Paul Pillar

The Heavy Historical Baggage of U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East

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.