Since the end of the Cold War — and, most dramatically, in the Bush and Obama years — American strategy in the Middle East has shifted from one anchored in the state system to one focused on non-state actors, particularly terrorist groups, and on projects disconnected from geopolitics. The result has been the return — after nearly five decades — of Russian sway, the commandeering of large swaths of territory by Iran, and the emergence on the scene of China. The Russian-Iranian military campaign in Syria, and the increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East require a return to Cold War principles.
Throughout the Cold War, America’s approach to the Middle East focused on great power competition — on containing the Soviet Union. America’s strategy in the region revolved around securing an alliance that would frustrate the direct moves of Moscow and block the efforts of its local clients to expand their influence. The key to the American strategy was building a US-led order of states.
The end of the Cold War, however, has deflected American strategy from this emphasis on state-based competition. Immediately after the disappearance of the Soviet threat, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The summary expulsion of the Iraqis by American forces convinced Washington that the threat from revisionist powers had been neutralized. In the 1990s, U.S. policy became preoccupied, instead, with efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli peace process—efforts, needless to say, that proved utterly fruitless.
On the surface, the attempts of the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict simply continued the policies of the past, but in reality they entirely re-conceptualized the U.S.-mediated peace talks. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington viewed the peace process through a Cold War prism. The goal of the exercise was to win Egypt: to flip a major Arab state away from the Soviet orbit into the American camp. However, after the fall of the Berlin wall, Washington gradually moved away from the idea of changing the calculations of states and toward the idea of influencing the hearts and minds of the people. The goal of the U.S. was not simply to build an alliance but to bring comity, as an honest broker, among the peoples of the region.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 only accelerated this change. The terrorist non-state actor became the primary enemy and defeating it required dealing with “root causes.” The left and the right understood “root causes” differently, but neither focused primarily on the competition between states. Accompanying America’s counterterrorism campaign was a missionary-like diplomacy concerned with transforming the sociopolitical culture of the Middle East, whether through Arab-Israeli peacemaking, countering radical ideologies, or promoting democracy and freedom.
As a result, our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have been wedded to grand and unrealizable aspirations, while state competitors, such as Russia, China and Iran, have grown appreciably stronger. In order to contain competitors, the United States must therefore return to a more traditional approach focused on shoring up an order of allied states. The three key states around which the US can build this policy are Israel and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Saudi Arabia, amplified by the direct American military presence in the Gulf. To do this, Washington will need to readjust its priorities and jettison as a strategic concept the two-decades-old framework of counterterrorism.
Counterterrorism policy has replaced conventional strategic thinking with the result that our policies to defeat ISIS now, in some key respects, threaten the vital interests of our traditional allies. Consider, for example, the counterterrorism campaign in Syria, where America has partnered with the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist group long at war with Turkey. Thanks to US support, the Syrian PKK now controls a long stretch of the border with Turkey, a development Ankara views as a direct threat to its national security.
Indeed, the partnership with the Syrian PKK has had profound strategic consequences that we are only now beginning to understand. It has led to a severe misalignment of American and Turkish strategic objectives in the region, driving another wedge between Washington and a key ally.
In Washington itself, the counterterrorism framework has created an institutional lobby in favor of an alignment with Russia and Iran. The views of Brett McGurk, the former Special Envoy for countering ISIS, are indicative of this perspective. Since resigning his position, in protest over President Trump’s announced Syria withdrawal, he has publicly recommended that the US broker an agreement with Russia and the Assad regime to protect the Syrian PKK against Turkey. If realized, such a step would amount to a US alignment with Iran against Turkey. In this respect, McGurk’s suggestion exposes the untenable posture the United States has adopted. A proper strategic framework for a pursuit of US interests is not an alignment with Moscow and Tehran but a readjustment to restore Turkey’s alignment with the United States.
In Iraq, even more than in Syria, the counterterrorism strategy has handed enormous power over to Iran. To prosecute its anti-ISIS campaign, the US effectively partnered with Iranian proxies — Revolutionary Guard-commanded Shiite militias. At the same time, it pursued a policy of state-building in Iraq that turned a blind eye to the fact that Iran held sway over key government institutions, including the Ministry of Interior. Washington’s policy of “capacity building” effectively empowered these pro-Iran elements, and therefore increased Tehran’s influence, not just in Baghdad, but also in the Kurdish region.
