How Donald Trump Should Transform America's Middle East Policy

Disentanglement will require both farsightedness and political courage.

January-February 2017

THE OBAMA administration’s intended “pivot” to Asia was a valid statement not only about the importance of developments in that region but about the disproportionate attention and resources the United States has expended elsewhere, and especially in the Middle East. An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits. The net effect on U.S. interests has been, in many respects, negative.

America’s concentration on the Middle East has persisted for a variety of reasons, some of them reflecting the region’s special characteristics and some having more to do with domestic politics or habit. There is oil, of course, which has been a major reason for special attention ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud on an American cruiser in the Suez Canal during the closing months of World War II. As the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, the Middle East is connected to the religiously rationalized violent extremism that has preoccupied Washington for the last fifteen years. Old habits dating from the Cold War, of viewing the region as a chessboard for great-power competition, have been encouraged by Russia’s recent activities there. And the attention feeds on itself; much of the hand-wringing over a conflict such as the one in Syria is due not only to admittedly bloody events on the ground but also to hand-wringing that already has taken place and sustains the notion that the conflict is somehow a test of U.S. mettle.

The new U.S. administration will not be able, any more than its predecessors, to formulate policy toward the Middle East from scratch, and it will be subject to the usual tyranny of the in-box. To some extent, devoting substantial attention to leftover problems is commendable. And the United States has broken a lot in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the new administration needs to return to basics and consider, with more care than most current policy debate exhibits, what in the region constitutes U.S. interests and what does not. The very extent of American involvement in the Middle East has implied many objectives (for example, deposing the president of Syria) that come to be mistakenly treated as if they were themselves U.S. interests. Moreover, responsibly devoting attention to what one has broken has too often digressed into treating sunk costs as investments to be actively worked in the hope of somehow getting a positive return—a view often taken toward Iraq, not surprising given the scale of the costs that the United States has sunk there.

A zero-based perspective would identify several important interests in the Middle East, even though collectively they are not commensurate with the U.S. resources that have been devoted to that region. Oil still matters, although in ways that have less to do with domestic consumption than with effects on the global economy. Reducing violent extremism is another legitimate interest in the Middle East, given its ability to physically harm American citizens and property. Although the connection between circumstances on the ground in the Middle East and terrorist threats in the West is routinely overstated, events in the region do inspire attacks elsewhere. The United States has an interest in the losing streak of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), to dispel any remaining winning image that would help to galvanize would-be radicals in the West.

Curbing weapons proliferation should be among the new administration’s priorities. A regional state whose nuclear program was the subject of much alarm—Iran—has had its program rolled back and any path to a nuclear weapon blocked by a multilateral agreement that went into effect in 2015. The agreement, which includes the most stringent restrictions and most comprehensive monitoring to which any state has willingly subjected its program, provides a model for further nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the region. In the meantime, however, proliferation of conventional weapons is the more serious problem, as punctuated by the scattering of Libya’s arsenal following the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The Middle East’s geographic status as a continental crossroads entails another set of interests, involving military access and transit and including uninhibited passage through the Suez Canal as an ingredient in the global projection of U.S. military power. But means should not be confused with ends. A military presence in the Middle East does not by itself have positive value for the United States—and can prove counterproductive, as reactions to American boots on the ground, with the violent consequences that sometimes have ensued, have demonstrated.

At least as important are the outcomes the United States should not want to transpire. It is in the national interest that no single power come to dominate the Middle East and that, instead, competing players balance against one another. Such balances preclude any single country posing significant threats outside the region and facilitates outsiders, including the United States, freely conducting their business inside it. Fortunately—and unlike East Asia, where a major question is how dominant an increasingly powerful China will become—there is no plausible threat of such a regional dominator emerging in the Middle East. The regional state with the most powerful military and most advanced economy, Israel, throws its military weight around, but will not become the overlord of a largely Arab region. The military strength of the most populous Arab state, Egypt, has rusted away, and the country is seized with economic and other internal problems.

