Order in Turmoil: Making Sense of Kaleidoscopic Change in the Middle East

 Order in Turmoil: Making Sense of Kaleidoscopic Change in the Middle East

                    Remarks to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs                       and the Harvard Middle East Seminar

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Providence, Rhode Island, 11 March 2019
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 28 March 2019

By now it is widely accepted that U.S. influence in the Middle East is in something approaching freefall.  The Arab uprisings of 2011 overthrew the governments in Tunis, Egypt, and Yemen, stimulated bloody miscalculations by both the Syrian government and its opposition, and destabilized Bahrain.  They prompted greatly increased transfer payments to pacify the people of the conservative Arab Gulf monarchies and midwifed their adoption of policies designed to evoke militarized nationalism.  The aftermath of these events has been complex and confusing.  It has not yet run its course.  The Middle East kaleidoscope is still turning.  The patterns it is creating are not auspicious for either the region’s inhabitants or the United States.

It is hard to make sense of a region that consists of family-run kingdoms, thugdoms, police states, military dictatorships, democratically directed ethnoreligious tyrannies, and societies in near-Hobbesian states of nature.  But unless we make the effort to do so, we risk exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems that the Middle East creates for the United States and our place in the world.  Things may be getting better for women in some places, and religious extremism may be suffering a backlash.  But overall the trends are not favorable to American interests.  They are complicated.  Bear with me as I review them.

The almost gleeful U.S. abandonment of longstanding protégés like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak served to discredit America with the region’s autocrats.  In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won free elections, only to demonstrate its sociopolitical narrowmindedness, lack of economic vision, and incompetence at governing.  Ballot-box Islamism soon fell to a coup d’état, which the United States then hypocritically refused to recognize as such.  Americans joined Israel and the region’s autocratic Sunni states in supporting the restoration of military rule in Egypt.  The U.S. endorsement of the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely-elected government alienated the region’s democrats.  No matter: The United States is no longer pushing the democratization of the Middle East or anywhere else.  The European Union (EU) has also toned down its advocacy of human rights in the societies across the Mediterranean from it.

The United States has fallen into a pattern of military-driven, diplomacy-free policy in the Middle East.  By contrast, astute uses of force by Russia in Syria, agile Russian diplomacy with Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey, and Russian willingness to engage with all parties to disputes in the region have made Moscow the go-to great power capital for major and minor actors there.  But Russia’s recent return to relevance in West Asia and North Africa does not mean that great power competition again drives events there, as it did during the Cold War.

In the 21st century, the traditional power centers in the مَـشْـرِق (the Arab East) – Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus – have been supplanted by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, with Tehran, Jerusalem, and Ankara playing some of the outsider roles in the Arab world that European imperialists and the United States once did.  But the region’s global strategic importance has not diminished.  It is still where Africa, Asia, and Europe meet, a chokepoint for travel between the Indo-Pacific and the Mediterranean and Atlantic, the hub of the world’s energy supply system, the location of important new capital markets, and where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam originated.  Awkward as it may be to deal with the Middle East, the world’s great powers have no alternative to some degree of engagement with it.

The challenge of such engagement is greatly complicated by the fact that regional actors have largely replaced their former passivity and fatalism with assertive pursuit of their national interests as they see them.  Pan Islamism earlier overtook pan Arabism as a potential organizing principle for the region.  Now both Arabism and Islamism are yielding to notions of nationalism and “Islam in one country” – as in Tunis.  Nationalism has taken hold even in Saudi Arabia, which long rejected it as verging on idolatry.  Many – myself included – mistakenly supposed that the national identities of the countries defined by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and its aftermath would dissolve as a result of the Arab uprisings.  They have instead proved durable.  The imprint of European colonialism on the Levant – Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria – has survived and even strengthened.

But most countries in West Asia and North Africa no longer see much reason to defer to foreign patrons.  Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pay lip service to the views of external powers like the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and India – whose support they traditionally courted and whose views they once took as guidance.  They now proceed without regard to these patrons’ interests and advice.

Calculations by local actors about the region’s geopolitical dynamics drive most of its antagonisms, but ideology (now almost exclusively in the form of theology) is still a significant factor.  Secularism is in retreat.  Aspirations for a democratic Islamism, supported by Qatar and Turkey, are under attack by a league of conservative Arab autocracies led by the UAE and including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  The Sunni-Shi`i schism has intensified.  Despite Iran’s pretensions to leadership of Shi`a Islam, Shi`i outside Iran have for the most part rejected its theology of ولاية الفقيه  [walayat al faqih or clerical guardianship of the state].  Sunnis are split between cosmopolitan moderates and hardline Salafis.

