What will the post-America Middle East look like?

In the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Martin Kramer makes the argument frequently made here that American dominance in the Middle East is rapidly waning. 

But Kramer believes that this is on purpose:

The United States, after a wildly erratic spree of misadventures, is backing out of the region. It is cutting its exposure to a Middle East that has consistently defied American expecta­tions and denied successive American presidents the “mission accomplished” moments they crave. The disengage­ment began before Obama entered the White House, but he has accelerated it, coming to see the Middle East as a region to be avoided because it “could not be fixed—not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.” (This was the bottom-line impression of the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to whom Obama granted his legacy interview on foreign policy.)

If history is precedent, this is more than a pivot. Over the last century, the Turks, the British, the French, and the Russians each had their moment in the Middle East, but prolonging it proved costly as their power ebbed. They gave up the pursuit of dominance and settled for influence. A decade ago, in the pages of this magazine, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted that the United States had reached just this point: “The American era in the Middle East,” he announced, “. . . has ended.” He went on: “The United States will continue to enjoy more influence in the region than any other outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was.” That was a debatable proposition in 2006; now in 2016, Obama has made it indisputable.

The question to ask, then, is what’s next? Kramer doesn’t believe the US will be replaced by any single outside power. Rather, numerous powers will have greater or lesser influence. 

He’s right. The trend in the Middle East will continue to be that which has prevailed over the last decade. The Status Quo Bloc (i.e. with dictatorial and Sunni (though non-Islamist) leadership) and the Resistance Bloc (i.e. led by the Shi’ite Islamist Iran) will continue to compete through proxy conflicts (e.g. Yemen and Syria) and terrorism sponsorship. 

The third main influence (which almost, but never quite congealed into a bloc), the Sunni Islamist continuum, will continue to mount considerable challenges through war and terrorism (e.g. Islamic State et al), and non-violent movements (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood). Turkey, the only Sunni Islamist country, will continue to be frustrated by the fact the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs are more powerful than it and the various Sunni Islamist non-state actors reject Turkey’s leadership pretentious. 

An outcome of the US shift from the Middle East is the increasing cooperation between Israel and the Status Quo Bloc—both have realised that they need each other in the face of less American support and a resurgent Resistance Bloc and Sunni Islamist continuum. Nothing is overly public, of course, but few are denying it. 

The more important consideration is how outside players act. 

Barring a turn-around in US policies after the January inauguration of a new president (some adjustment will happen, but the US public doesn’t have the will to stomach what would be necessary to repair US fortunes in the region), the US will continue supporting, through arms sales and soaring rhetoric, Israel and the Status Quo Bloc. However, it will largely allow the region’s players to fight it out themselves. 

This allows Russia, in particular, to increase its influence in the region. Russia is a country that ruthlessly backs its friends, and isn’t put off by their sloppy human rights records. It also acts only according to what it perceives as its own interests. It backs Syria, not because of an ideological commitment to the Resistance Bloc, but because it has extensive Russian naval infrastructure in Syria, and because Russia does not like the principle of a government being overthrown by its people (given how unpopular rule-from-Moscow is in many of Russia’s far-flung, Muslim-majority areas). While Russia finds itself on the same side as Iran over Syria, this doesn’t mean Russia is wedded to the Islamic Republic. Israeli officials have visited Moscow on multiple occasions over the last little while, as have Egyptian officials—proof that Russia is enjoying the perceived lessening of American skin in the game. Still, despite warming ties, Russia and the Status Quo Bloc are wary of each other, due to the latter’s still-close ties to America, Russia’s ties to Iran, and the financial support of Islamist groups in Russia’s Muslim-majority border regions.

China has been taking an increasing interest in the Middle East, as it seeks to expand its economic empire and sources of oil. It has developed good ties with Israel, the Status Quo a Bloc and the Resistance Bloc, and is unlikely to take sides. Still, its huge reserves of money buy it influence, and it’s a cheaper market for offensive and defensive weapons than the Americans. This recent article about China’s Middle East interests is worth a read.

India has recently become close to Israel, on account of Israel’s impressive defence export potential, its willing to trade in nuclear technology with India, and that both countries face a determined Islamist terrorist threat. It is this fear of Islamism which sees India in favour of supporting the secular dictatorships / monarchies in the Arab world, as it (correctly) fears that greater democratisation in the Middle East will lead to increased instability and the rise of Islamist governments or terrorist movements. And it’s distrust of Pakistan is shared by Iran, which helps the India–Iran relationship. Like China (and the entire world economy), India wants stability in the Persian Gulf, to allow the continued and reliable flow of oil; Indian policies will, more than any other priority, reflect that one.

So, what’s the answer? The Middle East dynamic will continue to be shaped by the Status Quo–Resistance–Sunni Islamist dynamic, with each looking for supporters outside, and outsiders wary, though willing to use their influence. 

Islamic State terrorism in context

As always, Jonathan Spyer has captured the essence of what is going on in the Levant, and applied it to the regional context. 
He notes that the recent international terrorist attacks by Islamic State are directly attributable to the group losing land. He writes that even when the caliphate is defeated, it won’t go away. 

More importantly, Spyer notes that salafi-jihadi groups like jubhat a-nusra are religiously/politically identical to Islamic State – they want the same end result. But some of these groups are massively funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and control large amounts of Syria. In short, we shouldn’t expect peace to reign once the Raqqa falls. 

