Six Stubborn, Essential Middle East Truths

Six Stubborn, Essential Middle East Truths
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

This piece was created in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center. Aaron David Miller, a Vice President at the Woodrow Wilson Center, served as a Middle East negotiator, analyst and adviser in Republican and Democratic Administrations. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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Leaders change, and the Middle East can always surprise. But regardless of presidential preference and promises, there are a half-dozen verities that will haunt any leader, from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton -- just as they have bedeviled President Barack Obama and his predecessors.

Want Hollywood endings, go to the movies. I challenge anyone to identify a single issue in this region today that is heading toward a meaningful or sustainable end state. From Syria’s civil war to the politics of Iraq, from the war against the Islamic State to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are dealing with problems that are much more likely to have outcomes than solutions.

Even the Obama’s administration’s signal foreign policy achievement  -- the P5+1 Iranian nuclear agreement -- is an accord limited in time and scope that in no way assures Iran’s nuclear aspirations have been laid to rest, let alone guarantees the Islamic republic’s behavior in the region.

We need to stop thinking about fixing problems in the Middle East on what I call Administration Time -- four-to-eight-year increments -- and start thinking about a more extended metric, say a decade. Even the highly imperfect Iran nuclear agreement recognizes this reality.

Blame America, but blame the locals more. The United States has made many mistakes in the Middle East. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a galactic blunder. It was followed by additional mistakes, such as American support for the repressive and corrupt government of Nouri al-Maliki, and its hasty military withdrawal from the country. But the lion’s share of the responsibility for the state of the broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East lies with the locals themselves.

There’s a reason this region seems impervious to positive, progressive change. The elements required to catalyze that change do not presently exist. Sparking such change will require leaders who are ready and able to rise above their narrow sectarian, political, or corporatist affiliations for the sake of their countries; effective and authoritative institutions; freedom of expression; gender equality, and so on. What exist instead are sectarian, regional rivalries overlaying weak and failing states to guarantee instability, and in some cases, fragmentation and chaos.

Doctrines are disastrous. Consistency, Emerson opined, is the hobgoblin of little minds. It is certainly of limited value to a great power operating in the Middle East. It can at times make sense to be consistent in what you say and intend when dealing with friends and adversaries. It is foolhardy, however, to force U.S. values, interests, and policies to fit a doctrinal straitjacket. We supported an Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. Why did we not do the same in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? We invaded and occupied Iraq with disastrous results, presumably to remove a bad regime. Now we have been there for more than a decade. Should we not have been compelled, then, to repeat the exercise in Libya and Syria? They also had bad leaders, so why not invade and occupy?

Great powers behave in anomalous and contradictory ways, driven sometimes by sheer hypocrisy, sometimes by domestic politics, and more often by what they deem to be their selective interests. And when it comes to the Middle East, it’s hard to see how American interests and values will ever strictly align.

Want a perfect friend? Get a dog. Unless the United States plans to go it alone in a region where it has vital interests, enormous challenges, and a lot of enemies, it’s going to have to make do with the friends that it has. And those friends are far from perfect. In some cases -- think of Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- Washington shares few values, particularly when it comes to democratic principles. But some interests nevertheless overlap.

In other cases, such as Israel, there is affinity on values and many shared interests. Even so, serious differences remain on issues such as Israeli settlements, the terms for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and recent American overtures to Iran -- particularly the merits of last year’s nuclear accord.

The odds of pushing these imperfect partners to see things the American way on issues that are dear to them are pretty slim. No matter how hard we insist, they have more at stake on these issues than we do. Good luck trying to impose a deal with the Palestinians on the Israelis, or telling the Egyptians or Saudis to democratize. We’re caught in an investment trap when it comes to these partners, especially as the Middle East melts down.  

Don’t let rhetoric outstrip reality or capacity. Sadly, the United States has become adept at doing precisely that. Words are not actions, but they do count. And far too often Washington has not followed through on our words. America has said too much or not explained clearly enough what it’s trying to accomplish in the region.

Just look at Syria. Washington called repeatedly for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, and now seemingly accepts that he could be part of a prolonged transition. President Obama identified any regime use of chemical weapons as an unacceptable red line, not to be crossed; it was crossed. We called for ISIS’s destruction without any realistic hope of achieving that, and warned the Russians off supporting the Assad regime without the means to stop them. More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry talked about reaching the “critical hours” in a search for a cease-fire in Syria that appears interminable.

There are many things we cannot control. Our rhetoric, we can control.

Forget transforming the region. Transact and manage as best you can. Why the United States thinks it can impose its dreams and schemes on small tribes, where other great powers have failed, is not entirely clear. We cannot end Syria’s civil war or put Iraq back together. We cannot bring democracy to the Arab world, nor solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. You need regional buy-in for all those things. And America lacks partners in this region who can undertake such transformative acts.

What Washington can do is focus on trying to keep America safe and prosperous: To the extent we can, hammer ISIS, al-Qaeda affiliates, and other jihadists who want to attack the United States and our allies; continue to wean America off Arab hydrocarbons and in the interim ensure no disruption in Middle East supply; and work to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

It’s not pretty, perfect, or heroic. But it’s eminently sensible and smart in a region America can neither fix nor leave.

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