America’s catastrophically ill-considered military interventions in the region at the turn of this century laid low the traditional balancers of Iranian power in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Related Israeli actions in Lebanon had earlier fundamentally altered Lebanese politics.  Hezbollah is a quasi-fascist political party formed to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s.  Israeli actions have elevated it to the commanding heights of Lebanese politics.  External interventions both to overthrow the government and to bolster contending opposition factions in Syria helped devastate that country and reinforce its dependence on Iran and Russia.  No longer constrained by external patrons, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE separately took actions that also inadvertently entrenched Iranian influence in Gaza, Bahrain, and Yemen.

The United States has now effectively franchised its major client states in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – with the power to determine most American policies in their region.  Washington has become stridently committed to these three countries’ objective of regime change in Tehran.  Saudi Arabia and the UAE have effectively set aside the issue of Palestinian relief from ongoing Israeli abuse and encroachment to focus on countering Iran’s expanded political and military influence in the region.  This has facilitated the formation of a previously unthinkable entente between the two Gulf Arab countries and Israel.

Israel’s primary concern has been less Iran’s expanding sphere of influence in West Asia than the threat that Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program poses to its nuclear monopoly in the region.  Now, however, the presence of Iranian forces in Syria and their support of Lebanese Hezbollah is a source of increasing alarm to Israelis.  The Gulf Arabs’ limited partnership with Israel has gained them intelligence exchanges, new surveillance technologies, training in assassination techniques, and cooperation focused on combatting the Iranian foe.  Equally importantly from their point of view, it has enlisted the powerful American Zionist Lobby in their support, giving them a near hammerlock on the U.S. Congress that their money could never buy.  The most eloquent defenses of the need for the United States to maintain cordial ties with Saudi Arabia have come from elements of the U.S. Zionist Lobby.

History’s longest-running diplomatic deception – the so-called “peace process” in the Holy Land – has been superseded by an Israeli-dictated “one-state, many-zones” dispensation that demands Palestinian emigration or submission to the Zionist version of apartheid.  American diplomacy toward Israel-Palestine has been firmly placed in the hands of ardent supporters of Jewish colonialism.  The “peace process” has been reduced to a real estate mogul’s notion of diplomatic маскировка[1], an operational disguise that gains time for expanded Jewish settlement and ethnic cleansing of Arabs and their emigration or warehousing in “projects.”  This has left Palestinians with no path to self-determination other than violence, compounding the potential for widening resort to terrorism on their part.

Unconditional support from the United States for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE has facilitated a series of unspeakable humanitarian disasters in West Asia, including Israel’s quasi-genocidal siege of Gaza, the multinational vivisection of Syria, and the devastation of Yemen.  Before Saudi Arabia carried out the gruesome murder of a dissident journalist in its consulate in Istanbul, it kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister and held him hostage.  Each of these horrors evokes highly selective outrage abroad that generates blind spots to simultaneous atrocities elsewhere.  Turkey and the Muslim world are obsessed with Gaza, Europe and Russia with Syria, and the United States is increasingly focused on Saudi unilateralism in Yemen and elsewhere.

U.S. policies toward Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE directly or indirectly assist their military operations directed at terrorizing and immiserating the inhabitants of Gaza, the West Bank, and Yemen.  Washington continues to violate Syria’s sovereignty and to maintain a military presence on its soil, aimed in part at regime change.  The United States is once again working toward abandoning the Kurds to their millennial Arab, Persian, and Turkish overlords.  Taken together, these elements of U.S. policy leave it without any traction to speak of in the region, while severely eroding American moral standing outside it.

A serious deterioration in US-Turkish relations has exacerbated this decline in U.S. influence. This has consequences beyond the region.  Turkish support or acquiescence is essential to the successful conduct of U.S. policies toward Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, the Balkans, the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, not to mention NATO, the EU, and the Islamic world.  Ankara can no longer be counted upon to back or facilitate U.S. diplomatic or military maneuvers.

Turkey was for a time an inspiration to proponents of popular sovereignty in Egypt and elsewhere.  Its political evolution appeared to demonstrate the feasibility of a democratic Islamist flowering to parallel the birth of “Christian Democracy” in Western Europe.  But the rise of Islamophobia in Europe has now made it clear that Muslim Turkey will never be accepted as European, Turkey’s goal for the past two centuries.  Rejected by Christendom, the Turks have turned away from Europe and toward the Middle East.  In the process, they appear to have traded parliamentary democracy for presidential “caudillismo” – rule by a demagogic populist strongman.