The next most populous state in the region, Iran, also is not a candidate for regional domination, despite ritualistic rhetoric suggesting that it is. It is struggling economically, and its military is not a technological match for the advanced armed forces of the Gulf states, let alone an instrument for regional dominance. With regional conflict increasingly drawn along sectarian lines, the Shia-centered state ideology of Iran is not a basis for hegemony in a Middle East that is mostly Sunni as well as Arab. Nearly four decades after the revolution, Iranian leaders realize as much as anyone else that any hopes they may have once had for similar revolutions in the area have been dashed—with the Arab Awakening not having augmented Iranian influence and in some places, such as Syria, straining it. Such a realization is reflected in Iranian regional policies, which entail the defense of existing regimes (in Syria), including where such defense parallels U.S. efforts (in Iraq). Where Iran is not defending a status quo, it is interfering far less than regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia (in Yemen). It favors change that almost everyone else in the region also favors (in the Palestinian territories).

The United States also has an interest in averting armed conflict that becomes so severe that human suffering escalates and instability and refugees are exported. The basic point to remember is that the ill effects to be avoided flow from armed conflict itself, more so than from any specific outcome of a conflict. The most pressing U.S. interest in the Middle East is to minimize the expenditure of American blood and treasure and avoid actions that stimulate violent reprisals. This concept often gets disparaged as not being a basis for strategy and as nothing more than “don’t do stupid sh*t.” Whether the next administration refrains from doing stupid sh*t will be a big part of whether, four years from now, its policy meets with success or failure.

Some standards used to measure the supposed advance or retreat of U.S. interests in the Middle East should not be. One is democratization, notwithstanding the intrinsic value of popular sovereignty. Apart from providing channels for grievances that might otherwise find more violent and extreme avenues, it has little direct effect on U.S. interests in the region. The very weakness of democracy in the Middle East makes it a poor criterion for favoring some states over others. Tunisia is probably the most democratic country in the region, but it is small and peripheral to the issues that will most engage U.S. policymakers. In Israel and the territories it controls, a well-established democracy operates within the dominant population, but it is a system founded on ethnic and religious distinctions and in which a large subjugated population lacks political rights. Iran has presidential and parliamentary elections that matter and in which the entire population participates, but its democracy is vitiated by the power of unelected elements in the regime to do things such as arbitrary disqualification of candidates. Democracy in Lebanon is constrained by bargains struck by confessional groups, in Egypt, it is a formal facade for rule by a military strongman and, in monarchies such as Kuwait, elected assemblies, where they exist, can be dissolved at the whim of the monarch.

A misleading standard that has come into vogue more recently is treatment of the region in Cold War terms, in which increasing or decreasing Russian activity is equated with U.S. retreats or advances. This conception is flawed. There is no global ideological competition comparable to that between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the Middle East, there is no regional ideological corollary to Nasserite Arab socialism. Russian and U.S. interests in the region are not zero-sum. And besides, any Cold War–style scorecard would show that Moscow’s long-standing position in Syria is about its only direct and long-term presence in the region, and is far more modest than the U.S. positions from Egypt to Bahrain and much else in between.

One of the principal characteristics of the Middle East pertinent to policymaking during the next U.S. administration is the fallout of the Arab Awakening. The region is still trembling from upheaval; hopes for democracy and stability are all but dashed. Objectives of outside powers, including the United States, should be couched in terms not of any grand new direction for the region but rather of limiting damage from what is going on there already. Lines of conflict in the region are at least as complex as anywhere else in the world, with ethnic, religious, national and ideological affinities intersecting in ways that defy efforts to simplify. Oversimplifications represented by such concepts as axes of evil, region-wide lineups of moderates versus extremists or a Russia-Iran-Syria axis as the defining attribute of security problems in the region should be consigned to the garbage.

The Middle East is the scene of serial and recent U.S. military misadventures. The biggest of those misadventures, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, still accounts for much of the regional shaking, having stimulated civil warfare in Iraq, region-wide sectarian conflict and the birth of what became ISIS. The one win on an otherwise losing scorecard—the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991—was a response to a situation unlikely to recur during the next few years: naked aggression in which one state swallows another. Policymakers should take this history not as a basis for fear of using the military instrument but rather as a reminder to consider carefully its limitations and side effects before applying it to Middle Eastern problems.

WITH THAT background in mind, the initial principle that the new administration should observe in making policy toward the region is the Hippocratic one of first doing no harm. A second principle is to keep costs and risks commensurate with prospective gains to U.S. interests. A third is to recognize that not all problems, even heart-rending ones, are solvable, and that if they are, the United States is not always best suited to solve them. Often the interests and objectives of other players in the region are better engaged, and this sometimes means taking advantage of the balancing of conflicting interests.

