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The Heavy Historical Baggage of US Policy Toward the Middle East

American attitude and assumptions towards the Middle East, and thus U.S. foreign policies, have been weighed down by accumulating historical baggage.

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There is much to be said for what is commonly called a “zero-based review”—a fresh look at a problem or project unencumbered by existing assumptions and practices. Just about any organization or mission could benefit periodically from such an assessment, to make possible the removal of accumulated historical impedimenta. This is true of U.S. foreign policy, which exhibits far more continuity than is often assumed.

Failure to perceive that continuity stems from the tendency to think in a more disjointed way in terms of presidential administrations. “Doctrines” get attributed to different presidents whether or not the presidents themselves have spoken in such terms. If an administration does not seem doctrinal enough and distinctive enough to pundits, it is apt to be criticized for having “no strategy”. Continuity from one administration to another is not expected and is even rejected.

The underlying continuity that nevertheless exists is partly a reflection of, and a sensible response to, constancy in fundamental U.S. interests and in the constraints the country faces in pursuing those interests. That’s good. But it also partly reflects adherence to certain familiar beliefs, themes, and objectives simply because those beliefs, themes, and objectives have always been there, at least in living memory, and it would be difficult and politically costly to challenge them. And that’s not good.

That latter pattern certainly has been true of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, a region of especially costly U.S. involvement. Modern U.S. involvement in the area could be said to have been launched with Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of today’s Saudi Arabia, on a U.S. warship in the Great Bitter Lake during the closing months of World War II. The involvement enlarged as the United States displaced the United Kingdom as the principal outside power in the area while the British shed their obligations “east of Suez”. American attitudes and assumptions toward the Middle East, and thus U.S. policies toward the Middle East, have ever since been weighed down by accumulating historical baggage. Several events and factors have formed a large part of that baggage, including in no particular order the following.

The oil bargain. The understanding reached in that meeting between FDR and Ibn Saud, involving U.S. support for the Saudi state in return for an uninterrupted flow of oil and other considerations, has long outlasted conditions that may have made it understandable at the time. This was true even before the U.S. shale oil revolution, which at least has generated commentary about how a lessening of U.S. dependency on Middle East oil may make appropriate some rethinking of policy toward the region. Despite such commentary, the political distortions caused by the oil bargain persist. In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states. This sort of baggage also has sucked the United States further into taking sides in sectarian rivalries in which it has no interest.

9/11. That one piece of severe national trauma 14 years ago has left an indelible imprint on American thinking about the Middle East, terrorism, and U.S. responses, with nary a thought about how trauma-induced reactions to single events are not necessarily a good basis for constructing sound policy on wider questions. Popular views of 9/11—more so than the actual history of the attack and its preparation—have cemented in American minds the belief that any patch of faraway real estate controlled by radical Arabs represents a threat to the U.S. homeland. The waging of a “war on terror” has meant that the combination of traditional dichotomous American attitudes toward war and peace and the ubiquitous and continuous use of terrorism as a tactic has made unending U.S. involvement in warfare in this part of the world the new normal. It also has led to perceptions of, and alarm about, the group calling itself Islamic State that disregard the major differences in strategy (and specifically strategy involving the United States) between it and Al Qaeda, the group that perpetrated 9/11.

The Tehran hostage crisis. There are multiple reasons that Iran occupies the place of primary bête noire in American discourse, but the big crisis that occurred shortly after the Islamic Republic’s creation deserves to be singled out as setting the attitudinal stage for everything else that followed. Certainly the hostage-taking was shockingly reprehensible, and it is hard to think of a worse way to start off a relationship with a new regime. The lasting result has been major distortion, long ago molded into conventional wisdom, about many popular American beliefs associated with Iran. This has included assumptions about Iranian intentions whether or not the Iranians actually have them, and assumptions about Iranian objectives automatically conflicting with U.S. interests whether or not they actually do. The set of attitudes also has entailed looking at the Middle East in terms of rigid line-ups in which Iran is always on, and even the leader of, forces hostile to good guys and the United States, whether or not that’s really the way politics in the Middle East work or most Middle Easterners really think.

The Israeli relationship. Given the outsized role in American politics of those who work on behalf of the objectives of the Israeli government, it is inevitable that the roots of much of what can be described as attitudinal distortion about the Middle East can be found here. Admittedly, we are talking more about sheer political power and political fears in the here-and-now than about historical baggage. But the history aids the perception-molding efforts of the lobby in question, in the sense that it has helped to mask changes over time that have made the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship even less justifiable than it may have been in the past. The evolution in question has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others. It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values, given its maintenance of an apartheid system with a large subject population being denied political rights, and the increasing influence, including influence on Israeli policy, of racial and ethnic exclusivity and intolerance.

The Iraq War. Even though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was such a monumental blunder that all except for a few diehard supporters of that war now acknowledge it was a mistake, American attitudes and discourse are still distorted by that departure, and not primarily in a reactive, Iraq-War-syndrome sort of way. Something extreme, even if a failure, can shift the whole frame of reference for debate and discourse in a direction that makes other ideas appear less extreme than they otherwise would have seemed. With the United States having taken just 12 years ago the extreme step of launching a major war of aggression, it is now accepted as respectable to talk about overthrowing other governments in the region by force if we don’t happen to like them. The Iraq War has left other baggage as well, including more of a proprietary sense about Iraq itself than U.S. interests would ever warrant and a continuing expectation, ignoring the sunk nature of sunk costs, that we still must not “lose” Iraq. We also are still collectively prisoners of the sales campaign for the war, which emphasized purported weapons of mass destruction—even though that was neither the real reason for launching the war nor logically a sufficient justification for doing so—in that when some other government we don’t like has even a suspected weapons program this is taken as a reason to start talking about the need to do something about it, including something forceful.

The whole history of heavy U.S. involvement in the region. Many things feed on themselves, and U.S. involvement, including military involvement, in the Middle East is one of those things. The fact of what is now prolonged U.S. involvement there, along with more specific events and considerations such as the ones mentioned above, has inured American politicians and the American public to such involvement and to the prospect of still more such involvement. The burden of proof has shifted, however unjustifiably, from those who argue for additional costly endeavors to those who might question whether U.S. interests would justify the costs.

A zero-based review would yield a U.S. policy toward the Middle East appreciably different from the U.S. policies that have prevailed in recent decades. A review-based policy would not approach the region in terms of line-ups of “allies” and adversaries but instead would use U.S. policy instruments more flexibly to advance U.S. interests through different types of interactions, involving both sticks and carrots, with all the states of the region. It would reflect current realities more than old bargains or old emotional relationships. It would apply a non-emotional calculation to how activity in the region, including extremist activity, does or does not affect the security of Americans. It almost certainly would entail fewer costly commitments and operations in the region than has actually been the case.

We are not likely to get that kind of policy. If an administration were to undertake a real zero-based review behind closed doors, it quickly would run up against political barriers. Apolitical policy planners would get trumped by political advisers. We get some hint of the dynamics involved with the difficulty that the current president, who has shown signs of wanting to break away from some prevailing U.S. approaches to the region, has had in doing so, including the difficulty in accomplishing his “pivot” to East Asia.

There also is a larger lesson here about democratic societies and foreign policy. The main knock against democracies regarding their ability to run a coherent and effective foreign policy has involved inconsistency due to passions of the moment and the inability to take a long term view. The United States certainly has provided material that would support this criticism, with lurches such as those we saw after 9/11. But another possible democratic weakness—one especially marked in the United States, with suffocating effects of public opinion similar to ones Tocqueville observed long ago—involves not too much propensity to change but too little. With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path.

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