Who in the Mideast really cooperates with the U.S.? Are our “allies” really helping us? Are our
“adversaries” really harming us? Can a more consistent, less emotional stance in Washington encourage desired behavior and free the U.S. from being taken for a ride? It is time for a fresh look.
The Mideast today appears plagued by regimes that implement a highly exclusive domestic decision-making process, leaving marginalized and hostile minorities or (as in Bahrain, even marginalized majorities). In an age of widespread awareness of world affairs and widespread access to weapons, this is a recipe for instability, as demonstrated by the ease with which ISIS extremists persuaded estranged Sunnis to rebel against a Shi’i-run Baghdad.
Mideast regimes also demonstrate significant resistance to compromise. Despite seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979 by Islamic extremists, repeated firefights with police from 2003 to 2005, and threats to the Saudi state by ISIS, not to mention criticism from the West, Riyadh has maintained its support for fundamentalist control over the educational system. For more than a generation, Tel Aviv has maintained the combination of a highly repressive policy toward Palestinians and the steady expansion of illegal settlement on the West Bank. Baghdad would not bend on its discriminatory attitude toward both Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis until half the country had been overrun by Sunni rebels and the Kurds had moved to the very edge of independence. Tehran has insisted ever since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon on projecting its influence into the Levant and since somewhat more recently on its right to develop nuclear technology, despite credible Israeli threats of nuclear aggression. The Egyptian military, with one brief exception after the Tahrir Square demonstrations, has insisted on dominating Egyptian politics.
Is the Mideast then not just characterized by exclusivist domestic politics but also foreign policy rigidity? Must the U.S. simply accept Mideast political traits that it cannot influence and that will predictably harm its national security over and over…or is there sufficient evidence of political flexibility to suggest that a consistent U.S. encouragement of the compromise might enhance long-term Mideast stability? Put somewhat differently, if the ideal U.S. goal of finding Mideast partners dedicated to inclusive domestic policy-making processes and open to compromise on core foreign policy positions remains mostly a mirage, could the U.S. at least look forward realistically to finding Mideast counterparts, be they inclusive or exclusive, who would approach foreign policy with genuine commitment to searching for positive-sum, compromise solutions? Must Washington continue to cut shady deals whenever it can for short-term gain despite enormous long-term harm, or might Washington be able to develop an effective foreign policy based on openness to all Mideast regimes willing to compromise?
Just a policy would impose significant short-term costs for the U.S. Insistence by Washington that Riyadh reform its educational system to train students for entry into the modern world rather than to become soldiers for fundamentalist crusades, that Tel Aviv negotiate a settlement with Palestinians that addresses their aspirations, that Baghdad develop a nondiscriminatory regime, that Tehran and Riyadh reach a compromise on Syria might leave the U.S. extremely exposed in the Mideast over the short-term. Yet such a stance might also, once regional actors became convinced that Washington was serious, lead to a dramatic improvement in Mideast stability freeing Americans from the seemingly endless litany of terror attacks and lost wars.
The answer is important enough to merit an unbiased reexamination of the behavior of Mideast regimes to determine which ones might, on which issues, make reliable partners.