The one difference I have with Spyer is that I tend to include all Sunni Islamist groups in the same category – a continuum from nominally peaceful Islamist groups likes the Muslim Brotherhood and hezb u-tahrir, right through to Islsmic State. I look at these groups’ ultimate objective, not whether or not they are currently holding weapons. Spyer makes a more technical distinction between salafi groups and political Islamic groups. 

Chilcot and the big picture

The Chilcot Inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war has been released. Like most people, I have not read the report and don’t plan to – it stretches into the millions of words. Even the executive summary is 150 pages long! According to news reports, the report criticises the decision to entertain war, mostly because of the sketchy intelligence in regards to Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction. The report also reportedly criticises the lack of post-war planning, which allowed Iraq to descend into chaos within months. 

This post will examine the decision to enter the war through the lens of the big picture. There are some key points to consider.

First, the UK didn’t act alone. The push to invade Iraq came from the US. Yes, the UK could have said no, but this would have considerably undermined the relationship between the two countries. The same obviously goes for Australia’s involvement. That might be an unfortunate cost of being the weaker party to an alliance relationship, but that’s the unfortunate reality. 

The UK could have and did use its influence with America to shape the operation (and day-after plans). Whether or not London did enough is up for debate, but it would have been a courageous decision (in the Yes, Minister tradition) for the UK to have stayed out of the war. 

Second, from the Western perspective, it was a mistake to enter Iraq. My argument for this is (and has been from the beginning) that Iraq in 2003 was weak and stable. In a place like the Middle East, having your enemy weak but stable is one of the best possible outcomes. 

Hindsight has proven this basic theory correct, but it wasn’t hindsight that formed it. 

Third, the outcome of the Iraq war demonstrated Western power in a state-to-state war, but also demonstrated that Western forces can be defeated in insurgencies. This was a powerful lesson. 

Fourth, and important to this discussion, the outcome of the Iraq war helped focus the big picture. In 2003, Iraq was neither a member of the Status Quo Bloc nor a member of the Iranian-led (though more ambiguously populated) Resistance Bloc. The US-imposed government placed Iraq into the Status Bloc. Subsequent events have handed Iran so much influence in Iraq, however, that Baghdad is, for all intents and purposes, now in the Resistance camp. And since the Resistance Bloc is implacably opposed to Western influence and presence in the Middle East, this translates into a substantial loss for the West. An example of a greater foreign policy disaster is hard to think of. 

Fifth, it is worth contemplating if the outcome could have been different. Obviously, we’ll never know for sure, but the answer is ‘probably not.’ Yes, better planning would likely have resulted in considerably less bloodshed since the ‘Mission accomplished’ aircraft carrier press conference. But with so many Shi’ites in Iraq, and with so much vested Iranian interest, I think the end result would have been a contest of wills – out of the US and Iran, who would be willing to spend the blood and treasure for the long-term to see Iraq reside in their camp. Yes, the US spent plenty of blood and treasure, but it was always going to leave, and the (correct) view was that bleeding the Americans would bring about a faster exit. 

Had the US set up Iraq as a (pro-Western) Sunni dictatorship (like much of the pro-Western Middle East is), things might have been different. But attempting to impose a democracy on the Shi’ite majority country essentially doomed all prospects for the country to remain within the Western sphere of interests. What planners in the West still apparently don’t realise is that holding an election does not make a country a democracy. A democracy is the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, as well as representative government answerable to the people. Iraq was not ready to become a democracy in the Western sense, and the West’s attempts to make it so doomed it to fail. (Of course, they hardly had a choice, did they? Western leaders could hardly go back to their own democracies to proclaim a new Iraqi dictatorship. It ain’t the ’80s anymore…)

In summary, the Iraq war handed the Resistance Bloc one of the most important countries in the Middle East – a disaster for Western policy that will haunt us for a long time to come.

Iran’s Manifest Destiny? How the Obama Doctrine is ruining the Middle East

James Jeffrey, of the Washington Institute, has written a cracking article on the fallout, if you’ll exuse the obvious pun, of the Iran nuclear deal.

As he points out, it’s not so much the details of the deal, which was signed last July, that matter as the effects of the regional perceptions of what the deal means.

These effects flow from two anticipated outcomes of the agreement. First, the deal has given Iran the means to expand its regional heft through diplomacy, money, surrogates, and violence, namely by allowing the regime to profit from the release of many tens of billions of dollars of previously blocked oil earnings and renewed oil exports, to leave the negotiating table flush with arguable “victories” (i.e., maintaining the right to enrich uranium and avoiding a confession about its weaponization program), and to become newly attractive as a global trading partner. Second, the Obama administration, bereft of diplomatic successes elsewhere, has become so indebted to Iran for the agreement that it has avoided challenging Iran and, worse, seems to view the agreement as a transformative moment with Tehran, a “Havana in the sand.” 

It’s all multiplied, not so much by the refusal to hold Iran to account, but by the apparently deliberate decision to turn the US’s back on its traditional friends.

This April, speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview for the Atlantic, President Obama stated that Saudi Arabia must learn to “share” the Middle East with Iran. The fact that he put the burden on Riyadh — a U.S. ally and, whatever its faults, a supporter of the American-led global status quo — rather than on Iran, an acknowledged opponent of that order, is striking.

The article made essentially no mention of Israel or Egypt, but the pattern there is the same – the Obama Doctrine, about which I have previously written, is to put pressure on friends and take pressure off adversaries. The goal is to encourage better behaviour from both, but the outcome is not only the polar opposite, but a perception among both friends and adversaries that the US is no longer interested in what happens in the Middle East. This is an invitation to anarchy, and will be a key learning point in International Relations 101, in future undergrad courses.