The state-building enterprise in Baghdad has maneuvered the United States into becoming a veritable pillar of this Iran-dominated order. American military power is deployed to squash any Sunni opposition to this arrangement. At the same time, America has become the de facto shield of Iranian assets from outside attack. Last year, for example, it was reported that Iran had moved missiles to its assets in Iraq. In response, Israel, which has been regularly striking Iranian targets in Syria, began to signal the possibility of expanding operational theaters to address Iran’s moves in Iraq. But will Israel actually strike when the US is deployed there militarily and invested diplomatically and emotionally?
In stark contrast to the United States, America’s allies have demonstrated a willingness to take military action designed to blunt Iranian expansionism. The Saudis have shown it in Yemen, and the Turks in Syria. They have done so both through direct military interventions and by backing local groups that oppose Iran and its proxies. While the Israelis, for their part, lack the proxy options of the Saudis and Turks, they have proved themselves to be the most capable ally of America in the region, and their operations have inflicted significant damage on Iranian positions in Syria.
But the United States is not postured to give its allies maximum assistance. Despite identifying the Iranian presence in Syria and Yemen as harmful to the American interest, Washington does little to support the anti-Iranian military operations of its allies. The gap between America and its traditional friends has created a diplomatic opportunity for Russia to position itself as a mediator between Tehran and US allies, further expanding its influence at America’s expense.
To arrive at a healthier approach to the Middle East, the United States must go back to basics, starting with geography. The US has established the foundations of its counterterrorism and state-building framework in the zone of disruption between Baghdad and Beirut. This is the most politically fractured area of the Middle East, and the one, therefore, that is most penetrated by outside powers. The polities of the area are perennially susceptible to manipulation by the more powerful states around it. A state-building enterprise in that area is a recipe for disaster.
In contrast, an outside-in approach is the only one that has any chance of success. Even then we must define success not as building solid institutions in the zone of disarray but as minimizing risk emanating from it while building a regional architecture capable of managing threats as they emerge.
The proper foundation of a US-led order in the region is the triangle around the Levant: NATO and Turkey in the north, Israel in the southwest, and Saudi Arabia in the southeast. This foundation should be buttressed by the direct American presence in the Gulf, an area of global strategic importance.
The principal regional challenger to this order is the Russian-Iranian alliance. But within that alliance, Iran is the key actor that the United States should seek to contain. Russia’s regional venture is dependent on Iran. The Russian intervention in Syria, for example, is possible only thanks to the role of the Iranian-led forces on the ground. If the United States and its allies successfully contain Iran, they can also put a check on Russia’s attempt to leverage its position in Syria as a tool to gain influence with America’s allies.
A proper alignment of American interests with allied regional states can then also serve to limit China’s attempts to make further inroads, whether in the eastern Mediterranean or the Gulf. Although the Chinese have gained access to Turkish ports, Washington has successfully leaned on Israel to scrap a deal with China to operate the port of Haifa. The Lebanese, meanwhile, have solicited the Chinese to upgrade the port of Tripoli, a few miles south of the Russian naval base on the Syrian coast. That the Lebanese are doing so even as the US props up the pro-Iranian government of Lebanon, is a perfect illustration of the absurdity of the state-building chimera that has pervaded American policy.
Although Beijing is heavily courting the Gulf Arab states, the Chinese have been explicit about their “resolve to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership” with Iran. Therefore, an American-led order countering Iran can also help strengthen America’s hand against China in the region, just as it would contribute to limiting Russian influence.
For eight years, former US President Barack Obama implemented a strategy premised on partnership with Iran and Russia, downgrading America’s allies and radically reconceptualizing the idea of an American alliance of regional states altogether. President Trump has departed from this approach and is looking to the traditional template of a coalition of allied states to contain Iran. In this template, the US takes on the role of quarterback, setting objectives that advance shared interests with regional allies, whose tasks and functions can be allocated with flexibility, in accordance with their respective zones of influence and points of strength.
Such an approach will require the US to finally move away from counterterrorism and state-building as a guiding strategic concept in the Middle East.