Which brings us to the basic realist tenet that the United States should maximize its leverage and its opportunities by dealing freely with every state in the region, unfettered by habitually applied labels of friend or foe. Doing so is not an abandonment of friends but instead a recognition that every state has some interests that parallel, and some that conflict with, those of the United States. This approach exploits whatever interests of foes parallel interests of the United States, reduces the danger of friends or purported friends becoming tails that wag the dog, and enables the United States to benefit from the game of playing other actors against each other at least as much as the United States is a target of others playing that game.

U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be made with attention not just to addressing immediate problems but to what comes afterward, and what comes after that—the sort of attention that was sorely lacking with the decision to invade Iraq. Policymakers in Washington also need to consider carefully how their actions shape wider perceptions of the United States. Overall U.S. policy toward the Middle East in recent decades, especially including U.S. military activity there, has driven the perception that the United States is anti-Muslim—a perception that fuels violent anti-U.S. extremism and has reverberations beyond the Middle East itself.

THESE PRINCIPLES diverge in some obvious ways from prevailing public and political discourse in the United States about foreign policy. There is a strong tendency to assume that the United States can solve any significant problem overseas if it puts its mind (and its heart and its resources) to it. There is a propensity to think of the Middle East in terms of friends and foes, and of loyally supporting the former while confronting or isolating the latter. Certainly there is a politically driven inclination to think more about immediate situations, and to be seen doing something about them, than to focus on long-term repercussions. In some respects, the biggest challenge to the new administration will be in dealing with the inevitable domestic political opposition. Realistic policy proposals must consider the need to overcome that opposition, while remembering that sound policy cannot cave in to it.

Syria will be a prime subject of the most immediate clamoring for action. But the extremely complicated war—actually, a collection of wars—in Syria is a classic case of a mess with no good solution. Much criticism of current policy has consisted of exasperation over continuation of the deadly mess while giving insufficient attention to the inadequacies and uncertainties of any alternative. The difficulty of trying to pursue a good cause without also aiding bad ones is symbolized on the ground by the cooperation and intermixing of supposedly moderate opposition forces with the local Al Qaeda affiliate.

The United States does not have a significant interest in the political composition of a future regime in Damascus. “Assad must go” slogans should be discarded. The Assads provided the closest thing to stability that an independent Syria has ever known. The only conceivable alternatives in sight would be no better on the stability front and apt to be even less appealing ideologically. Bashar al-Assad will not realize his declared aim of recovering every inch of Syria, but neither is there a resolution of this war in sight that does not leave his regime, with Russian and Iranian backing, with the western spine of the country that it currently controls.

Understandable repugnance over the regime’s brutality should not lead to the heart overriding the policymaking head. Nor should policymakers make the mistake of responding to human suffering by escalating the war. Escalation in the form of a no-fly zone, for instance, should not proceed without better answers than have been provided so far to questions about who does the fighting to maintain whatever situation on the ground a prohibited airspace is supposed to protect. Other questions that need answers involve force-protection requirements and what they mean for the overall scale of any military operation, and the risks of further escalation in the form of direct U.S.-Russia clashes.

The most positive contributions the United States can make regarding the Syrian situation involve multilateral diplomacy that encourages outside players to promote de-escalation and that supports whatever compromises exhausted inside players can accept. Being multilateral means going beyond the U.S.-Russia duopoly that crafted so many failed cease-fires and including Turkey, Iran and the Gulf states. U.S. diplomacy should build on shared interests in not seeing carnage continuing indefinitely, while recognizing relative motivations behind those interests that differ. Like it or not, Russia’s motivation to maintain its decades-old foothold in Syria, even with a client regime that rules only part of the country, is stronger than any corresponding U.S. interest there. The Assad regime’s motivation to continue to exist is stronger still.

The United States, meanwhile, continues to have an interest in the collapse of the ISIS ministate. Reduction of that entity already has enough momentum that the questions facing the new administration will be less about how to speed up that collapse than about cultivating conditions that are not conducive to violent extremism. There is no net gain to U.S. interests if less of ISIS means more of something like the Levant Conquest Front, the renamed Al Qaeda affiliate that has been fighting alongside “moderate” opponents of the Assad regime. In some places, the regime may be the least bad replacement for ISIS, as with the regime’s recapture of Palmyra earlier in 2016.