Turkey continues – in partnership with Qatar – to support democratic Islamist movements in the region, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.  But, as in Turkey itself, the regional trend is toward less consultative, more autocratic systems of governance.  In Saudi Arabia, شورى‎ (“shura” or “consensual decision-making”) and oligocracy (“government by the few”) have given way to a form of monocracy (decision-making by a single person).  In Israel, the free expression of ideas is ever more constrained by intensified ethnoreligious identity politics that seek to reinforce the Jewish democracy’s military dictatorship over its captive Arab Muslim and Christian populations.

Fear of Islamist democracy and its consequences for the region’s rulers has sparked the formation of an informal coalition of Sunni-majority states committed to traditional Islamic systems of oligarchic government and/or to military autocracy.  This development parallels the effort by European reactionaries to smother the revolutions of 1848, though it has so far been less successful.  The United States and Israel are unashamedly aligned with this anti-democratic coalition.  This and the decadence of contemporary American politics have effectively deprived the United States of credibility as an advocate of the democratization of Muslim societies.  But, then, as noted, the U.S. no longer expresses much, if any, interest in this cause.

Newly assertive UAE and Saudi policies have divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, created in 1981 to counter the Islamic revolution in Iran.  Oman now acts with little regard to the GCC.  Kuwait has distanced itself from it.  Emirati hostility to Qatar’s alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood and unsuccessful Saudi efforts to compel Qatar to abandon its geographically dictated cordial relationship with Iran have cemented a Qatari partnership with Turkey.  Qatar’s new isolation in its own region has driven it to redouble its efforts to develop supportive relationships with great powers like China, India, Russia, and the United States.

Meanwhile, the U.S. effort to isolate Iran and build a worldwide united front against it is failing.  Last month’s Warsaw “ministerial” provided a convincing demonstration of US-European disunity on Iran as well as Chinese, Indian, and Russian opposition to the United States on the issue.  It also illustrated the decline in American relevance to the principal issues in the Middle East:

  • Israel-Palestine,
  • the emergence of an Iranian sphere of influence,
  • Syrian peace and reconstruction,
  • refugee abatement and resettlement,
  • the restoration of order in Yemen,
  • domestic tranquility in the region’s countries, and
  • the faltering efforts of the Islamic world to reinvigorate itself as other previously great civilizations – for example, China and India – are visibly doing in the post-Western era.

Vice President Pence’s and Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent tirades on Iran and the region’s politics were music to the ears of Messrs. Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Salman, and Mohammed bin Zayed.  They clearly struck Europeans, Asians, Africans, Turks, Arabs, and Persians as paranoid delusions – policies derived from media-manufactured hallucinations that bear little resemblance to conditions in the real world.

The end of the Cold War’s bipolar order liberated the world’s nations and peoples from the constraints external patrons previously imposed on their independent action.  After the Soviet Union’s default on its rivalry with the United States and its subsequent collapse, Americans were left with no existential enemy.  But the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington demonstrated that, in the post-Cold War world, the United States is no longer immune to reprisal by aggrieved parties overseas, especially in the Middle East, where American policies are widely resented.

North Korea has shown that the way to be taken seriously by Washington is to be able to “nuke” it.  Iran’s potential to follow North Korea in acquiring the ability to strike targets in the American homeland now threatens to escalate the damage policy missteps in the region can inflict on the United States.  The multinationally negotiated nuclear arms control agreement with Iran (the “JCPOA”) mitigated this danger before it was repudiated by the United States in favor of pressures directed at regime change in Iran.  But such efforts at regime change, once without risk to the American homeland, now entail potentially catastrophic costs to it.

Drone warfare against others is beginning to be answered by drone warfare against American forces deployed overseas.  How long before it’s used against the United States itself?

U.S. and Israeli cyber-attacks on Iran and others have already begun to be reciprocated by them.  Hybrid warfare – whether Russian-style as in Crimea or American-style as in Venezuela – could be applied to the United States as well as to others.  Some think it already has been used to skew American elections.

Israel has evolved a by-now-routine practice of “targeted killings” as an alternative to diplomatic outreach to compose differences with its ever more numerous enemies in the region.[2]  Such assassinations began by taking the lives of Western engineers assisting Arab countries to develop weapons that might be used against Israel.  Israel then turned to culling the most promising leaders of the Palestinian resistance to Zionist occupation and settlement activity, thereby ensuring that it had “no one to talk with.”  In recent years, in association with U.S. intelligence agencies, Israel has also engaged in the systematic murder of Iranian scientists and engineers.  These operations have helped to erode previous standards of morality and international law on the global level.  They invite imitation and reprisal.

