistic proposition, given resource constraints; it’s also a flawed concept in a region where we often inflate the potential of our foreign assistance. The unappealing but unavoidable result is that we’ll have to focus our resources and diplomatic attention where we have the most at stake, the most to lose through the export of insecurity, the most leverage, and the most potential for progress. That means amplifying modest success where we can—whether in Tunisia or Jordan or the United Arab Emirates. And it means persistently raising human-rights concerns, not because that will lead to overnight societal transformations, but because those deficits make our partners, and our partnerships, more brittle and unreliable.

We are nearing the end of two decades of military intervention in Afghanistan, and are still locked into an open-ended War on Terror in the Middle East—despite all the problems elsewhere in the world and in our own society. Many Americans are bewildered and exasperated by the cost in blood and treasure of our prolonged misadventures.

We need to get beyond the bluster and betrayals of the Trump era, without retreating into the magical thinking that has so often gotten us into trouble in the past. We need to take stock of our diminishing interests, avoid the trap of unthinking retrenchment or disengagement, and instead shift the terms of our engagement in a region likely to remain first in class in its myriad dysfunctions and consistent only in its capacity for diplomatic disappointment.

We ought to be mindful of external competitors such as Russia and China, but not unnerved by them. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has played a weak hand well in the region in recent years, yet it remains a weak hand, and Russia’s successes are dependent on other people’s mistakes. China’s risk aversion has only been reinforced by watching us lurch through the regional minefield. Europe remains a natural partner for the U.S. in the Middle East—but an effective partnership will require us to listen more and Europeans to take on even more responsibilities.

If we can recover the sense of discipline and limits that animated the diplomacy of George H. W. Bush and Baker, if not the geopolitical weight of their America, there is no reason we can’t navigate a very different moment in the Middle East without massive setbacks, and maybe even with occasional successes. It is certainly time to try.

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