Next door in Iraq, ISIS will likely be dispossessed of Mosul by the time the new U.S. administration takes office. Specific questions will concern who gets to provide civilian administration over recaptured territory and how to manage what will probably be a lingering counterinsurgency in surrounding portions of northern Iraq. The United States does not have a stake in exactly how the lines of control and responsibility are drawn; it does have an interest in minimizing the infighting among opponents of ISIS that perpetuates instability and conflict in that part of Iraq. Several of the pertinent actors—including Turkey, Kurdish militias and the central government in Baghdad—are friends of the United States, which can use its good offices to reduce the fallout.

The next administration must confront larger issues in Iraq by helping Baghdad stand on its own feet. At the same time, a sustainable, stable Iraq will require a decentralized power structure. The Iraqi government does not face anything like the externally backed challenges to its existence that the regime in Damascus does, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has shown commendable understanding of the need for inclusiveness in governing the country. The United States should use its aid to encourage acting on that understanding, and use diplomacy to encourage others, especially the Gulf states, to support Abadi’s government. An open-ended presence of U.S. troops should not be part of this formula; such a presence does not buy long-term stabilizing habits of inclusiveness, as was demonstrated by the earlier failure of a much larger U.S. troop presence to buy such habits. It instead negates the concept of the regime standing on its own feet and introduces moral hazard by shielding any narrow-minded Iraqi policies from their security consequences.

SOME OF the most acutely counterproductive U.S. policy revolves around the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. That intervention has caused thousands of civilian casualties, turning what would have been low-grade civil warfare into a humanitarian disaster, without bringing Yemen any closer to conflict resolution. The United States has created enemies it would not otherwise have had (especially among the Houthi rebels, who, contrary to popular belief, are not Iranian proxies and have acted against Tehran’s advice) and has weakened its moral standing to criticize Russia or the Assad regime for harming civilians in Syria. Fortunately, enough dismay over the situation in Yemen has already arisen in Congress to provide some political basis for the new president to disengage from this military mistake. The United States has little or no stake in the internal political composition of Yemen and should diplomatically support whatever formula offers the prospect of ending the war. This might even include a re-division of Yemen into north and south, which would roughly correspond to current battle lines and ought to satisfy the Saudis’ traditional objective of not having a strong Yemen on their doorstep.

Yemen represents the most immediate symptom of regarding the U.S.-Saudi relationship as an “alliance” worthy of blanket support. Extensive relations do need to be maintained with Saudi Arabia, given its role in several regional issues as well as the world oil market. But keeping Saudi leaders happy and comfortable is not itself a U.S. interest. The Saudis have goals based on ethnic or religious divisions or local rivalries that are not U.S. objectives. Cooperation should be predicated on converging interests, and honesty about disagreements should prevail where they do not.

This perspective applies to the trans-Gulf competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would be hard to find reasons—whether based on the degree of democracy and personal freedom in each of these states, the states’ relationship with the sorts of violent extremism that most preoccupy Washington, or the extent to which each is stoking rebellion or using armed force beyond its borders—to favor one side, and specifically the Saudis, in this rivalry. The competition is the kind of local balance that serves U.S. interests by helping to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. A U.S. tilt would be in order only to correct any marked imbalance.

U.S. relations with Iran necessarily will focus, in the near term, on continued implementation of the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. A breakdown of the agreement would be a serious setback to nonproliferation and would reopen Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon. The agreement has removed one of the shackles on U.S. regional diplomacy, and it should be built upon by moving toward more normal dealings with Iran. Full diplomatic relations are probably more than the politics in either capital will bear during the next four years, although establishment of a U.S. interests section in Tehran would be useful in facilitating communication. Low-key, ad hoc cooperation where there are at least some parallel interests, such as with security problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be beneficial. Where interests differ, the example of the nuclear agreement should be followed: requirements need to be made very specific, along with a realization that the United States must give something to get something. Vague demands to stop “nefarious” behavior or to cease “destabilizing the region” do not distinguish Iran from other actors and do not give even willing Iranian leaders something to say yes to.

