Beyond moderates and militants

[Disclaimer: this piece, written and published in 2010, was quickly overtaken by events. It remains pertinent, however, because of the light it sheds on the thinking that prevailed within the Obama administration, which largely failed to reflect the dramatic transformations ushered in by the subsequent popular uprisings.]  

IN THE MIDDLE EAST, U.S. President Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his presidency seeking to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor. He has made up some ground. But given how slowly U.S. policy has shifted, his administration runs the risk of implementing ideas that might have worked if President George W. Bush had pursued them a decade ago. The region, meanwhile, will have moved on.

It is a familiar pattern. For decades, the West has been playing catch-up with a region it pictures as stagnant. Yet the Middle East evolves faster and less predictably than Western policymakers imagine. As a rule, U.S. and European governments eventually grasp their missteps, yet by the time their belated realizations typically occur, their ensuing policy adjustments end up being hopelessly out of date and ineffective.

In the wake of the colonial era, as Arab nationalist movements emerged and took power across the Middle East, Europe either ignored the challenge they posed or treated them as Soviet-inspired irritants. By the time the West understood the significance and popularity of these movements, Europe’s power had long since faded, and its reputation in the region was irreparably tarnished by the stain of neocolonialism. Likewise, the United States only became fully conscious of the jihadist threat in the aftermath of 9/11, after Washington had fueled its rise by backing Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan during the 1980s. And Washington only endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state in 2000 — just when, as a result of developments on the ground and in both the Israeli and the Palestinian polities, the achievement of a two-state solution was becoming increasingly elusive.

The West’s tendency to adopt Middle East policies that have already outlived their local political shelf lives is occurring once again today: despite its laudable attempt to rectify the Bush administration’s missteps, the Obama administration is hamstrung by flawed assumptions about the regional balance of power. Washington still sees the Middle East as cleanly divided between two camps: a moderate, pro-American camp that ought to be bolstered and a militant, pro-Iranian one that needs to be contained. That conception is wholly divorced from reality.

Paradoxically, such a prism replicates the worldview of the Bush administration, which, in almost every other respect, the Obama administration has rejected. Its proponents assume the existence of a compelling Western vision of peace and prosperity, which the region’s so-called moderates can rally around, even as U.S. and European credibility in the Middle East is at an all-time low. It underestimates and misunderstands the role of newly prominent actors, such as Turkey, that do not fit within either supposed axis and whose guiding principle is to blur the line between the two. Most important, it assumes a relatively static landscape in a region that is highly fluid.

Ignoring the Middle East’s changing composition makes it difficult to understand the significance of recent political adjustments. If the goal is to defeat the radicals in order to strengthen the moderates, how is one to assess Saudi Arabia’s resumed dialogue with Hamas or its improved ties with Syria? What is one to make of a regime in Damascus that simultaneously ships arms to Hezbollah, deepens its intelligence and security ties with Tehran, and opposes important Iranian objectives in Iraq? And how is one to interpret Turkey’s multifaceted diplomacy — maintaining its ties to the West, deepening its relations with Syria, mediating a nuclear deal with Iran, and reaching out to Hamas?

By disregarding subtle shifts that are occurring and by awaiting tectonic transformations that never will, Washington is missing realistic chances to help reshape the region. Obama has an opportunity to change course by adopting a more elastic policy, but he cannot wait long: the United States might soon awake to a Middle East that it will find even harder to understand or influence.

Like father, unlike son

During the 1990s, the United States arguably reached the apex of its power and prestige in the Middle East. President George H. W. Bush showcased Washington’s formidable military capabilities by forcing Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Diplomatically, his performance was equally impressive: he assembled a diverse coalition in support of Operation Desert Storm and that same year convened an unprecedented Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. President Bill Clinton’s approach built on those achievements: he contained Iran and Iraq while managing the Arab-Israeli conflict through the peace process. Meanwhile, the Lebanese time bomb was temporarily defused by a U.S.-endorsed Pax Syriana that guaranteed stability in exchange for Beirut’s submission to its neighbor’s domination.

