The Middle East: Still Not Russian

Regional primacy remains Washington's to lose.

Professors Tom Nichols and John Schindler have responded to my critique of their contention that Russia is now a “peer” to the United States when it comes to influence in the Middle East, and that, indeed, Washington has “outsourced” the management of regional security to Moscow. The dispute is in part over empirical factors, but more broadly it represents a distinct set of normative assumptions and policy prescriptions regarding America’s role in a changing Middle East.

It is easier to address the dispute over empirical “facts”; or rather, it might be, had the authors directly responded to them. But almost nowhere do they address the substantive points I made, dispute the historical examples, or provide any specific evidence to support their claim. Nor do they show how the Syrian deal directly advances Russian influence in the region. Where, for example, will Moscow go from here? Has it convinced other actors to adopt its point of view? Has it contributed to the reshaping of the regional order the way the United States did with the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent Madrid Conference? What has Russia managed to accomplish now that it didn’t already have?

I listed several states that chose to align more closely with the United States, and provided examples of actors that were aligned with the Soviet Union but that moved away from Moscow when the opportunity presented itself. There is no case of a former or current American ally pulling away from the United States toward the Soviet Union in the past or Russia today.

A plausible response would be that there hasn’t been enough time to answer these questions, but that the trajectory points that way. That’s why the debate between us reflects a series of normative concerns about America’s place in the world. For some, America under the Obama Administration has retreated from the world, in sharp contrast to American leaders of the past. Indeed, in response to my argument that alignment patterns today reflect those of the past, Professors Nichols and Schindler contend that I miss the reason for a lack of Soviet influence during the Cold War—“because American policymakers of all political persuasions and parties made every effort to curtail it and keep it that way” (italics in original).

Certainly U.S. policymakers did this—the expansion of NATO into Turkey in 1952, the intervention in Iran in 1953, and the establishment of the Baghdad Pact in 1955 (which the United States actively supported but didn’t initially join), as well as the Truman and Eisenhower Doctrines were all part of the effort to keep Communism out.

But Professors Nichols and Schindler seem to fall on that side of the debate over explaining Middle Eastern politics that sees regional events as influenced primarily by external powers—leaving regional actors with little agency of their own. My contention was that most local actors simply didn’t want the Soviet Union involved, because they understood they benefited more from joining the American camp (Israel, Egypt after 1973, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies); or because they preferred to play the superpowers off against each other (Egypt up to 1973 and Iraq).

A quick glance at Washington’s role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking fills out the point: At no point was the United States able to bring Arabs and Israelis together on a bilateral basis, much less force them to sign an agreement, before they were ready on their own. (Washington has more success at bringing them together for multilateral talks, though these tended to drag out without successful conclusion.)

In other words, the presumption that America should act because it can presupposes that it will be able to shape regional events to its own satisfaction. But the historical evidence suggests mixed results, at best.

The empirical and normative discussions are the foundation for a set of policy prescriptions the United States should follow to protect its interests and influence in the region. Professors Nichols and Schindler remark that I am not “alarmed by the possible creation of this kind of brutal new order in the Middle East,” driven by Russian support for any kind of regime so long as it aligns itself with Moscow.

I do agree that American Mideast policy has been confused, hesitant and reactive. But I do not share the authors’ conviction that, at this moment, Russia is a “peer” or that America’s ability to shape regional events or manage regional security has been replaced by Russia’s.