Memo to the Next President: Avoid the ‘Vision Thing’ in the Mideast
By AARON DAVID MILLER and RICHARD SOKOLSKY
The U.S. Constitution talks about creating a more perfect Union, not a more perfect world. When, as a country, are we going to remember that? For decades now America has been trapped in a Middle East it cannot transform nor leave, and where bold ambitions and transformational visions more often than not go to die That calls for a cruel and unforgiving assessment of U.S. interests and the smart application of American power and leadership, mixed with a healthy dose of prudence and caution, to protect them. And it mandates avoidance of discretionary enterprises that aren’t connected directly with vital U.S. interests.
We are neither declinists nor isolationists. But based on more than a half century of combined experience working on Middle Eastern issues in the Department of State,
here is our list of ten things the next administration should not do or say if it is to have any chance of navigating its way out of the landmines, traps, hopeless causes, and impossible missions that dot the region.
First, the administration has to purge the vocabulary it uses to describe America’s role and responsibilities in the region. With apologies to Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, for whom both of us worked, it is not helpful to talk of the United States as the indispensable power able to jump tall buildings in a single bound. De Gaulle had it right: The cemeteries of France are filled with indispensable people. America does not have the capacity or the interest to set itself up as the go to power for every hopeless Middle East cause, particularly when those causes cut to the core of issues such as sectarian or national identity and internal governance (see Syria). We can look for opportunities in conjunction with others to help promote security and stability; but we cannot afford to play the lead role in transforming the political and economic institutions of the region—what foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum called foreign policy as social work. We can barely keep our own house in order on some critically important issues to have the time and luxury to be running round the world repairing, let alone constructing, the houses of others.
Second, avoid saying anything publicly that you don’t mean. George Shultz, one of our old bosses, used to say that when you don’t have a policy there’s a great temptation to give a speech. Words do matter, particularly presidents’ words. But credibility is in essence believability—that allies and adversaries believe what America says because it acts on its words. Far too often, particularly in the Obama Administration, that was not the case. Repeated calls for a comprehensive Israeli settlements freeze disappeared into the gap between words and deeds. And in the most egregious example of the disconnect between rhetoric and action, a presidentially articulated red line in 2013 about what the United States would do if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, turned pink all of sudden. Repeated public calls for Assad’s removal ran into the inconvenient truth that the administration has all but accepted the cruel reality that he’ll be around long after Barack Obama leaves the White House. Message discipline and control is critical, particularly in a region where there are few possibilities for succeeding at anything.
Third, do not buy into the narrative that America’s position and influence in the region are in precipitous decline. There is some truth to this. But what matters far more is whether U.S. interests—protecting the homeland (no successful attack against the US since 9/11 directed and carried out by a foreign terror organization); weaning America off Arab hydrocarbon; and preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon with nuclear weapons (Iran)—are being protected. And on all three fronts, America is not doing badly. And that’s where we ought to keep the focus to preserve what is left of our position and influence: on what’s purely necessary. Discretionary enterprises–trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem or expending American lives and treasure attempting to reconstitute badly fractured societies like Syria and Iraq without sufficient local ownership—are not only foolish but will fail, further undermining American credibility.
Fourth, as badly as Russia has behaved in Ukraine and Syria, do not get caught up in the fever of a U.S.-Russia Cold War 2.0 in the Middle East. Russia has neither the intention nor the capacity to establish a Pax Russiana over the region, and certainly isn’t interested in a hot war there with the United States. It does not want to be saddled with the responsibilities for policing the region or solving historic conflicts. Syria has clearly not proven to be the quagmire for Moscow many predicted. But neither does it represent some kind of historic opportunity either. Putin can back Assad and block U.S. plans. But it’s still very much an open question how matters will turn out over time. Russian support for Assad’s murderous policies and its own air strikes will limit its influence among Sunnis in whatever emerges as the new Syria as well as in the broader region. And not every move Russia makes in the Middle East is contrary to American interests (see its cooperation in trying to rid Syria of chemical weapons and concluding the nuclear agreement with Iran). As politically incorrect as it may be, Putin has more skin in the game than we do. There will be no chance of stabilizing Syria without his (or Iran’s) cooperation.
