That U.S. policy in the Middle East is a mess is very nearly a truism. For instance, a first quick look at my local library turned up a book by an American journalist with several decades of experience in the area, Patrick Tyler. It's a long survey of six decades of the twists and turns of U.S. policy as shaped by the personalities of Presidents and their close associates. Page 11: “After nearly six decades of escalating American involvement in the Middle East, it remains nearly impossible to discern any overarching approach to the region...What stands out is the absence of consistency...as if the hallmark of American diplomacy were discontinuity.” And that's from a sympathiser.
To illustrate briefly: in 1975 the U.S.'s chosen major strategic partners were Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Iraq and Syria were in the Soviet orbit, the Afghan central government in the U.S. one, and the Kurds had just been abandoned to Iraqi mercies after a few years of not-so-covert support. Insofar as radical Islam was on the radar, it was not favoured. A decade later, the U.S. was actively helping Iraq against Iran and the Kurds, and was running a proxy war against the Afghan government in alliance with a radical Islamic movement funded by Saudi Arabia.
A decade after that, in 1995, the U.S. was at odds with both Iran and Iraq, again offering aid to the Kurds, and becoming less comfortable with radical Islam. By 2005, it was bolstering the Afghan central government against the tribes and radical Islamists, trying to keep an Iranian-aligned Iraqi government and the Kurds on side, but still supporting the Saudi government even as it funded a radical Islam declared to be the U.S.’s prime enemy. By 2015, the U.S. was in a de facto alliance with Iran against a radical Islamic movement in Iraq and Syria, supporting “moderate Islamists” allied with the radicals against a Syrian government backed by Iran, propping up the Afghan government against the tribal and radical Islamist coalition it had nurtured in the ‘80s, backing the Saudi government against both radical Islam and Iranian-supported Shia populism in the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. is now on all sides of all the fights in the region apart, of course, from the Israel-Arab (or Israeli-Palestinian) conflict. And, even there, it is not obvious that Israel and the U.S. are on the same sides, or which way the leverage runs between Washington and Tel Aviv.
The policy and the arguments are now approaching farce. The think tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy has just put out a paper arguing that “pursuing U.S. regional interests must involve targeting not only ISIS but also its Shiite adversaries.” Presumably the authors will simply assume that some alternative force conformable to U.S. preferences can be conjured into being (new improved Iraqi Army anyone?). And that targeting both sides in a war will produce something other than anarchy. Or take the recent announcement that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed on the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels. They just disagreed on who the rebels will fight, ISIS or Assad.
No Friends, Only Interests?
Iraqi Kurds, Afghan Tajiks, Hazaras, Pushtuns, Iraqi Shi'ites have all been the victims of abrupt changes in U.S. policy; Iranian policy-makers have been treated to talk of reconciliation and then slapped with sanctions; Iraqi Sunnis were first treated to “de-Baathification,” then bribed to cease fire, and are now being bombed. With experiences like this, it is no wonder that Pew reported that only 30 per cent of Middle Easterners had a positive view of the U.S. in 2014 – by far the lowest score of any region of the world.
We've all seen those movies where the central character ends up in a nun outfit on top of a skyscraper with an ex-lover, a criminal, a banker, a lunatic, a stuffed bear and a stolen yacht. The French do them really well. As you watch the film, each move is explicable (“I was on my way to get some milk for the cat when....and because I love animals...and then the door opened...”), so much so that the end result is not so much a surprise as a culmination. The foreign policies of Great Powers are not supposed to resemble these movies.
So this is one of those outcomes – like a depression for economics – that offers a teaching moment. There are plenty of reasons offered why the U.S. did and does intervene in the Middle East: oil, Israel, the geopolitics of anti-Communism, the “war on terror”. There are large books (often written by the policy-makers themselves) explaining why each decision was perfectly rational and the consequences unforeseeable. It is a journalistic trope that the Middle East is a strange, complicated place where people are irrational, extremist, un-modern....
Really? The Middle East is more complicated than the Balkans, South-East Asia, Latin America? Oil may explain why the U.S. is interested, but hardly explains why, to guarantee supply, it had to impose sanctions on Iran or wreck Iraq, or encourage, abandon, protect, discourage and then promote Kurdish autonomy (see also Northern Alliance, Pashtuns, Shi'ites....). The same books that proclaim the regrettable irrationality of Middle Easterners often also lay out in detail the (perfectly rational) calculations behind each move – both their own and others'.
What can explain this? One common phrase, loosely paraphrased from Lord Palmerston, is that “states don't have friends, they have interests.” Like many such aphorisms, it dissolves on closer scrutiny. Whose interests? How are they identified? How are “interests” reconciled and assigned priorities? Don't states have an interest in being seen as reliable allies? What interests have led the U.S. into this position?
Oil as Driver of U.S. Policy?