All told, Washington had successfully frozen the region’s three most critical and volatile arenas of conflict: the Arab-Persian fault line, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Lebanon. This newfound equilibrium gave rise to a loose coalition among Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, whose relative convergence of interests — maintaining the regional status quo, a U.S.-managed peace process, and a Saudi-financed and Syrian-policed order in Lebanon — helped stabilize the inter-Arab balance of power. However halting, frustrating, and disappointing it proved to be, progress on the peace process also made the region less allergic to Washington’s continuing special relationship with Israel. But this delicately constructed regional order collapsed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, and the situation only grew worse during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The George W. Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East and its response to the 9/11 attacks fundamentally altered the region’s security architecture. By ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and Iraq of Saddam Hussein, Washington unwittingly eliminated Tehran’s two overriding strategic challenges, thus removing key impediments to Tehran’s ability to project power and influence across the region. At the same time, after the breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the Bush administration redefined the core principles underpinning the peace process. It made meaningful advances dependent on preconditions, such as changes in the Palestinian leadership, the establishment of statelike institutions in the occupied territories, and the waging of a nebulous fight against an ill-defined terrorist menace. The end result was polarization of the region in general and of the Palestinian polity in particular. This approach also heightened the costs of the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the eyes of the Arab public. Finally, the United States overreached when — not content with having secured Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon — it pursued the unrealistic three-part goal of isolating Damascus, disarming Hezbollah, and bringing Lebanon into the pro-Western camp.

Although U.S. policy at the time helped put an end to the impasses that had long plagued Iraq and Lebanon, this came at a heavy human and political cost. More broadly, the resumption of crises in the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and between the Israelis and the Palestinians prompted an ongoing, persistently vicious, and periodically violent renegotiation in the balance of power among nations (involving Egypt, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey) and within nations (in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories). Suddenly, everything seemed up for grabs.

This proliferation of conflicts and emergence of new threats to U.S. interests occurred just as U.S. power was eroding and regional rivals were gaining strength. Serious limitations to the United States’ military capabilities were exposed directly (in the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq) and indirectly (when Washington’s ally, Israel, suffered setbacks in the Lebanon and Gaza wars).

Meanwhile, Washington made the promotion of liberal values a pillar of its Middle East policy, putting forth a profoundly moralistic vision of its role, precisely at a time when it was trampling the very principles underlying that vision. A president whose foreign policy was predicated on an ability to inspire Arabs with the rhetoric of democratic values undercut any such inspiration by occupying Iraq, rejecting the results of the Palestinian elections in January 2006, showing excessive deference to Israeli policies, and permitting human rights violations to take place, most notably at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

The “with us or against us” philosophy underpinning the U.S. war on terrorism placed Washington’s Arab allies in a relationship that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and politically costly as animosity toward the United States became widespread. Meanwhile, Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah benefited from renewed popular sympathy and were driven together despite their often ambiguous relations and competing interests.

Washington’s enemies were finding that the impediments to their geographic expansion and political ascent had disappeared: with the collapse of the Iraqi state, Iran was free to spread its influence beyond its borders toward the Arab world; Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon unshackled Hezbollah, helping transform it into a more autonomous and powerful actor; and the bankruptcy of the peace process boosted Hamas’ fortunes and deflated Fatah’s.

Too little, too late

Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers stuck to a Cold War-era approach to foreign policy: dividing the world between faithful friends and well-defined foes, anchoring diplomacy in relatively stable bilateral relationships, and relying on allies to promote clear-cut interests and contain enemies. In the 1990s, such a paradigm served as a more or less effective guide to Middle East policy because the United States enjoyed room to maneuver without being seriously challenged. Today, this model has become irrelevant.