Since 9/11, the United States has spent or committed to spend almost $7 trillion on wars to control and contain trends and events in the Middle East.  These diversions of tax revenues and borrowed capital to warfare abroad account in large measure for the deterioration of U.S. physical and human infrastructure.  None of these wars has achieved its objectives.  Efforts to end them in the interest of cutting American losses have been repeatedly frustrated by  the “Washington playbook’s”  warmongers.  Now, even as the ability of the United States to control events and limit risks in the Middle East recedes, the potential impact on American domestic tranquility of developments there is increasing.

At the same time, direct U.S. interests in the region – other than the ability to transit through it – are on the wane.  The United States’ rationale for protecting the world’s access to Persian Gulf energy supplies reflects its self-appointment as the guardian of global order and prosperity.  It is not a response to U.S. domestic energy demand, which can now again be met by a combination of domestic production and sources in the Western Hemisphere and West Africa.  The United States is back as an important energy exporter.  In some respects, thanks to “fracking,” America has become the global swing producer of oil and gas.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy continues unilaterally to protect energy exports from the Middle East.  The largest market for such exports is China, an officially designated adversary of the United States.  The second largest is India, a determinedly nonaligned nation.

Under its new “America First” approach to foreign affairs, U.S. alliances are increasingly troubled.  Washington has charged its European and Asian allies with free-riding on its military power. American willingness to protect U.S. Cold War allies and the health of their economies is on the ebb.  No one can now be sure how long the United States will remain committed to the unilateral guarantee of worldwide access to Persian Gulf energy exports that compete with its own.

Iran remains deeply unpopular in the United States, but enthusiasm for war with it is limited to a few intensely partisan interest groups.  The American people appear to have little appetite for more wars aimed at regime change in the Muslim world.  Americans view both Israel and Saudi Arabia with increasing distaste.  The ability of U.S. client states in the region to buy support in Congress for their foreign policies does not buy such approval outside the Beltway.

U.S. commercial interests in the Middle East have become less compelling.  In the late 20th century, the United States was the largest exporter of goods and services to most countries to the region.  Nearly half of U.S. arms exports go there but the U.S. no longer dominates its civilian imports.  Almost everywhere, that distinction now belongs to China or the EU.

The major U.S. focus in West Asia and North Africa has become counterterrorism.  But this is based on the dubious theory that the best way to avoid being stung by hornets is to sidle up to their nests and poke them.  Every indicator we have shows that the so-called “global war on terrorism” has multiplied rather than depleted the ranks of anti-American terrorists with global reach.  That is not surprising, given the estimated four million Muslims who have perished from U.S. post-Cold War interventions in West Asia and North Africa.  “Fighting terrorists over there” just increases their numbers and encourages them to seek revenge here.  It doesn’t keep them at bay.

The world’s interests, including those of the United States, demand peace and stability in the Middle East and a reduction of the threats that emanate from it.  Current U.S. policies do not serve these objectives.  They prolong wars that debilitate the United States, disturb its and other nations’ domestic tranquility, and corrupt the rule of law at home and abroad.  America’s expanding interventions in West Asia and North Africa are connected to no war termination strategies.  Many in the United States have come to feel like the chorus on an ancient Greek stage, watching the protagonists march inexorably toward tragedies they cannot prevent.

The usual Washington response to policy failure is to plus up the resources devoted to the failing policy and try harder.  Doing this will not correct the trends the U.S. now faces in the Middle East.  The United States needs policies that address and protect its interests more effectively than those it has been following.

These policies should recognize the diminished stake Americans have in the Middle East as well as our diminished influence.  They should realistically address and seek to leverage the diverse players now influencing the region, not proceed unilaterally.  In this, we can learn from the Russians.  Our military should support our diplomacy, not the other way ‘round.  We should be talking to all parties, not putting labels on some to rule out dialogue with them, as we have done with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iran.  We should halt our feckless practice of convening peace conferences that exclude parties whose acceptance or acquiescence is essential to war termination.

The main issues in the region of wider geopolitical importance remain Israel-Palestine, Iran’s role, Israeli-Syrian enmity, refugees, the reconstruction of war-torn societies, the war in Yemen, and the political orientation of Islam.  These issues must be the focus of U.S. policy.  But the United States no longer has the capacity to go it alone in addressing them.  American diplomacy must be redesigned to advance U.S. interests by joining the power and capabilities of others to America’s own.

