Paul Pillar

Trump's Trip and Taking Sides in the Middle East

President Trump flies to Saudi Arabia with a policy trajectory that involves weighing in heavily in local Middle Eastern rivalries, so much so that there is talk not only of twelve-figure arms sales to the Saudis but even an “Arab NATO”.  To understand how misguided is such strong taking of sides in those rivalries, recall by way of contrast the circumstances under which the real NATO was created.  Western Europe was still struggling to recover from the destruction of World War II.  It faced a Soviet Union with huge armed forces that had played the biggest role in defeating the Nazis, had already crushed freedom and extended the Soviet empire across the eastern half of the continent, and posed a threat to continue the Soviet juggernaut into the Western half as well.  That adversary was led by a tyrant as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the one who had been defeated in the war against Nazi Germany.  In addition to its potent conventional forces, the USSR tested its first nuclear device just five days after the North Atlantic Treaty took effect.  The Western European countries over whom the United States extended its security umbrella were democracies with which it shared important political and social values.  And for the United States, the USSR was not only a threat in Europe but a superpower that was a worldwide political, strategic, and ideological competitor.

Nothing remotely resembling such conditions exists today in the Middle East.  Russia, the legacy state to the USSR, has been active in Syria because Syria is the only foothold that Russia has in the Middle East, dwarfed by the U.S. presence in the region.  And none of the other sorts of political and strategic circumstances that underlay the creation of NATO can be found in the region either.  Thus any U.S. allying and side-taking in that region consists of taking sides in local rivalries—between Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shia, Israelis and Arabs, and between pairs of states that compete for influence in their area the same way in which states in other regions compete.  The United States does not have direct or significant interests in those rivalries, and certainly not enough to justify weighing in so much that it makes other people’s rivalries its own.

As usual, Iran is used as chief bogeyman, a habit that extends well beyond the Trump administration.  It has become common to see serious commentary in prominent places that takes as given that anything good for Iran or Iranian interests must be opposed, that takes as given that Iran is and always will be an arch adversary, and that makes these assumptions while making no attempt to analyze exactly where Iranian and U.S. interests do and do not collide, or where and how Iranian conduct differs from that of its regional rivals whose side the U.S. takes.

Future historians will note the odd American preoccupation with this distant middle power that poses negligible threat to the United States itself.  The preoccupation is all the odder when one bothers to make comparisons with other states in the region, especially ones that, like Saudi Arabia, are leading regional rivals of Iran. 

Conventional military power?  Iran is vastly exceeded by Saudi Arabia, and also outstripped by the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in military spending.  Its military capability is way behind that of the region’s preeminent military power, Israel.  Regional domination through military means is out of the question for Iran.

Nuclear weapons?  Iran, by submitting itself through negotiation to stringent monitoring and restrictions on its nuclear activities, has closed all possible pathways to a nuclear weapon.  It is not Iran but instead another state that has introduced nuclear weapons into the region and keeps the Middle East from becoming a nuclear weapons-free zone.

Destabilizing activities? In the region’s biggest ongoing conflict in Syria, Iran, rather than trying to upset the status quo, has been trying to preserve it by backing the incumbent regime, which has been in power for decades.  The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have been most aggressive in stoking rebellion, in the course of which they have shown little worry about aiding extremists in the process.  Iran has been backing the incumbent regime in Iraq as well, which the United States also backs.  The Saudis have been slow to warm up to that regime because it is dominated by Shia.

Use of armed forces outside one’s borders?  Currently the most devastating instance of this by any regional state, to the point of causing a humanitarian catastrophe, has been the armed intervention in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Iranian aid to the other side in that civil war has been trivial by comparison.

Terrorism?  The strongest state-specific connection of the sort of radical Islamist terrorism, as represented by al-Qaeda and ISIS, that has long been the biggest terrorist concern for the United States is to the intolerant Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, which for many years tried to deal with the problem only by exporting it to others.