Henry Kissinger has frequently observed that two of the key challenges of conducting foreign policy are learning to distinguish between urgent and important matters, and then devising techniques to keep the urgent from driving away all consideration of the important. In other words, the volume of pressing work is so great that officials sometimes fail to answer key strategic questions because they are too busy answering the telephone.
With the constant stream of news coming from the Middle East these days, Kissinger’s observation is more important than ever. The world — including, undoubtedly, no small number of U.S. officials — is currently captivated by the death throes of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Just last Thursday, Aug. 18, however, Washington’s attention was focused 1,300 miles to the east, on the travails of a completely different dictator, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was called upon by Washington to step aside. And of course, in the weeks and months before that, the foreign-policy community was focused like a laser on Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa.
Today, naturally, the urgent questions U.S. senior leaders are asking include: How can the United States encourage Libya’s rebel movement to adopt an inclusive, transparent system of government? How can the international community prevent a bloodletting of revenge killings in Tripoli? And, looking to Damascus, who will work with Washington to oust Assad, and what is the best method to exploit fractures in his regime?
Pressing though these questions may be, they must not be permitted to drive out deep consideration of the most important challenges faced by U.S. foreign-policy leaders. These are: What are America’s overarching strategic goals in the Middle East? And what role does its Syria policy play in achieving them?
In other words, we must go back to basics. This highly inconvenient moment is exactly the right time to do so, because the call for Assad’s removal represents the final disintegration of the strategic paradigm that had guided Washington for the last two-and-a-half years. Constructing a new model, though not urgent, is of the highest importance.
President Barack Obama’s administration came into office guided by a comprehensive critique of George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” After 9/11, Bush had adopted a very broad view of the strategic threat facing the United States, defining it as “nexus”: the convergence of state sponsors of terrorism, terrorist groups, and weapons of mass destruction. This approach, as the Obama administration saw it, led to strategic overreach. Lumping al Qaeda together with states that had no clear connection to Osama bin Laden’s organization mired the United States in a pointless and costly war in Iraq, while also fostering a highly adversarial relationship with many other countries, Iran and Syria being the two most notable cases. The nexus doctrine branded these states as pariahs.
For its part, the Obama administration certainly recognized that Tehran and Damascus were hostile and deeply problematic actors, but it also observed that these regimes had good reason to feel threatened by al Qaeda. U.S. policy, therefore, should seek to exploit the potential overlap in interests. In addition, Iran and Syria seemed to be unnatural allies. It was the Manichaean template of the Bush administration, the Obama team believed, that had forced the two powers together. The smarter play was to pry them apart, by wooing Damascus away from Tehran.
Bush had fallen into a trap laid by bin Laden. By taking up a fight with so many Muslim adversaries simultaneously, his administration had inadvertently corroborated the core narrative of al Qaeda, which presented the war on terror as a war on Islam. At the same time, the excessive coziness, as the new administration saw it, between the Bush team and right-wing Israelis only further affirmed the narrative by making the United States appear as the key indirect enabler of the oppression of the Palestinian people
Obama revamped American strategy with this critique in mind. His overarching goal was to construct a new narrative of Muslim-American friendship. This effort began in earnest with the June 2009 Cairo address, titled “A New Beginning.” In the speech, the president emphasized that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story” and promised to do his best to resolve points of friction in the relationship, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While working to redress Muslim grievances, Obama simultaneously sought to demilitarize relations between the United States and Muslim countries. The first step in this effort was replacing the overly broad war on terror with the concept of a limited conflict focused solely on al Qaeda. This narrower definition did lead to a troop surge in Afghanistan. However, as compensation for this intensification of military activity, the new vision simultaneously encouraged a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. What’s more, it also opened the door to diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. In the heartland of the Middle East, the United States was now telling a story of conciliation.
This new narrative of partnership required Muslim co-authors. However, one of Obama’s early efforts to find a partner was rebuffed. Immediately before the Cairo speech, he headed to Saudi Arabia, where he sought King Abdullah’s cooperation in revitalizing the Arab-Israeli peace process. Obama was surprised to find King Abdullah preoccupied with another problem: the rise of Iran. Tehran’s regional influence was growing, and the regime was on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon.
What, King Abdullah asked, was the American strategy? Obama had no good answer and, therefore, missed an early opportunity to establish a strategic accommodation with the most influential Arab ally of the United States.
