The necessity of choice in the Middle East

I had a rather weird reaction to the criticism of my colleagues, Tamara Wittes and Mike O’Hanlon, to my Order from Chaos blog posts (Part 1, Part 2) about the need to choose a strategic option in the Middle East. I agreed with them! Indeed, I had in earlier times drawn the same conclusions as they did in grappling with the lessons for U.S. policy of the revolutions that have been shaking the Arab world since 2011.

As I admitted in my first blog, the pursuit of order and stability in a volatile region led the United States to back authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes that systematically failed to meet the needs of their people. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted before the Arab revolutions: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither.”

The problem, however, is that in shifting to the pursuit of democracy, the United States begot a hell of a lot more instability than it bargained for: a sectarian, pro-Iranian, Shiite government in Iraq; a feckless Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt; an ungovernable Libya; a Hamas-ruled Gaza, etc.

Mike O’Hanlon would have us ignore that sorry record that contributed to immense human suffering and push ahead with policies based on American values, distancing ourselves in particular from Saudi Arabia and Egypt because of their human rights abuses. Tamara Wittes is a little more cautious, advocating for selective engagement, partnership with “effective local actors,” avoidance of internecine arguments, and support for those “beleaguered few” who still work for tolerance and pluralism. Tamara doesn’t say whom she’s talking about, but her criteria fit Jordan, Tunisia, and maybe Morocco. They just happen to be three of the smaller, weaker states in the region.

These approaches would be appropriate if we were debating policy towards the South Pacific, but we’re talking about the Middle East. Its geo-strategic location, its oil deposits, and its crucible of civilizations make it too important to allow us to pursue a policy of moral aloofness. We need a strategy for rebuilding order and you can’t base such a strategy on weak partners while adopting policies bound to alienate the strong ones.

The better answer would be to try to find a middle way that helps to reestablish order while not abandoning the pursuit of justice. I guess Mike O’Hanlon would go along with that. And that’s exactly what I would have recommended if I thought it had a snowball’s chance in hell of working. But in the current environment in which the old order has collapsed and the resultant chaos is being exploited by America’s Iranian and ISIS adversaries, the United States cannot afford the luxury of groping for a balanced approach. We need to prioritize order for now and pursue justice a little later. We need to choose the side that has an interest in restoring order—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni monarchs (including Jordan and Morocco), together with Israel.

This is not an “alliance of convenience” that will quickly break down, as Tamara would have us believe; it’s a partnership based on common interests and common adversaries. Of course they have their tactical differences (e.g. how hard to squeeze Hamas, how important it is to try to resolve the Palestinian issue, whether Iran and/or the Muslim Brotherhood present more of a threat than ISIS). But they have already demonstrated their willingness to take the collective action that Tamara claims is impossible in their participation in the coalition combating ISIS. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have buried their differences in the face of the common threat from ISIS and Iran. We would find them willing to adjust their policies to our requirements and do more if we were able to overcome the mistrust that is poisoning our relations with these traditional allies of the United States.

To do that, the Obama Administration would have to downplay, for the time being, its insistence on political “inclusiveness” in Egypt. It would need to pursue a more robust effort to undermine Assad’s remaining grip on parts of Syria. And the United States would need to provide strategic reassurance to the Gulf states and Israel in the context of a potential nuclear deal with Iran that will likely leave it as a near-threshold nuclear power (one press report indicates this may already be happening).

That does not mean avoiding criticism of policies that are bound to be counterproductive (like lumping the Muslim Brotherhood together with ISIS, shooting peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Cairo, and locking up tens of thousands more). But all of these states feel deeply threatened by the chaos that surrounds them and what they perceive as an Iranian encirclement. In such circumstances they see things in black and white terms: are you with us or against us, they ask. And we should be the first to understand that insecurity, since that’s how we Americans reacted after 9/11.

So the first priority is to reassure them that we are with them. Once they feel they can rely on us again it will be easier to persuade them to adjust the policies that we have good reason to object to. In other words, this should not be “an uncritical alliance,” but it can only work as a “tough love alliance” if our putative partners first come to understand that we intend to treat them as allies but will expect the same from them.