Even if Israel were prepared to countenance Palestinian self-determination – which it manifestly is not – it has succeeded, with great misguided effort, in making the “two-state solution” infeasible.  There is now effectively one state in Palestine.  In that state, Zionism has supplanted Judaism as a state ideology.  An assertively Zionist minority rules over both devout Jews and three categories of Arabs: second-class Arab citizens of Israel, the disenfranchised and persecuted in the militarily occupied Palestinian territories, and the constantly terrorized inhabitants of the great open-air prison of Gaza.  Call this apartheid, if you will.  In many ways, it is worse than the South African version because it denies the oppressed any hope of development, separate or otherwise.  The Israel-Palestine issue is now one of equal civil and human rights within a single polity.   Resolving it requires a moral and political, not a physical revolution.

The movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (“BDS”) is a global reaction to Israel’s self-delegitimization.  But it misses the point.  Domestically dictated American subsidies to Israel – not trade and human intercourse with it – are the principal enabler of Zionism’s racist cruelty to Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants.  The key to ending that cruelty is to end American official and private endowment of it.  Given the way the U.S. political system now franchises interest groups with the formulation and administration of policies of primary concern to them, that will not happen until a new generation of Jewish Americans collectively determines it must.  Until then, Israel’s moral decay and departure from the values of Judaism will continue and its international unacceptability increase.  This means American Jews and the United States will be held ever more accountable for Israeli actions of which most profoundly disapprove. Both domestic antisemitism and foreign anti-Americanism will intensify.  So will American Islamophobia.

Current U.S. policy toward Iran consists of a mixture of ostracism, propaganda to demonize the Islamic Republic, economic pressure for regime change, and threatened military assault.  But, without talking to Iran, the United States can constrain neither its nuclear program nor its policies in its region.  Name-calling and economic pressure reinforce Iran’s hardliners and retard reform and opening to the outside world that could curtail Iran’s militancy and create a basis for its peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.  Threats of military attack stimulate it to seek an effective deterrent in the form of the capability to conduct a nuclear strike on Israel and the United States.   It is only better to talk than not to talk if you know what you are going to say.  Before we talk to Tehran, the United States needs a multinationally concerted strategy for a course of negotiation that can address American, Israeli, and Gulf Arab concerns about Iran’s current behavior and potential future threat to regional order and to America.

Similarly, to deal with Jihadism, refugees, and reconstruction in Syria as well as with Syria’s role in Lebanon and its conflict with Israel will require dealing with the government in Damascus, whatever Americans, Europeans, Gulf Arabs, Israelis, and Turks may think of it.  Trends and events, including some that are the product of self-contradictory U.S. objectives in Syria, have made it necessary to include Iran and Russia in any discussion of how to realign Syria, repair its human losses, and rebuild it.  China must also be invited to play a role in Syria’s rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Syria has illustrated the limited ability of great power military intervention to reshape the complexities of local politics.  Yemen demonstrates that the same limits apply to regional actors as well.  The war there has become not just a calamity for Yemenis, but a burden and an embarrassment to most of its foreign backers.  The only winner in Yemen so far is Iran, which has acquired an unprecedented level of influence there.  The sooner the external parties – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States – can extricate themselves, the better not just for the people of Yemen but for them.

Finally, U.S. policy must recognize that the Dar al Islam is in a crisis as profound as that which tormented Christendom before the Enlightenment.  Radically competing visions of its future are in contention.  The ability of non-Muslims to influence the outcome of the debate within Islam is limited.  But non-Muslims have a big stake in whether the result is an affirmation of the tolerance Islam once exemplified or of aggressive medievalism and ostentatious religiosity coupled with hypocrisy.  The United States must take care to avoid tipping the struggle in the wrong direction.  This will require a kind of empathy for the Islamic faithful that is completely absent among contemporary American policymakers.

The trouble with kaleidoscopes is two-fold.  When you give them an ignorant knock, the pieces rearrange themselves in unpredictable ways.  And, when you fail to turn them, the pieces remain in their current configuration, whatever that may be.  The United States needs to cease banging the Middle East kaleidoscope and start working with others to produce realignments in the region that serve American interests, not those of its client states or third parties.

[1] “Maskirovka” is the Russian military doctrine of deception and misdirection, involving disinformation, denial, decoys, misleading maneuvers, and concealment.

[2] See “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” Ronen Bergman, Random House, 2018