The president had much better luck recruiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a co-author. Erdogan’s résumé was tailor-made for the role. No stooge of the Americans, he had impeccable Islamist credentials. Even better, Turkey was now something of an anti-imperial regional power. It had refused to participate in the Iraq war, and it had embarked on a newly independent policy in the Middle East. The brainchild of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, this policy celebrated the intention of Turkey to have “zero problems with neighbors” such as Iran and Syria, while still maintaining close relations with the United States. This stance amounted to a kind of nonalignment that aimed to establish Turkey as the Middle East’s mediator in chief. Ankara, unlike Riyadh, was actually eager to play a role in the Arab-Israeli peace process and to intercede between the United States and Iran and Syria. This zeal to be an Islamist middleman supported Obama’s three key goals: adopting a newly modest American demeanor, reducing tensions with the radical states, and solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Despite this promising résumé, Erdogan has failed as the co-author of a compelling new narrative. A Turkish mediation effort between Israel and Syria was already in trouble by the time of the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, which left nine Turks dead at the hands of the Israelis. Meanwhile, Turkish initiatives with respect to the Iranian nuclear program have produced no successes. If anything, they have needlessly complicated international efforts to stop the Iranians.
Meanwhile, Iran’s behavior throughout the Middle East remains as threatening as ever, providing covert lethal assistance to its Iraqi proxies, to the Taliban, and to Assad’s killing machine. U.S. government sources have even pointed to the existence of significant links between Tehran and al Qaeda. Little by little, Obama’s view of the strategic threat has grown closer to Bush’s concept of nexus.
With the call for Assad’s ouster, Obama has almost come full circle. The crowning achievement of the Turkish “zero-problems” policy was supposed to have been the establishment of cooperative relations between Damascus and the West. No power worked harder than Turkey to bring Assad in from the cold. And no power encouraged Turkey in this effort more warmly than the United States. Whatever benefits the zero-problems policy may have provided to the Turks, it has done precious little for the Americans on the issues of deepest concern to them. Therefore, Obama’s call for Assad to step down represents a tacit admission that the co-authored narrative of harmony and conciliation will remain forever unwritten.
What went wrong? At the deepest level, the problem was not an overreliance on the Turks. It was, rather, the faulty American assumptions that made Erdogan’s zero-problems policy appear attractive in the first place.
At the heart of Obama’s grand strategy was a mistaken definition of the strategic challenge. Now that the Arab uprisings have dragged the United States through a crash course on Middle Eastern realities, U.S. policymakers can more easily recognize the deepest drivers of politics in the region — namely, the vast number of severe conflicts that set Muslims against Muslims. From a practical strategic point of view, there is no such thing as “the Muslim world.” Any effort to write a narrative of cooperation with a thing that does not actually exist is bound to encounter severe difficulties.
The United States must therefore dispense entirely with grand strategies that seek to foster a conciliatory image of the United States and to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it should focus on the key challenge posed by the Arab uprisings: managing intra-Muslim conflict.
This requires returning to the question that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah first posed to Obama: What is the strategy of the United States toward Iran? At stake in Syria today is nothing less than the future of the Iranian regional security system. It should not escape notice that the Saudis, though hostile to the populist wave in general, have now aligned themselves against Assad. As much as they fear revolution, the Saudis fear the Islamic Republic of Iran even more, and they see the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to deal a severe blow to it. The United States should adopt a similar view.
The contest on the ground in Syria, obviously, has profoundly local causes. Nevertheless, the regional struggle between Iran and its rivals will play a significant role in shaping it. After Assad falls, a proxy war will erupt, with outside powers seeking to cultivate Syrian clients. Iran and Hezbollah will use the covert and brutal methods that they have honed in Lebanon and Iraq. They will preserve what they can from the remnants of Assad’s security services, while simultaneously arming and training new proxies. They will kill off and intimidate those Syrians who get in their way.
The United States has a vital interest in thwarting Iran. To do so effectively, however, it must develop a serious and sustained regional containment strategy. The process of writing the new strategy begins, like before, in Riyadh and Ankara. This time, however, Obama should reverse his attitude toward the preferences of King Abdullah and Prime Minister Erdogan. The Syrian crisis offers a new opportunity to reach a strategic accommodation with the Saudis. At the same time, it should also force Washington to re-evaluate the Turks’ no-problems policy. To date, this policy has worked to the net benefit of Iran and Syria and to the detriment of the United States. There is no reason to believe that it will produce a different result in the future.
Writing a new grand strategy is important, but not urgent. It can always be put off until tomorrow, “when things calm down.” In the meantime, the phone is ringing. The world was treated to images of cheering Libyans retaking their capital on Aug. 21; the United States will surely be called upon to play a role in the messy political transition that will follow. The Aug. 18 terrorist attack in Israel has raised the specter of another Gaza war, while also escalating tensions with Egypt. And next month, the question of Palestinian statehood may well be taken up by the United Nations.
These and many other matters will soon fill up the calendar of U.S. officials. But if Washington is not careful, all these urgent issues will push aside consideration of grand strategy, precisely when it is needed most.