3 new premises for America’s Middle East policy

If America’s Middle East policy were a car, it would long since have been classified as a lemon. Unfortunately, this country’s politics prevent us from cutting our losses and trying something different.

In the panic following 9/11, a small group of elite decision-makers sold this country the idea that America’s security required pre-emptive war against the dictatorial regime in Iraq. These strategists failed to note – despite much advice from experts – that besides being a ruthless dictator, Saddam Hussein was also a manifestation of much larger sectarian interests.

These Sunni forces were, and remain, locked in long-standing conflict with rivals in the region. Having earlier supported Saddam’s regime as a counterweight to Iran, Washington invaded and destroyed it in 2003. In its place, the U.S. installed a Shiite-dominated regime inevitably more open to Iran, thereby galvanizing Sunni interests inside Iraq and out.

Meanwhile, Washington geo-strategists continued to back a retrograde and repressive autocracy in Saudi Arabia; Israeli expansion into captured Palestinian lands; and a new military dictatorship in Egypt – all policies guaranteed to inflame broad swathes of opinion throughout the region and the world.

Thirteen years after the runup to the invasion of Iraq, America finds a different president re-enacting the script first played by President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama is mobilizing the U.S. military and an ambivalent coalition of allies and clients to wage war against reorganized and revitalized forces once represented by Saddam.

Desperately, this country pleads with the Iraqis we’re supposed to be defending to form a united, inclusive front against the new/old enemy. And nervously, the White House and the Pentagon assure the American people that this new war will be waged without American “boots on the ground.”

For anyone whose time-horizon goes back further than 10 years, such assurances carry about as much credibility as the infamous warnings of imminent threats posed by Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The names of the parties and personalities have changed, but Washington’s overriding strategy remains the same: no regime or political force must be allowed to flourish in the Middle East without American assent.

In a windfall of good fortune for Washington, America’s enemies du jour have obliged with displays of the ghastliest brutality – from burning alive a prisoner of war to beheading victims purely because of their faith. These revolting acts serve the interests of polarization on both sides. As in the official vilification of Saddam before the Iraq invasion demonstrated, even authentically demonic figures require public demonization to generate public support for military action against them.

The trouble is, the very brutalities carried out by America’s new/old enemies have long been standard procedure among its regional allies and clients. Public beheadings are business as usual in Saudi Arabia; torture by electric drill prior to execution has been a specialty of Shiite forces in Iraq; and America’s military clients in Cairo have used bulldozers and bullets to crush demonstrations like those that brought them to power.

One might have expected American influence, exercised at such cost, to yield regime behavior more consistent with the expectations of most Americans. But Saudi Arabia continues to repress dissent and suppress women’s rights. Israel continues to colonize captured Palestinian territories, squeezing the livelihood of the indigenous population. The murderous regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria, crosser of American red lines, now seems to have won toleration from Washington as an ally against the Islamic State. And it is far from clear whether the Iraqi regime installed by American military might will prove a reliable instrument against the Islamic State.

Like a lemon on four wheels, American policy keeps going wrong in the same ways; repeated tinkering yields the same kinds of debacles. Why can’t we draw the obvious conclusion, call a lemon by its name, and try a new strategy?

The answer is that virtually the whole of America’s political class have publicly embraced the premise of these policies – that it is this country’s destiny to superintend the geopolitics of the Middle East, to make or break regimes there according to their compliance with American power. After so much loss of American life and treasure in that part of the world, the prospect of reconsidering that assumption is simply too threatening.

But reconsideration has to start somewhere. Here are three new premises for America’s Middle East policy:

▪ Abandon the overreaching ambition of making or breaking regimes and political forces in the region to suit American geopolitical calculations.

▪ Support, through strictly defensive measures, the (relatively scarce) parties and groups in the Middle East who truly embrace democratic and pluralistic values.

▪ Forget the disastrous idea of seeking domestic security in America by waging war in the Middle East. Redirect the vast resources now devoted to these violent campaigns to better policing against terrorist activity in this country.

It would be absurd to deny that such a minimalist American policy would have its own downsides. Dreadful forces and regimes could well flourish under it. But would that outcome be so different from the fruits of U.S. efforts to date?

James B. Rule is a distinguished affiliated scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley.