Looking for a Lifeline in the Middle East - Foreign Policy Missteps Have Blighted the Credibility of the United States
By Dr. Oscar L. Ware
The projection of American power and influence in the Middle East is fraught with peril and has proven to be expensive in American blood and capital. Since the onset of the 19th Century, America has maintained an uninspiring understanding of the Middle East, guided by an erratic and often anemic foreign policy. Today the United States and the Middle East have become emblematic of the vast geographic distance between them. These include disputes between the Palestinians and Israelis, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Syria and the Kurds, Turkey, and the Kurds, and even the Kurds versus the Kurds.1 U.S. interest in the Middle East can be traced to the early years of the American Republic; the region has been a principal focus of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. The onset of the Industrial Revolution, oil investments, unrest, and the 1948 special U.S. relationship with Israel have become the chief reasons for continued U.S. involvement in the region.
Ever since U.S. President Roosevelt in 1943 declared the security of Saudi Arabia a "vital interest" of the United States,2 it has sought to preserve their security and, to a larger extent, the Middle East region. Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have become political perils of uncertainty, which impact heavily on the region's stability. The Israeli–Palestinian issue only exacerbates rising tensions as the United States seeks positive opportunities to mediate lasting regional security outcomes. The faltering regional position of Saudi Arabia, the perceived rise of Iranian influence, repeated failed Western interventions, and Russia's re-emergence as an energy giant function as a catalyst in the deterioration of U.S. influence. Although ISIS(L), an insidious hate-filled terrorist group that sought to advance a wave of fear under the guise of reestablishing a Caliphate, was defeated, other violent extremist organizations (VEO) are poised to fill that void.
Unfortunately, recent perceived foreign policy missteps have blighted the credibility of the United States in the region. We are witness to the United States' declining influence in areas tied to trade, humanitarian action, and efforts to relegate the U.S. dollar's role as the world reserve currency to a thing of the past is tantamount to an existential threat. For years, the U.S. dollar has received preferential treatment on the global market. Only recently threatened as several countries such as Russia, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea or the "axis of evil" seek to move away from the oil for dollars scheme. This allegiance continues to put Western policymakers at odds as they seek to persuade countries like India, China, and Russia from using their currencies for oil trade options. This highlights the importance of the U.S. remaining in the good grace of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The distorted illusion of right vs. wrong (West vs. East) and failed understanding may be partly because those in the West continue to evaluate the region's goals using a Western analytical algorithm. This type of evaluation fails to account for cultural, historical, and regional divides that obfuscate real solutions. The overly extreme interpretation of the Quran does not necessarily lead to the colossal, accepted motivations behind the rise of extremism because not all inhabitants of the Middle East follow the same ideology or religion, and most in the region see themselves as moderates.
Many western states have ceremoniously separated church and state in solving grievances and governance issues. Still, the historical narrative for many Middle Eastern states is that there is no state when separated from religion. Thus, a Western-style democracy remains a foreign concept that has been revered as a threat to the fabric that binds the region, and that is..."religion & culture."
Western academia and policymakers provide ideological narratives that fail to address the root causes of conflict. In the name of political correctness, abstain from identifying the true nature of the instability or flawed ideology that attracts future recruits. This inadequate understanding results from failing to provide acceptable and sustainable solutions void of western influence. Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and now Yemen are stark reminders that the will of the people in the Middle East flows along sectarian and historical domestic grievances, and there is no escaping this fact. Moreover, no matter what these grievances are, they unite the region when there is the perception of a sovereign intrusion by outsiders (non-Muslims).
Western states must be cautious proselytizing regime change without the people's will at home and abroad. Fresh in Libyans' minds is Muammar Gaddafi's ouster, whose death brought about multifaceted chaos. Historically, diplomatic relations between the U.S., Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Turkey, and Iran have seldom followed a predictable and smooth path which continues to complicate efforts to mediate a lasting solution to avert recurrent crises and secure U.S. national interest in the region. In July 2022, President Biden is headed to the region in hopes of bringing down global rising gas prices, which his Administration accredits partly to the U.S. and European Union's sanctions against Russian oil exports over its invasion of Ukraine.3 The U.S. President has an opportunity to repair a strained relationship after referring to the Saudis as a "pariah" state concerning their suspected involvement in the death of the Saudi regime critic - Khashoggi in 2019. Although we are removed from 9/11 by over 20 years, many Americans still grapple with the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.4
Then there's Egypt, whose geostrategic location renders it an invaluable partner in advancing a broad range of U.S. interests. Efforts by Westerners to promote a democratic transition in Egypt were rebuked by the country's return to authoritarian rule, which highlighted the naivety of Western policymakers and codified the will of the people as they removed the Muslim Brotherhood from office. Successive Egyptian governments, including the current one, have carefully pushed the idea of stability as a suitable course of action domestically and internationally in repairing their relationship with the United States.5
Over the years, the United States has openly supported the idea of removal of the Assad regime in Syria. Still, it has failed to outline what would happen the day after should this become a reality. The Assad regime serves as a model for the region if you follow recent events: "the known is a lot better than the unknown." The moderate rebels in Syria are touted as a possible solution. Here again, this demonstrates the lack of vision Westerners continually resolve themselves in trying to solve crises in the Middle East. That is, they are intellectually superior and better suited to select the next despot than Middle Easterners.
