Obama Is Right: America Can’t Fix the Middle East – Aaron David Miller/POLITICO
I listen to the current crop of presidential candidates outline what they would do in the Middle East: carpet bomb the Islamic State, tear up the Iran accord,; create a Sunni army, move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, or in the case of Hillary Clinton set up a no-fly zone in Syria, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What’s outlined seems alternately reckless or not feasible; already being done, or not likely to make much of a difference.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent interview in the Atlantic with Barack Obama has led to a tsunami of criticism of the president’s ill-advised combination of risk aversion and aspirational words–a very bad combination in a region that now loathes the first and disdains the second.
Yet the president is right to be skeptical about American intervention in the region. The painful reality is that America is stuck in a broken and dysfunctional Middle East, trapped by its own lofty rhetoric and illusions, and tied up and befriended or opposed by tiny tribes and larger powers whose interests are not its own. We may degrade, contain, even roll back the Islamic State’s gains in Iraq and Syria, but we won’t destroy or defeat it or the forces of global jihad without filling the vacuum they exploit with Arab polities that are cohesive, well-governed and inclusive, and a Muslim world that is willing to delegitimize the extremists in its midst; we might stabilize Syria to some extent, but we won’t put either the Syrian or Iraqi Humpty Dumpties back together again on our terms; we might find a way to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from exploding, but we won’t resolve it without Israeli and Palestinian leaders being willing and able to do so. We can push a freedom and democracy agenda on the Arabs all day long; but they will determine how to govern themselves—well, badly, or not at all.
I get it that we diplomats are supposed to try. Teenagers Snapchat; beavers build dams; and U.S. secretaries of state use diplomacy to fix things. That’s what John Kerry has recently been doing in Geneva, trying to pull together a fragile cease-fire in Syria. It’s certainly better than rushing first to deploy and shoot. And as we’ve seen in the U.S.-Iranian nuclear agreement, diplomacy can actually work, however imperfectly.
Diplomacy is about remedy. And Americans’ urge to “do something” in the face of crisis, catastrophe and conflict is at times hot, relentless and all-consuming—and at times it’s understandable.
I come at this issue in a very personal way, as a former believer. For 20-some years I marched according to the same tune. It was an ennobling and inspiring one. I remember how moved I was by President Bill Clinton’s comment on the eve of the 2000 Camp David Summit that he’d rather try and fail than not try at all. Yet, however inspiring and quintessentially American that approach may be, it’s a more appropriate slogan for the University of Michigan football team, not a substitute for the foreign policy of the world’s most consequential power. Failure costs. Indeed, the talking cure doesn’t always work—for shrinks or diplomats. Diplomacy is a much more complicated and fraught enterprise when it comes to social and political engineering and to repairing countries torn apart by civil war in a region of the world that is itself broken and dysfunctional.
The very idea that the United States seriously believes—alone or with its partners—that it can address, much less resolve, the challenges of governance, sectarian conflict, religious divisions, hatreds, lack of respect for human rights, and the conspiratorial and irrational reasoning that afflict large parts of the Arab world is a leap of arrogance and ignorance so large that it threatens to consume what’s left of American credibility.
America can assist in important ways. But it cannot fix, repair or transform the Middle East—especially right now. And here are the reasons why.
1.) First, no comprehensive solutions. There’s not a single issue in this region—not one—that offers up an achievable end state or even a set of principles on which the locals can agree to work toward a sustainable end game. Even the administration’s pre-eminent accomplishment—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program—is at best an arms control agreement that will last for only a discrete period of time. It was neither designed to guarantee a comprehensive end to the problem of Iran’s putative quest to become a nuclear weapons threshold state or an actual nuclear power, nor can it do so. At best, there’s a hope that Iran will come to see that the benefits of joining the international nuclear club outweigh the downsides; and that it will continue to adhere to the most restrictive provisions even after they go into sunset. But there’s no inevitable or inexorable happy ending to the Iranian nuclear story.
