A return to the Middle Eastern great game

Opinion Articles

There is no place in the world today where chaos is more prevalent and the reestablishment of order more critical than the Middle East. The “great game" between rival great powers may have originated in Central Asia but it found its most intense expression at the "crossroads of empire" in the Middle East. As long as American interests are still engaged the United States cannot desist from playing it.

The United States used to have a strategy for the Middle East. It was known as the "pillars" strategy, and it was based on working with the regional powers that were committed to maintaining the status quo—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. The challenge was to contain the revisionist powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—who were backed by the Soviet Union. Over time, the United States lost the Iranian pillar but gained an Egyptian one, reinforcing the Sunni Arab order, but now confronting a Shia revolutionary power in the Gulf.

In 1992, the United States became the dominant power in the region in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eviction of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. After that, Bush ’41 and Clinton ’42 adopted a clear, common strategy for preserving stability that involved three components:

1. Pax Americana – an American-sponsored comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict;

2. Dual Containment of the two revisionist powers - Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Ayatollahs’ Iran;

3. Arab Exceptionalism - America’s authoritarian Arab partners in preserving the Middle East order were given a pass when it came to the treatment of their citizens.

In terms of maintaining order, the strategy worked fairly well for a decade. But it all fell apart in the wake of 9/11. The US abandoned containment for regime change, toppling Saddam Hussein in a reckless way that opened the gates of Baghdad to Iran. The Arab-Israeli peace process stalled and has stubbornly resisted repeated efforts to jump-start it . And Arab exceptionalism helped to produce the Arab revolutions that swept across the region.

In the process, the existing order collapsed and has been replaced by failing states, ungoverned areas, and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. One should not be too nostalgic for the old order: its stability was regularly punctured by conflicts and coups and purchased at the price of repression. But its collapse brought to the fore three conflicts that now fuel each other and generate acute turbulence across the region:

1. The Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict: it originated in Lebanon but has been fueled by civil war in Iraq and has spread to Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the principle protagonists with revolutionary Iran steadily gaining the upper hand in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and lately Sana'a.

2. The Sunni-Sunni intra-mural conflict: this began as a battle by Al Qaeda and, subsequently, ISIS against the Sheikhs and monarchs who are the defenders of the Sunni Arab order. But the Arab spring brought to the fore an even greater threat to embattled Arab defenders of the status quo in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood.

3. The conflict with Israel: since the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan this conflict has morphed into a chronic conflict with periodic outbreaks of intense violence between Israel and non-state actors on its borders with Gaza, Southern Lebanon, and now the Golan.

Restoring order out of this chaos would be a complicated task for any external power. But the United States has particular difficulty because its people have grown weary of fighting ground wars in the Middle East and its president is deeply committed not to start any new ones. The stakes for the United States have also decreased now that it is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

Yet the United States cannot simply withdraw and abandon the "great game." As the experience in Iraq shows, the vacuum will be filled by bad actors who intend to threaten the U.S. homeland. America's longstanding regional allies -- Israel and the Arab monarchs -- depend on U.S. backing for their survival and well-being. And while the United States is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, its major trading partners in Asia, and its allies in Europe are. Disruption to the supply of oil from the Gulf will deal a blow to the struggling global economy which will rebound onto the just-recovering U.S. economy.

Unable to desist, the Obama Administration is approaching each crisis in the region piecemeal: intense negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program; carefully calibrated kinetic actions to "degrade and defeat" ISIS in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Yemen; a half-hearted effort to contain ISIS in Syria; and a forlorn effort to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. It refuses to connect the dots for fear of being sucked back into the vortex.

What's clearly needed is a strategy that takes account of all these realities. Step one is to recognize that, given the constraints on its own use of power, the United States has to work with some coalition of regional powers to make up the difference. There are only two choices for such a coalition:

1. Joint Condominium with Iran: The essence of this approach is for the United States to concede Iran's dominance in the Gulf in return for its agreement to curb its nuclear program, reduce its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, and Basher al-Assad in Syria and contribute instead to the construction of a new regional American-Iranian order.

2. Back to the Future: This approach would require the United States to return to its dependence on its traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The objective of this renewed "pillars" strategy would be to restore the old order based on the containment of Iran, the roll-back of its advances in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the curbing of its nuclear program. This same coalition of traditional allies would then have the sense of security to work more effectively with the United States against ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Readers will be quick to point out the difficulties with each approach. I can hear the howls already: to pursue the first approach would be naive; to pursue the second would be cynical. But we no longer have the luxury of criticizing from the gallery or playing whack-a-mole. A choice must be made.