In academic circles in which governance is studied, many ask: who are the moderates in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen representing, and what experience do they have in governing? This has the potential to create ungoverned spaces, and history affords us plenty of examples where this exact situation has given rise to extremism, as demonstrated by ISIS(L) and Al Qaeda.
Securing Nine Life-Rafts in the Middle East:
1. Democracy, as Westerners understand it, does not work. Family, tribe, sect, and personal friendships override the notion of a State, except when infringed upon by Westerners (non-Muslims). Islamic religious ideology compels many to vote against their own social, economic, and political interests. In the 21st Century, any secular political party daring to go against the grain could never campaign against the tenets of Islam and survive.
2. Information Operation (IO) campaigns fail to address or relieve on-the-ground suffering. The narrative of altruistic action by Western states is viewed through the lenses of past failures of interventions because they are coupled with the visible destruction of infrastructure, which is more tangible than a heartwarming ideological story of, we are here to improve the human condition.
3. "Perception is reality" to many in the Middle East regarding Western interest in oil reserves, despite opposing messaging. Western political leaders must be reminded from time to time that consuming the region's resources is different from understanding it. Economic development must not be tied to sect, tribe, or political affiliation but provide for the advancement of modernized democratic principles such as healthcare, education, security, and respect for the rule of law and its people.
4. An Islamic State existing without religion is a failed concept that cannot be comprehended. Certain rights and freedoms are, by definition, non-negotiable. These values are not ideologically driven but represent a self-evident consensus around the role of religion in Islamic public life; they are inseparable.
5. Reform must be supported by the people's will and not Western states' interests. Middle East policy must be aligned with Arab populations and their aspirations. Reform relevance must be a part of a broader development, which should be determined by internal obligations and provide the government an edge over the governed.
7. It is better to let those in the region do it well than Westerners do it perfectly! Transitioning from the 7th to the 21st Century has been a slow and arduous process… the battle for power is a more fundamental ideological divide over the very meaning of what the modern nation-state should look like. The political environment does not shape the dynamics of Islamism; however, it is derived from the continued desire of Middle Easterners to preserve a moral world in the face of emerging Western interference and perceived repression. The change will proceed on a prescribed timeline defined by those it affects the most.
8. Military intervention to protect human life from repression or civil breakdown should not be perceived as the first and only option. Military intervention, if acceptable at all, should be a last resort. Western military intervention in the Middle East is no longer seen to represent the collective will of the community of nations but rather the foreign policy concerns of Western states. Western States must accept that military intervention cannot solve humanitarian or conflict resolution problems; it can only alter them.
9. Illegal Israeli settlements are the focus of many debates on the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Still, less attention is paid to the human rights situation of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Moreover, there is a pointed perception the U.S. turns a blind eye when it comes to Israel.
As the United States' position as the World Superpower wanes, its trajectory of influence in the Middle East is hastened along three foreign policy pillars: Israel, oil, and stability. The notion Westerners are capable of curtailing instability in the Middle East is a doomed concept if approached through the lens of Western culture. In the fight to repeal and defeat ISIS(L), there was a tiny window of opportunity for a Middle East negotiated solution to stability. We are just now seeing the fruits of these efforts in Iraq. The growing partnership between Russia and China to work with U.S. allies in the region cannot be overlooked by Washington. These ever-increasing ties seek to replace the U.S. as a security guarantor and complicate arms deals, financial investments, and oil market shares. Western officials must not be blind to the motivations of Middle East regimes or persistent partnerships, as seen with Israel. What's needed is clarity of intentions, clear conditions for Western support and assistance, and clear U.S. red lines that are enforceable. For this opportunity to be effective, it must be aligned with the interest of those who inhabit the region. Westerners should temper their ambitions for peace in the Middle East with a realistic understanding of what is historically and culturally imaginable or be doomed to repeat the same mistakes of the last two centuries.
- The Orientalist Express (2019). Foreign Policy Translated. What is America's "Interest" in the Middle East? — The Orientalist Express
- Beauchamp, Z. (2016). Beyond oil: the US-Saudi alliance, explained. Beyond oil: the US-Saudi alliance, explained - Vox
- Mitchell, A., Williams, A., Shabad R. (2022). Biden to meet with Mohammed bin Salman in July visit to Saudi Arabia (nbcnews.com)
- Agreements and Tensions in US-Egyptian Relations (arabcenterdc.org)