Fifth, do not go chasing shiny objects that appear to offer a means to increase American leverage and power without thinking through the consequences. Ideas that are untethered from well- developed strategies can be very risky. A case in point is the infatuation with No Fly Zones and safe zones in Syria. Going down this road requires thinking through contingencies. They should not be established unless the administration is prepared to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia, to get sucked into a situation where the president’s only choices will be to double-down or to back off, and to use force without the approval of Congress, the American public, and many of our Allies. These half-measures will only make an awful situation worse and produce another failure Washington doesn’t need.
Sixth, do not get swept up in the cause of democratic evangelism, however noble and uplifting it is in the abstract. The region is not ripe for the spread of American values; that is the distressing lesson of the 13 years since the Iraq invasion and the failure of the 2011 Arab Spring. It requires a unique mix of arrogance and ignorance to assume that Middle Eastern elites and publics are somehow ready and willing to receive Washington’s advice on how they should govern themselves. The American form of governance is unique to our history, location and political culture. It is not for export, but even if it were the United States could never hope to promote democratic ideals in a way that was consistent with our interests and policies. We supported an Arab spring in Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. We deposed evil dictators in Iraq and Libya but not in Syria. Promoting democracy in the region is not a core American interest and trying to achieve some level of consistency in how we respond to internal developments is a fool’s errand. Inconsistency and anomaly exists in the job descriptions of all great powers. Indeed America’s interests and its values are almost never in perfect alignment—and because of the flexibility required to safeguard its interests will probably never be.
Seventh, don’t let our allies and friends “guilt” us into deepening our security commitments in the region and using force to solve what are essentially political problems—and problems that can only be solved by Arab governments—by raising doubts about America’s credibility. What these countries really want is for Uncle Sucker to take care of problems that are either of their own making or that do not implicate U.S. core interests in the region. Saudi Arabia should have been thanking the Obama administration for eliminating the threat of a nuclear Iran for at least the next 10-15 years. Instead, to reassure the Saudis of the credibility of the American security commitment and mollify their anger over the Iran agreement, Washington allowed itself to become the Kingdom’s enabler-in-chief for their woeful misadventure in Yemen.
Eighth, do not chase after Israeli-Palestinian peace without clear indications that the locals themselves and the Arabs, too, are prepared to act. It should be evident by now that the gaps on the core issues such as Jerusalem and refugees between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are just too wide to be bridged. The two-state solution will remain a thought experiment until Israeli and Palestinians leaders (current or future) are willing and able to make decisions. And it’s highly unlikely that the next President can induce or compel them to do so. For now, this is a management exercise: help keep Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation afloat; promote development of the Palestinian economy and issues relating to movement through checkpoints and border crossings; try to identify smaller issues such as the greater development of areas in parts of the West Bank under Israeli control; and increase cooperation on issues such as water, electricity, and infrastructure. Washington should stay away from high profile U.S.-initiated efforts to take on the big peace process issues. The advice Bill Clinton gave to one of us before the July 2000 Camp David summit is inspirational but not always right: trying and failing isn’t better than not trying at all. Failure undermines U.S. prestige and power in war and peacemaking. It already has.
Ninth, don’t change the overall trajectory that President Obama set for American policy in the Middle East, a region that is in transition to an unknown place. He correctly saw that the days of American primacy in the region are numbered. Washington needs to forget about fixing things and accept the reality that in most cases the outcomes will not be solutions, but rather effective efforts to manage, contain, and reduce problems.
Finally, none of the above means you can just hang a closed-for-the-season sign on American involvement in the Middle East. Washington has interests, allies and adversaries there and the stakes – terrorism, energy security for much of the world, and nuclear proliferation – are still very high. It is true that the United States cannot transform the region, but it cannot easily leave it either. And that calls for a smart middle ground. We call it transactional engagement. Avoid the vision thing, in particular major involvement in nation building and conflict resolution where locals have an insufficient stake, will or capacity to take on the lion’s share of the responsibility. Instead, drill down on protecting core vital interests that involve American security and prosperity, work with partners who, while not sharing U.S. values, may share some key U.S. security interests, and look for opportunities to use tools such as economic and technical assistance and support for civil society to build capacity and help governments deliver economic and social justice to their publics.
This not-to-do list is neither pretty nor heroic—and it certainly won’t resonate within the echo chamber of the Washington foreign policy elite, many of whom are victims of groupthink. But the time for American created transformational diplomacy in this region has long passed. What we have recommended is geared to the sober realities of a broken, angry, and dysfunctional Middle East in the throes of a major transition to an uncertain and perhaps chaotic future for some time to come. If Americans want Hollywood endings they should think about going to the movies.