The United States is currently juggling many competing and at times incompatible interests. These include curbing Tehran’s increasing clout and its nuclear program while stabilizing an Iraq under heavy Iranian influence, shoring up the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while protecting Israel’s ambiguous nuclear status, retaining ties to friendly but repressive regimes while promoting democracy, preventing renewed violence in Gaza and Lebanon while not dealing with Hamas or Hezbollah, and advancing the peace process while perpetuating the schism among the Palestinians. Worse, the United States is striving to do all this at a time when it is no longer perceived to be as dominant as it once was. Local protagonists have learned various rhetorical and practical means of resisting U.S. pressure, ways of surviving and sometimes thriving by saying no. Local nonstate actors, which are harder to persuade or deter, have grown more powerful. Washington’s foes can now use public opinion to their advantage, as do Hamas and Hezbollah, or curry favor with rival powers, as Iran has tried to do with Brazil, China, and Turkey.

The Obama administration has shown some signs of adjustment. Conscious of the United States’ declining credibility in the Middle East and of its inability to resolve crises independently of one another, Obama has sought to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reach out to Iran and Syria, and forsake the simplistic “war on terror” mentality inherited from the Bush administration. It has redefined U.S. national security doctrine to make room for a more multipolar world.

Indeed, Obama is pursuing policies that, had Bush implemented them during his administration, may well have worked. But the region has not stood still, and at the current pace of change, the United States risks making vital policy adjustments only after it is too late.

The Obama administration will push for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but will likely recognize the importance of intra-Palestinian unity for that goal only after spending several more years playing Fatah against Hamas and only after differences between the two movements have hardened beyond repair. Washington is engaging with Damascus, but by postponing a serious, high-level strategic dialogue about Syria’s future regional role in a post-peace-deal environment, it risks making it immeasurably more costly for Damascus to relax its ties with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Similarly, Washington might formally accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes only after Tehran has reached the point of no return in its nuclear weapons program.

At bottom, Washington still sees the Middle East as divided between moderates and militants — an understanding that blinds it to much of what currently fuels the region’s dynamics. After all, on issues deemed central to U.S. interests, Washington’s nominal allies in the region often pursue objectives that are not aligned with the United States’, and its foes sometimes promote goals compatible with Washington’s. For example, even though Iran and Saudi Arabia are bitter enemies, both tend to view Iraq through a similar confessional prism (albeit taking different sides in the sectarian competition), while Washington’s vision of Iraq as a nonsectarian state is closer to Syria’s and Turkey’s. Even so, when it comes to Iraq, the U.S. government’s inclination is to condemn Iran and Syria while praising Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Israel’s undeclared nuclear program, foot-dragging approach to peace, and often single-minded reliance on military means to resolve conflicts are hard to reconcile with Obama’s intention to restore the United States’ standing in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And as Bush quickly discovered and as his successor knows, the United States’ democracy and human rights agenda finds few takers among friendly regimes while resonating with the Islamist parties Washington is loath to empower.

Regional actors simply do not fit into a recognizable moderate-versus-militant template. Syria, one of the Arab world’s most secular countries, is also the one most closely aligned with militant Islamist movements. Hezbollah, a symbol of Shiite militancy, has adapted to Lebanon’s political system, which, with its pluralistic confessional makeup, liberal economic leanings, and endemic corruption, defies the movement’s self-proclaimed principles. One can be a secular, liberal Arab democrat and still be profoundly hostile to Washington and the West, just as one can be an ally of the West and find common cause with certain jihadist groups.

Ironically, Iran espouses the bipolar logic of axes adopted by the United States, seeking to both lead and bolster a camp adhering to its militant values, even as Turkey, a NATO member and close U.S. ally, distances itself from Washington’s vision and tries to erase the lines between the two purported groupings. Qatar hosts a U.S. military base, has enjoyed trade relations with Israel, has strong ties with Syria and Hamas, is friendly with Iran, and, through the global television network al Jazeera, has (notably on its Arabic channel) created the most potent and articulate exponent of the “militant” view. In May 2008, Qatar brokered the inter-Lebanese accord and Turkey mediated Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Neither Doha nor Ankara can plausibly be labeled as belonging to one axis or the other; both have earned reputations for talking to everyone.