Oil? The U.S. interest in ensuring oil flows to the world market was offered as a reason for supporting Iraq against Iran in the ‘80s (though the U.S. also secretly sold weapons to Iran), for U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, and for the heavy U.S. presence in the Gulf. But it sits oddly with ongoing efforts to limit Iranian exports, particularly after chaos in Iraq, Libya and Syria markedly reduced flows from those countries. It also sits oddly with the maintenance of sanctions on Saddam and with the strategies adopted in the Second Gulf War. There does not seem to have been any great focus on protecting oil installations or ensuring continuity of trained personnel. There were, of course, a few planning papers, but not so much focus on the ground.
One much-cited source is a 2001 study commissioned by, among others, Dick Cheney, which identified Iraq's oil as the key to averting a looming supply crunch. The report recommended that the U.S. “should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/diplomatic assessments. The United States should then develop an integrated strategy with key allies in Europe and Asia, and with key countries in the Middle East, to restate goals with respect to Iraqi policy and to restore a cohesive coalition of key allies." It should do this “with the ultimate goal of stemming the tide of anti-Americanism in the Middle-East and eas[ing] Iraqi oil-field investment restrictions.” This is pretty much a description of what the U.S. did not do.
The Second Gulf War stands out, of course, as the nadir of incompetence and wishful thinking. Yet it is not obvious that supposedly more professional and realistic administrations have a very much better track record. The Bush I/Clinton sanctions regime killed nearly as many Iraqis as the second war and its aftermath. The U.S. officials making Middle Eastern policy have access to all sorts of expertise. The evidence is that they do not use it. Further, they mostly can't be bothered to actually engage with even the most basic realities in terms of thinking through what they might mean for strategy. This is largely a failure of imagination, but it's also due to the fact that, up until quite recently, Middle Eastern peoples mostly lacked the means to assert their own interests. Various factions and interests in the major powers could use the place as a playground, policy could hop from one foot to the other and it didn't matter. The locals were powerless. Policy did not have to be careful, considered, cautious. The oil would flow even if State made empty promises, the CIA played James Bond, and the Pentagon sold and tested new weapons. There were few domestic consequences, and no other power cared either. And if the U.S. stuffed up in one country, there was always another nearby. The meddling was just another manifestation of Great Power status, but the incoherence was not because the Middle East was important but complex: it was because it was complex (as everywhere is) and weak. If the meddling had had more immediate or drastic consequences, quite a few policy minds would have been concentrated.
What are some basic Middle Eastern realities? One is that politics in the Middle East has an embedded religious dimension. It is, after all, mostly Islamic. Secular alternatives are not realistically on offer. Ignoring Sunni, Shia, Druze, Allawi identities is silly. So is supposing that they can be easily supplanted. This does not mean that people are doomed to fight over religion. It does mean that policy that does not take the religious angle seriously will be fragile. Of course, religious identities cross-cut with ethnic and national ones, but in this the Middle East is no more complicated than Europe. A map of the current front lines in the Syrian civil war is pretty much a map of the country's religious and ethnic affiliations, down to the village level.
A second reality is that no policy that seeks to exclude or ignore Iran is likely to succeed. One can no more exclude Iran from the Middle East than one can exclude France or Germany from Europe. Iran is simply too big, too central, and too closely linked to its neighbours. It has withstood U.S.-supported invasion, sanctions and threats, developed its transport and other links with neighbours like Turkey, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, has close ties with the governments in Baghdad and Damascus and with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and built a modest but quite formidable local defense capability. Quite simply, Iran has the diplomatic, military, and economic capacity to withstand more pressure than the U.S. can bring to bear, and so its interests have to be taken seriously. This means accepting Iranian control over its civil nuclear program, something that occupies the same place in Iranian politics as revocation of the unequal treaties did in Chinese politics up to 1949: the acid test of sovereignty. The signs are that the U.S. has not yet quite grasped this. It took 20 years for the U.S. policy establishment to grok that things had changed in China. It looks like taking at least 40 years for the penny to drop on Iran.
So if I were a U.S. policy analyst, I would advise reaching a modus vivendi with Iran as soon as possible, resignedly accept that Iraq will be a Shia-run state aligned with Iran, back Kurdish independence, and tell State that if they get involved in the Syrian five-way dog-fight they will get bitten. So pick one dog to back or stay out, because being bitten by a few is better than being bitten by all. But on past form, if I were a policy analyst my advice would be entirely disregarded except as it agreed with the listener's prejudices.
-- Peter T.
 There are other places that resemble the Middle East in that outside powers used them as playgrounds without regard for consistency (or for the locals). China 1860-1949, Latin America up to the 1990s or Central Asia in the period of the Great Game fit the bill, as does, ominously, Eastern Europe post-1989. Even the tropes are the same: there is much talk of irrationality, corruption, regimes mired in ancient superstition and needing to be dragged into the Modern World, of bringing efficiency, order, enlightenment. As well as, of course, making money.