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

Editor’s Note: In the first part of this two-part essay, Martin Indyk outlines the choices for the United States in the Middle East: a Joint Condominium with Iran or a Back to the Future approach that relies on traditional U.S. allies. In part two, he argues for his choice.

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In the process, the existing order collapsed and has been replaced by failing states, ungoverned areas, and the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS.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.