The myth of the militant consensus

It should come as no surprise that the West is finding it increasingly problematic to manage complex situations with a rigid, one-dimensional paradigm. It is difficult to place Israel, Fatah, Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia, and Iraq’s outgoing prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in the same so-called moderate camp when they share neither values nor interests. Each has strong ties with Washington, to be sure, but these relations are motivated by different and sometimes contradictory considerations. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia — standard-bearers of the moderate camp — do not have much in common, either. They do not share a willingness to engage with Israel, they exhibit different systems of government, and each pursues a separate approach to addressing religious extremism — Cairo tries to suppress it, Amman channels it through participation in a controlled democratic process, and Riyadh seeks to coopt it.

The moderate camp is in desperate need of what has been most lacking: a credible U.S. agenda around which its members can rally and that they can use to justify their alignment with Washington. In the absence of such an agenda, the most relevant competition pits two homegrown visions against each other. The first, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance against Israel and the West and prioritizes security alliances and military buildups. The second, whose key advocate is Turkey, highlights forceful diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties, and values economic integration. Although the two outlooks are being championed by non-Arab regional powers, both are largely in tune with local Arab sentiment. The region, it turns out, is organizing itself less in accordance with a U.S. policy and more in the absence of one.

The allegedly pro-Iranian axis also escapes neat description. In terms of ideology, interests, practical constraints, and even sectarian identity, Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah differ in notable ways. Their ties fluctuate and reflect constant adjustments to shifting regional realities. Descriptions of this axis often veer into exaggeration and caricature. It is not, as some assume, the expression of a militant form of Shiism. Indeed, Syria is ruled by its Alawite minority, which has little in common with Iran’s brand of Shiism, whereas Hamas is a quintessential Sunni movement and is at pains not to appear excessively beholden to Iran. Syria would prefer to see a Palestinian reconciliation that gave Hamas an important, albeit not exclusive, voice in decision-making. Hezbollah has outgrown its proxy relationship with Syria and has a vested interest in ensuring that Lebanese-Syrian relations do not revert to the old order. Contradictions between Iran and Syria run deeper still and are at play across the region. Whereas Iran has ruled out any dealings with Israel and openly calls for its destruction, Syria repeatedly asserts its willingness to negotiate and, should a peace deal be reached, normalize relations. And events in Iraq have brought Iran’s and Syria’s competing interests into even sharper relief. In Iraq today, as they did in Lebanon during the 1980s, Tehran and Damascus back different parties and espouse divergent goals: Iran seeks an Iraq under heavy Iranian influence, whereas Syria hopes to make the country an integral part of the Arab world.

What principally brings the so-called militant camp together is the need to counter what its members perceive as a U.S.-Israeli threat. The binary choice they face — either shift allegiances or remain frozen in a hostile relationship with the West — gives them no choice at all. On the contrary, the more that U.S., European, or Israeli pressure increases, the easier it becomes for them to disregard or downplay their disagreements. The unprecedented security coordination among Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah is the clearest illustration of this dynamic, as each prepares for a potential wide-ranging confrontation. Meanwhile, “moderate” Arab countries — unsettled by a stagnant peace process and undercut by weakened U.S. leadership — face increasingly pointed social and political contradictions, potential succession crises, and a growing temptation to turn inward. Ironically, the United States has proved far more successful over the past decade in reinforcing the cohesiveness of its foes than it has in maintaining the unity of its allies.

Turning the page

Some have been quick to conclude that the United States is marginalized, that Washington’s era in the Middle East is over, and that the future belongs to Tehran or Ankara. This is fantasy. As both Iran and Turkey are no doubt beginning to appreciate, there is a strict limit to what they can accomplish without — let alone in opposition to — the United States. Even with its popularity on the Arab street rising, Turkey has yet to achieve a breakthrough on any of the major initiatives on which it has labored: holding Israeli-Syrian peace talks, negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, mediating a truce between Israel and Hamas, or attempting to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.

