Imagine a shared strategic Mideast security regime in which the U.S. punishes interstate aggression while avoiding such aggression itself, Israel leads a regional S+T revolution while taking no military action outside its legally recognized borders, Turkey assumes the leading role in Levantine security, a U.S.-Iranian-Turkish partnership oversees stability from Turkey to Afghanistan, and the U.S. promotes Turkish-Iranian-Saudi leadership of the region’s economic integration. The result would be a complicated series of overlapping political, economic, and military groups imposing real costs on any potential aggressor, for every important state would gain significant benefits from cooperation. Indeed, the very concept of “anti-American” or “anti-Israeli” or “anti-Iranian” would be hard to define. Would, for example, an “anti-Iranian” oppose stability in Afghanistan or the regional hydrocarbon network? One might oppose Iranian arming of Hezbollah while supporting Iranian efforts to stabilize its own borders; one would support or oppose not states or regimes but policies, a less inflammatory and more productive approach.
Much harder than dreaming up a perfect new world, however, is finding the way to get there. Could Washington lead the Mideast toward the above vision of multiple overlapping leadership centers in which political adversaries cooperated economically, military adversaries in the east were military allies in the west…without significant risk to its national security?
A traditional state-centric view of the Mideast makes such a vision hard to see, but in the small-world era of globalization and asynchronous warfare, that is only one—and an increasingly arbitrary—perspective. Viewing the region instead as a complex collection of actors constantly in motion, influencing each other, and in result evolving is not only arguably a more accurate depiction of reality but brings into focus the vision of multiple, overlapping, reinforcing power centers. After all, in embryonic form, these power centers already exist.
Israel is in fact a leader in the dissemination of modern technical knowledge to the region, though its effectiveness in that regard is greater inhibited by its combative military policy. Turkey is in fact rapidly asserting its influence as protector of Levantine peace and as a key hub in the Mideast hydrocarbon network. Iran in fact is a partner with the U.S. in the search for stable borders in the western part of the region.
But does the perspective that the Mideast socio-political system is best described as a dynamic and adapting set of interdependent actors rather than as a set of states with fixed roles, sizes, and positions really make sense? Try this experiment: list the 10 or 20 or 30 most powerful Mideast actors. How many are states?
Without any claim of accuracy or underlying scientific method, I might guess at something like the following list: the U.S., Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the IMF, Iran, Big Oil, Egypt, the IRGC, the Pakistani army, al Qua’ida, Hezbollah. One could refine this list in endless ways, many of which would no doubt be very informative, but the basic point is that it is a collection of odd fellows, implying all sorts of potential flexibility that could beneficially be employed to achieve things.
- Ankara is not a recalcitrant child to be spanked for speaking up but an opportunity to gain new leverage.
- Iran is simultaneous an adversary and an ally; to overlook the opportunities for cooperation is simply perverse.
- Israel is simultaneously an ally and an adversary; to overlook its strategic threat to U.S. national security is self-destructive.
Israel’s good attributes (e.g., its potential as a source for improving Mideast standards of living) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its destabilizing repression of Palestinians and its attitude that its adversaries “only understand the language of force”) should be discouraged. Iran’s good attributes (e.g., its opposition to Taliban violence and the flow of illegal narcotics out of Afghanistan) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its repression of its own citizens) should be discouraged. Turkey’s good attributes (e.g., its intermediate stance on security issues) should be encouraged; its bad attributes (e.g., its continuing mistreatment of Kurds) should be discouraged. Hezbollah’s efforts to give political representation to Lebanese Shia should be encouraged, etc.
If I were in charge of the Mideast, I would see this complexity far more as an exciting feature than as a cause for concern. It is absolutely a cause for concern if denied, but once the perspective of a range of state and non-state actors, all interacting and endlessly evolving, is accepted as the real foundation for policy formulation, opportunities for progress begin to be visible. This perspective frees the policy-maker from psychological dependence on the fates of individual foreign leaders or some simplistic characterization of a foreign regime or non-state actor as “good” or “evil.” Change being understood as endless, the challenge for a policy-maker shifts from the “defeat” of an adversary to the vastly more subtle and useful transformation of an adversary.