The increased diplomatic flexibility and the weakening of the taboos in which U.S. Mideast policy has been imprisoned for a generation of the new, post-nuclear accord Mideast may facilitate the always challenging effort by U.S. decision-makers to discern the U.S. national interest in the Mideast. Seen vaguely under bipolarity and only occasionally under U.S. hegemony, will tripartite oversight work better?
The U.S. national interest in the Mideast lies in promoting secularism, sectarian equality, and governance that both promotes economic development and rules with the consent of the governed. The new, post-nuclear accord Mideast is likely to be more conducive to such goals, not because of the intent of its regimes but because the rise in diplomatic flexibility resulting from the weakening of the U.S. taboo prohibiting criticism of the Israeli right wing and the elimination of the U.S. taboo on conducting state-to-state affairs with Iran offer the hope of reduced tensions. Reducing tensions facilitates the focus on economic growth: Iran will be freed from the Western embargo, which in turn will stimulate both regional and global economic cooperation. The Israeli right’s warmongering is likely to fall on increasingly deaf U.S. ears. Enhancing these likely near-term trends will be a flood of second-order diplomatic developments already visible in the Russian re-entry into the region and indications of a Chinese interest in establishing a military presence. Washington will have far more policy options in a world where it can balance Iran against Israel; regional countries will have far greater freedom of maneuver in a Mideast graced by the active involvement of Russia, China, and the U.S.
U.S. policy toward the Mideast has long been bedeviled by the simplistic urge to identify friends and then anoint them as “good,” a naïve enough step, but even more illogically, to assume that those not labeled as “friends” are by definition “evil.” Even if this sequence of assertions made sense, the whole sequence would remain invalid simply because no Mideast state is ever likely to be a “friend,” i.e., an entity genuinely concerned with the U.S. national interest. Even to hope for a long-term relationship based on sincerity and common goals is asking rather much. Foreign policy toward a region as convoluted and misunderstood as the Mideast should be based on demonstration of what we stand for and a willingness to do business on a case-by-case basis.
This simple logic, to our great misfortune, is a very hard sell to a busy policy-maker overwhelmed with the pace of Mideast change and the need to make rapid tactical adjustments in the nearly complete absence of any real insight into Mideast perceptions. Those in the Mideast who choose to style themselves as “friends of America” have acquired enormous power over U.S. policy by using political taboos in the U.S. as their primary weapon. The new Mideast political structure that is now emerging with noteworthy changes on virtually a daily basis seems likely to facilitate, indeed necessitate, a U.S. assertion of independence by means of the implementation of the less emotional, more professional attitude that other states are not prospective lovers, but simply prospective business associates, whether that business be trade or security.
This new Mideast structure, instead of having the U.S. alone at the top, will have a troika: the U.S., Russia, and China. What China lacks in military power it will make up for by a more subtle and less threatening (thus, more acceptable) focus on the construction of long-term economic ties; its ability to compete for influence in the Mideast should not be overlooked. Russia is not the Soviet Union and need not exactly be feared, but it retains more than sufficient power projection capability to tip the balance and the decision-making capacity to choose its battles wisely, something that the U.S. consistently lacks, perhaps in part because the cost of being No. 1 seems to be that one can never “opt out.” The current series of informal but very serious U.S.-Russian discussions at every possible venue offering diplomats the fig-leaf of coincidental meetings is a welcome development but a needless charade. U.S.-Russian discussions about the Mideast should become a regular part of running the world, just the way major CEO’s have always “dropped by the club” in the evening for casual chats with their fiercest competitors. And China should be at the dinner table as well. The Mideast has made it crystal clear to the world that it can no longer be taken for granted to be abused or ignored as convenient for Western regimes. A quiet Tuesday evening at the club for Chinese, Russian, and U.S. policy-makers to share concerns about the Mideast would be a highly valuable step toward smoothing relations between the Mideast and the rest of the world.
Beneath the new global big power troika at the top of the Mideast political structure lies an expanded and empowered regional governing structure consisting of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran, with a reality much more flexible that this simple list might imply. Yesterday, the essential structure was the U.S. at the top with three allies underneath: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel. Today, beneath the new troika stand a Saudi Arabia making overtures to Russia, a Turkey blatantly undermining U.S. national interests by provoking sectarian warfare with the Kurds, and an Israel still trying to provoke the U.S. into committing aggression against Iran in the interests of Israel’s right-wing, militant faction. In this context, one could be forgiven for asking what the term “ally” actually means.
Similarly, it is now unclear to what degree the U.S. has any enemies among Mideast states. All are, more or less often, adversaries; all can be potential partners on a range of issues. The most pro-U.S. regional societies contain extremely dangerous political movements that cause enormous harm to U.S. national security even as they derive support from powerful and presumably patriotic American politicians. Nothing in politics misleads like a label.
But the point goes far beyond simply questioning the meaning of “ally” or “enemy.” Imagine running a company with a troika at the top and a square just beneath! Think of how such a cumbersome management structure would empower trouble-makers at the bottom! And the Mideast happens to have an extraordinarily large and vigorous selection of “trouble-makers,” another misleading label, by the way, that is commonly employed–with a sneer–on the banks of the Potomac to indicate an outsider with whom one disagrees, regardless of the merits of his cause. Trouble-makers make trouble because they are ignored, oppressed, marginalized. Many, in the Mideast, deserve the utmost sympathy and attention, and giving them sympathetic attention will typically limit the amount of “trouble” they cause, a point that most powerful people do not understand.
The third layer in the Mideast is composed of small states, a layer which is so complex that one cannot even make a list. Is Syria a state? Washington and Moscow are currently trying to answer that question. Is Iraq or Yemen still a state? How about the Islamic State or Rojava? Would the Mideast be better off with dozens of principalities? Should the world be discussing the creation of a regional security regime that would protect a Palestinian entity, three confessional entities in Lebanon, a couple of Kurdish entities, Sunni and a Shi’i Iraqi entities, Alawite and Sunni entities in the portion of Syria excluded from Rojava, Houthi and Sunni entities in Yemen, etc.?
The fourth layer is composed of a host of militias that bubble up from a seething social sea of discontent and discriminatory if not utterly absent regimes.
A huge amount of diplomatic effort is currently going into figuring out how to extinguish the Islamic State fire. The Islamic State is a structure resting on the temporary combination of jihad and Iraqi Sunni discontent with a discriminatory government. Fires need to be extinguished, but jihadi lightning is not going to disappear any time soon, so the dry tinder of legitimate Sunni discontent logically needs be dealt with…in a benign manner. The issue of social justice, or to put it negatively, sectarian injustice, lies at the heart of Mideast instability: Israeli repression of Palestinians, Bahraini repression of Shi’i, Iraqi repression of Sunnis, Turkish repression of Kurds, Saudi repression of Houthis.
So, the core issue for Mideast affairs now is whether the new global triumvirate replacing the former hegemonic U.S. which replaced the older Cold War bipolar leadership can improve upon the two previous political structures, to wit:
Will the changes at the top enable Tehran, Baghdad, and Riyadh to devise a joint plan to help Iraqi Sunnis?
Will Washington finally help the Palestinians?
Will Washington protect the Kurds from renewed Turkish repression?
Will Tehran really support a new Syrian regime open to all sects?
Will anyone support an inclusive regime in Yemen?
The structure of Mideast politics at the top is undergoing a revolution, but the problems of the Mideast flow up from the structure at the bottom: whether the man in the street gets treated according to his behavior or on the basis of his ethnicity and religion. The big question for the Mideast today is whether or not the new political structure emerging at the top will be able to create conditions of greater political and social justice at the bottom.