Domestic Iranian politics will be affected by how the relationship evolves over the coming years. Moves in the direction of a more businesslike relationship will benefit those elements in Tehran who favor doing business normally and will weaken those who prefer confrontation. Greater economic ties with the West, with a resulting improvement in Iran’s economy, will strengthen the more moderate and pragmatic elements, such as President Hassan Rouhani, who is likely to be elected to a second term that will nearly coincide with the term of the new U.S. president. Economic pain in Iran is not inherently a U.S. interest, despite much rhetoric and many congressional votes on sanctions that make it seem as if it is.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, a similar selective approach to issues, in which states in the region are not simply labeled as friends or foes and either given a free pass as the former or condemned to permanent antipathy as the latter, should shape U.S. policies. Egypt, still important because of its size and centrality in the Arab world, will require this kind of finesse and selectivity, as the increasingly harsh rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi engenders increased extremist violence and further instability. The U.S. interest in security cooperation with Egypt is still there, but Washington should shape the relationship to avoid either becoming entangled in the regime’s excesses or someday being charged with shoving a friend under the bus, as it was accused of doing with Hosni Mubarak.

That leaves one of the longest-running disputes in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any moves toward new U.S. diplomacy addressing this problem are invariably met with predictions of futility and fruitlessness. Some of this cold water comes from observers understandably extrapolating from unsuccessful efforts in the past. Some of it comes from those carrying water for the current Israeli government, which prefers no action on, or spotlight directed at, the occupation. But strong reasons for making a renewed effort at resolving this conflict persist. This issue continues to engage the emotions of an especially broad audience, even beyond the region itself. It is repeatedly exploited by violent radicals, and particularly so in bills of particulars against the United States. Moreover, the clock for a two-state solution is ticking, with continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank threatening to make such a solution infeasible. Some assess that the clock already has run out, but U.S. policy does not need to rest on a judgment about whether it has or not; a push for a two-state solution, which is the only outcome that would fully realize the nationalist aspirations of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, does not preclude resorting to a plan B of equal rights for all in a single state.

Unlike the countless other regional hotspots that are mistakenly associated with American ownership, the United States has bought this issue with years of extraordinary financial and diplomatic support to Israel. A special U.S. focus on this conflict, more so than on problems elsewhere of human and political rights and contests over land, is warranted not only to limit damage to the United States from its association with Israeli actions in the territories but also as a matter of moral responsibility, given how U.S. backing and diplomatic cover have facilitated those actions. The new U.S. president takes office in the wake of a $38 billion gift (to be dispensed over the next ten years) from American taxpayers to Israeli citizens, who live in one of the more prosperous countries of the world and could themselves pay to keep the Israel Defense Forces the most potent military in the Middle East. Regardless of what the new administration does to try to resolve the conflict, no one can plausibly accuse Washington of not being an exceptional champion of the security and prosperity of Israel.

Exactly what the new administration should do depends on what the Obama administration does, if anything, on the subject in its final days. But the emphasis probably should be on engagement of multilateral organs of the United Nations, such as with a new Security Council resolution laying out the unavoidable features of any fair and enduring settlement. Such a multilateral approach would be both a contrast to the unilateral actions that have been so unhelpful and a tacit admission of how the United States has tended to tie itself in political knots on the subject and thus has been ineffective as a diplomatic manager of the topic.

Although U.S. interests should always be distinguished from Israeli interests, one useful way to deal with the inevitable domestic political resistance to a diplomatic initiative is to frame the need for it in terms of Israel’s own future. Persistence of the conflict would mean that Israel never lives in peace and never has a normal relationship with its neighborhood, that it lives forever by the sword and, as a result, that some of the marginalized population in its midst lives by the knife. Self-described strong supporters of Israel should be challenged on whether that is the kind of future they wish upon the country for which they profess affection.

Also to be challenged are those who habitually criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East for not fully utilizing U.S. strength and being too submissive to other governments—a common theme in criticism of Barack Obama’s Middle East policies. There is no more glaring example of unrealized U.S. leverage and submissiveness to a lesser state than the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The United States does need to pivot away from the Middle East, in some respects—but not in others. It needs to turn away from interventionist policies that have made the region a drain through which the United States has lost so many lives, material resources and international goodwill. It needs to relinquish ownership of the regional problems not derivable from fundamental U.S. interests or a treaty. The Trump administration will, however, need to continue to devote plenty of policy attention to this region, in which the United States already is messily enmeshed. Disentanglement will require both farsightedness and political courage.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World.

Image: U.S. Marines prepare to enter one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Marine Corps.