A return to the Middle Eastern great game (Part Two)

Yesterday, I argued that the United States no longer has the luxury of approaching the rising Middle East chaos with a piecemeal approach. A choice needs to be made between two strategies, neither of which is particularly attractive and both of which have serious downsides. But if the United States does not want to pay the price of imposing order itself on this deeply troubled region, then it has to choose its regional partners and work with them either to rebuild the old order or construct a new one. That choice is between a "joint condominium" with Iran and a "back to the future" alliance with America's traditional partners, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.  

The joint condominium would only be possible if an agreement were struck to place meaningful curbs on Iran's nuclear program. Without an agreement, it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues; with an agreement, collaboration on issues of common interest becomes possible, much as Obama is reported to have suggested in his November 2014 letter to Iran's Supreme Leader and much as some conservative commentators mistakenly believe is already taking place. 

An understanding with Iran that encouraged it to use its influence to bolster order and stability rather than take advantage of the spreading chaos could have considerable advantages. Iran's tacit cooperation with the United States to remove Nouri al-Maliki from power in Baghdad proved critical to the viability of America's strategy against ISIS in Iraq.  If Iran were similarly to join with the United States in seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad in favor of a political reconciliation between all of Syria's communities, it could enable the United States to pursue a more effective campaign against ISIS in Syria. And if it were to constrain Hezbollah and cut its support for Palestinian rejectionists, and press the Houthis in Yemen to withdraw from Sanaa, and back the power sharing process, order in the Middle East would be greatly improved.   

However, it is fanciful to imagine that the United States could convince Iran to shift from the region's most threatening revisionist power and become instead a partner in establishing a new order in the Middle East. It would require the Supreme Leader to overcome his extreme paranoia about the intentions of the United States and curb the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security—the regime's mechanisms for pursuing its regional hegemonic ambitions. Any attempt at such a condominium would earn the United States the wrath of its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and their supporters in the Gulf Arab states and the U.S. Congress, respectively. Feeling betrayed, they would likely go their own way, acting without regard for U.S. interests.  

If this strategy should therefore be ruled out because of its lack of feasibility and the high costs associated with it, how viable is the alternative? Returning to a strategy of reliance on our traditional allies would at least provide a more dependable foundation. Faced with rising chaos, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the other Arab monarchies have developed a common sense of threat from Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Hamas, and ISIS. In response, they have found a strong common interest in countering these principle sources of instability in the region. Together they wield important capabilities: Israel has the most powerful army and air force; Egypt is the largest and most influential Arab state; Saudi Arabia's king has Islamic legitimacy as well as the wealth and influence that comes from being the largest oil exporter in the world.  

However, at the moment, the United States is at loggerheads with each of them: arguing with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlement activity in the West Bank and the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran; criticizing the Sisi regime in Egypt over shooting its citizens in the street and incarcerating tens of thousands of them; and differing with the Saudis over what to do with Assad in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Tehran's hegemonic advances in the Sunni Arab world. There are sound reasons for all of these differences, but they would need to be subordinated to the larger purpose of restoring order and taken up again once confidence and a semblance of order have been restored.

To pursue a renewed "pillars strategy," the United States would need to rebuild the confidence of its traditional allies in America's broader purposes while finding a way to reduce or manage the friction. In the event of a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States would need to balance this by providing a nuclear deterrent umbrella to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It would need to downplay differences with Egypt over the way the regime treats its citizens and find a way to work with Israel to resolve the Palestinian problem. It would need to distance the United States from the Muslim Brotherhood while taking a more robust stance against Assad in Syria. 

What could the United States expect in return? First, it should expect more robust cooperation against the sources of disorder. Already, Jordan and Egypt have stepped up their use of force against ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya. With greater confidence in America's steadfastness, perhaps the Sunni states would be willing to commit ground forces with American advisers, which might help provide an important missing element in the anti-ISIS campaign. 

With a greater sense of common purpose, the United States could begin to construct a regional security framework that would, for the first time, include Israel. The foundations already exist in America's bilateral security arrangements with each of the traditional allies, in the increasingly robust security cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and in the more covert security relationships between Israel and the Gulf Arabs. The viability of such a framework would depend in part on a credible initiative by Israel to resolve the Palestinian problem. But approaching this intractable problem in a regional framework, utilizing the Arab Peace Initiative, could boost its prospects.  

Rolling back Iran's influence in Arab capitals and on Israel's borders is a longer-term challenge. But the effort would be advantaged by building a more coherent and credible alliance to balance it. And an agreement that prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might eventually open the door to a détente with Iran in which cooperation in some areas of tactical common interest (such as confronting ISIS and promoting a political transition in Damascus) would need to be combined with competition and containment where interests continue to diverge. 

In these ways, the United States could rebuild an American-led order in the Middle East in partnership with traditional allies. They would have to step up and do their part but they could do so with greater confidence that the United States would be there to work with them rather than against them.

 

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