And it doesn’t get much better from there. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 on Syria purports that its signatories agree to a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the United Nations that would establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance.” Yet the states that have the leverage on the ground—including Russia, Iran and Turkey, let alone any number of Syrian and Kurdish militias and Bashar Assad to boot—have other ideas. The current cessation of hostilities is a good thing; But it’s hard to see it as a secure and certain pathway to a stable Syria.
Or take a look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which Kerry is fond of saying that he doubts there’s anyone “who doesn’t actually know pretty much what a final status agreement actually looks like.” That may well be true for the peace process industrial complex, but such statements trivialize the difficulty of actually getting there. The reality, as Kerry’s failed 2013 initiative shows, is that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority agree to those terms, let alone possess the capacity and will to implement them.
This absence of definitive endings or even agreed political horizons isn’t Washington’s fault. Rather, it’s emblematic of a turbulent region that hardly knows its own mind and in which common ground for comprehensive solutions to problems simply doesn’t exist. And if there are no horizons accepted and owned by the parties themselves, how can America, which can barely keep its own house in order, create them, particularly on issues that deal with sectarian, religious and national identity, and that raise existential fears?
2.) No leaders. In the space of five years, the lands of the Arabs have witnessed a virtual revolution and a veritable sweeping away of America’s traditional partners. For half a century, Washington dealt with various Arab authoritarians: either of the adversarial type (Saddam Hussein; Hafez and Bashar Assad; Muammar Qadhafi) or the acquiescent variety (Yasser Arafat; Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali; Abdullah Salah; Anwar Sadat; Hosni Mubarak) They have all gone the way of the dodo.
The Arab kings remain. But they are either too weak (Jordan); too self-interested and myopic (Saudi Arabia); or too marginalized (Morocco) to play heroic roles in finding transformative solutions to what ails the Middle East. Turkey is a consequential player; but it has scores to settle with the Kurds, limiting its cooperation with Washington. Instead, the United States confronts an Arab world whole parts of which are now off-line— fragmentation in Yemen, Libya and Syria; and extreme dysfunction in Iraq and Egypt.
America’s authoritarian partners have always been problematic. he bargains it has struck with them were bound to prove false. But even bad states are better than weak or nonexistent ones. Leaders such as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider el-Abadi or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are too weak and constrained to command real authority; others, as in the case of Egyptian President Fattah Abdel el-Sisi, are too strong and suspicious of the U.S. to cooperate closely. And to make matters worse, nonstate actors have emerged in response to situations with bad governance or none to threaten Arab states, and, in the case of the Islamic State, to present a real challenge to global security.
3.) Few allies. And if America lacks partners on whom it can rely, how in essence can it manage problems effectively, let alone lead to resolve them? A transformed Middle East has shaken traditional relationships with former allies. Indeed, there was a time when Washington coordinated effectively with leaders like the monarchs Hussein, Hassan and Abdullah; or Sadat, Mubarak, even Arafat, who could deliver their constituencies and act on the Arab stage. No longer. The rise of Iran, largely as a result of the Arab world’s melt-down and the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, has strained relations further. It’s not that the United States lacks partners with whom it shares many common interests, and in the case of Israel shared values, too; relations with its former friends have never been perfect. But rarely has there been a time when America’s three closest Middle East partners—Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—have been so out of step with Washington and, not surprisingly, drawn closer to one another.
This situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Because no matter in which direction you turn, there seems to be another huge problem in the way: With Egypt, it’s human rights abuses and lack of political reform; with Israel, it’s the Palestinian issue and Iran; with Saudi Arabia, it’s Iran and Syria. And in Syria, the U.S. is allied with a Turkey that shares some of its goals but is more interested in hitting Kurds than ISIL, and in league with Kurds who are more interested in consolidating their own gains than actively working for a unified Syria.