Still, in the absence of more forceful U.S. leadership, the Middle East is fast becoming a region of spoilers, nations whose greatest imperative — and sole possible accomplishment — is to prevent others from doing what they themselves cannot do. Egypt is trying to thwart Turkey’s efforts to reconcile the rival Palestinian groups and get Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza. Syria hinders peace efforts that come at the expense of its allies. Saudi Arabia is intent on blocking Iranian advances in Iraq. Practically no country has a positive agenda or is in a position to successfully advance one. Of course, despite the rise of its rivals, the United States still enjoys veto power over virtually all significant regional initiatives. But that is small consolation. To be spoiler in chief is a sad ambition for Washington and would be a depressing legacy for Obama.

The alternative is for the United States to play the role of conductor, coordinating the efforts of different nations even as it preserves its privileged ties to Israel and others. For example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and Turkey, could spearhead efforts to bring about Palestinian national reconciliation consistent with a continued U.S.-led peace process. Turkey, assuming that it mends its ties with Israel and maintains its newfound credibility in Arab countries, could serve as a channel to Hamas and Syria on peace talks or to Iran on the nuclear issue. Under the auspices of the United States, Iraq’s Arab neighbors and Iran could reach a minimal consensus on Iraq’s future aimed at maintaining Iraq’s territorial unity, preserving its Arab identity, protecting Kurdish rights, and ensuring healthy, balanced relations between Baghdad and Tehran. Washington should intensify its efforts to resume and conclude peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would do far more to affect Tehran’s calculations than several more rounds of UN sanctions. Syria also could be useful in reaching out to residual pockets of Sunni militants in Iraq.

As much as anything, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process illustrates why a new approach is needed. Pillar after pillar supporting long-standing U.S. policy on this issue — strong, representative Israeli and Palestinian leaders; support from the Arab states; unrivaled U.S. power and credibility — has eroded to the point where they barely matter today. The Palestinian national movement has fragmented, Fatah’s clout and legitimacy have dwindled, and foreign countries have boosted their influence over the Palestinian arena, affecting the decisions of Fatah and Hamas alike.
The most politically active Israeli and Palestinian constituencies — Israeli settlers and members of the Israeli religious right, on the one hand, and the Palestinian diaspora, Palestinian refugees, and Islamists, on the other — are the least involved in discussions about an eventual settlement, even though they are precisely the groups that could derail it. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the Arab states on which Washington has customarily relied, are no longer popular enough in the region to sanction a deal on their own. Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Jazeera can dilute or even drown out any positive reaction to a possible accord by denouncing the agreement as a sellout. Given pervasive skepticism about the peace process among the Arab public, criticism of a deal is likely to resonate far more widely than is support.

For the United States, adapting to new patterns of power would at a minimum mean accepting the need for internal Palestinian reconciliation and acknowledging that a strong, unified Palestinian partner is more likely to produce a sustainable peace agreement than a weak, fragmented one. The United States must take into account the concerns of different Israeli and Palestinian constituencies (for example, acceptance of the Jewish right to national self-determination and recognition of the historic injustice suffered by Palestinian refugees); acknowledge that meaningful Israeli-Syrian negotiations have become a necessary complement to Israeli-Palestinian talks, not a distraction from them; and grasp the necessity of including new regional actors to help achieve what is now beyond the ability of Washington and its allies to do on their own: giving legitimacy and credibility to an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

It will not be easy for the United States to undertake such a strategic shift, nor will it be risk free. Traditional allies, feeling jilted, might lose confidence or rebel; newfound partners, getting a whiff of U.S. weakness, could prove unreliable. Still, hanging on to an outmoded policy paradigm does not offer much hope. The likely consequences would be increased regional divisions, increased tensions, and increased chances of conflict. Obama began his presidency with the unmistakable ambition of turning a page. To succeed in the Middle East, he will have to go further and close the book on the failed policies of the past.

Originally published, with Robert Malley, in Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010. 

Illustration credit: blurred background by Pixabay / licensed by CC.