4.) Serious adversaries. The problem is further compounded when the United States confronts adversaries willing and able to commit more to the fight than Washington. Some of this broken crockery with old allies might not be so bad if America’s newest frenemy—Iran—were moderating its regional ambitions. But, regardless of the results of the recent elections, Tehran isn’t doing so. And, together with Hezbollah, it’s managed to help keep the Assad regime afloat. So fixing Syria and Iraq, and preventing a new round of confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah means a growing dependence on an Iran that seems to have more, not less, leverage in the region than Washington has over it. Add to the mix ISIL—a transnational actor that has expanded to Libya, Yemen and Sinai, and into West Africa from its bases in Iraq and Syria—and you have a number of regional actors that undermine and complicate U.S. goals. Our antagonists can’t compete with U.S. military power and the U.S. is clearly making gains against ISIL in Iraq; but they compensate by their sheer will and determination to advance what they’ve identified as vital interests in their neighborhood; and they seem willing to sacrifice much more than American interests to keep the neighborhood theirs.
Finally there’s Russia. Determined to prevent the United States from overthrowing yet another Russian ally, Vladimir Putin has managed to buck up the Assad regime, keep the Sunni opposition away from key Syrian cities, secure Russians bases along the coast, and put himself in the middle of a diplomatic process over which he has leverage. The inconvenient truth is that Putin has figured out that instead of confronting Washington, it’s better to agree with Washington on this process or that resolution or framework, and then either violate them or control their pace. Just as Putin spared the president from bombing Syria in 2013 over Assad’s use of chemicals by offering up an agreement, he’s positioned to do so again in Syria should he choose. It’s a cruel reality. But there can be no settlement in Syria without Russian and Iranian cooperation, too. And that means Washington will either have to confront them or accept that each will have significant roles and influence..
5.) What about U.S. leadership? I can hear the criticism even now as I close this column: The United States isn’t some potted plant. It has agency, and it can act forcefully to project U.S. power against Russia or Iran. The problem is not lack of capacity; it’s the lack of will. The current administration has chosen simply to abdicate U.S. leadership and responsibility and lead from behind. If only it would …
And this “would/coulda/shoulda“ approach is the essence of the problem. We can assist, facilitate, even catalyze. But we seem to to believe that we have the keys to unlocking regional harmony and stability. Let’s just act: Set up a safe zone in Syria; create a no-fly zone; provide better weapons to the Syrian opposition; deploy more special forces. A decade or more of involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq should make it clear that we don’t have those keys. An even longer period of failed efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict just puts an exclamation point on the inconvenient truth: America has infantilized the Arabs, Iranians, Israelis—and even itself for that matter—by assuming we know what’s best, that we can get the locals to actually own and take possession of the things that need to be done, by lecturing, hectoring and offering up clever formulae; or worse, naively trying to scare them with the grim fate that awaits them if they don’t choose another, more enlightened course when their own instincts and agenda run in the opposite direction. That we—surrounded by nonpredatory powers to our north and south and fish to our east and west (our liquid assests)—seem to have freed ourselves from the forces of history and geography doesn’t mean that our friends and adversaries elsewhere have. Indeed, the Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will by force on small tribes or persuade them to accept their plans for peace and accommodation.
The last serious and successful policy America had toward this region was that of the first President George Bush and his immensely talented secretary of state, James Baker. The policy worked largely because if was pursued skillfully and willfully; Bush and Baker correlated means and ends and could separate what was vital from what was discretionary. Their goals were transactional and doable, not transformational and unrealizable. Can we find such a balance again in a region grown infinitely more complex? Is there an effective middle ground between being not in and being all in; between too much risk-readiness and too much risk-aversion? If I had those answers today, I’d have signed up for somebody’s campaign.
The painful fact is the United States is trapped in a region it can neither transform nor leave. It deserves its fair share of responsibility for making a bad situation worse. Blame Bush 43 for getting into Iraq; and blame Obama for getting out too quickly, if it makes you feel better. But this region was never America’s to win or lose. And despite the tough talk on the campaign trail, I’m betting the next Republican or Democrat—whether it’s a he or a she—will have no better or more compelling answers than their predecessors. I would think in terms of outcomes (and perhaps positive ones that America can help shape). But forget solutions, because as inconvenient or incorrect as it is to admit, especially for the solutionists, the region’s real problems and solutions are to be found not primarily in Washington, but in the largely leaderless, angry, and broken lands and hands of the Middle Easterners themselves.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.