What America Keeps Getting Wrong in the Middle East

Washington’s streak of blunders—and how to snap it.

The United States needs to work with its European allies, with Russia and with partners in the Middle East to attack the problems that are generating terrorism, not just the theology of those who resort to it.

Blunder number seven was the adoption after the 1973 Yom Kippur War of a commitment to maintain a “qualitative military edge” for Israel over any and all potential adversaries in its region. This policy has deprived Israel of any incentive to seek security through nonmilitary means. Why should Israel risk resting its security on reconciliation with Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors when it has been assured of long-term military supremacy over them and relieved of any concern about the political or economic consequences of using force against them?

Confidence in Israel’s qualitative military edge is now the main source of moral hazard for the Jewish state. Its effect is to encourage Israel to favor short-term territorial gains over any effort to achieve long-term security through acceptance by neighboring states, the elimination of tensions with them and the normalization of its relations with others in its region. U.S. policy inadvertently ensured that the so-called “peace process” would always be stillborn. And so it proved to be.

Israel’s lack of concern about the consequences of its occupation and settlement of the West Bank and its siege of Gaza has facilitated its progressive abandonment of the universalist Jewish values that inspired Zionism and its consequent separation from the Jewish communities outside its elastic borders. U.S. subsidies underwrite blatant tyranny by Jewish settlers over the Muslim and Christian Arabs they have dispossessed. This is a formula for the moral and political self-delegitimization of the state of Israel, not its long-term survival. It is also a recipe for the ultimate loss by Israel of irreplaceable American political, military and other support.

The United States needs to wean Israel off its welfare dependency and end the unconditional commitments that enable self-destructive behavior on the part of the Jewish state.

Blunder number eight has been basing U.S. policies toward the Middle East on deductive reasoning grounded in ideological fantasies and politically convenient narratives rather than on inductive reasoning and reality-based analysis. America’s misadventures cannot be excused as “intelligence errors.” They are the result of the ideological politicization of policymaking. This has enabled multiple policy errors based on wishful thinking, selective listening and mirror-imaging. Examples include:

• The conviction, despite UN inspections and much evidence to the contrary, that Saddam’s program to develop weapons of mass destruction was ongoing, representing an imminent danger, and could only be halted by his overthrow;

• The supposition that, despite his well-documented secularism, because he was an Arab, a Muslim and a bad guy, Saddam must be colluding with the religious fanatics of Al Qaeda;

• The assumption that the U.S. military presence in Iraq would be short, undemanding and inexpensive;

• The belief that the overthrow of confessional and ethnic balances would not cause the disintegration of societies like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Lebanon or ignite a wider sectarian conflict;

• The spurious attribution to people in Iraq of political attitudes and aspirations found mostly among exiles abroad;

• The ludicrous expectation that U.S. forces invading Iraq would be greeted as liberators by all but a few;

• The unshakeable presumption that Israel must want peace more than land;

• The impulse to confuse mob rule on the Arab street with a process of democratization;

• The confidence that free and fair elections would put liberals rather than Islamist nationalists in power in Arab societies like Palestine and Egypt;

• The supposition that the removal of bad guys from office, as in Libya, Yemen, or Syria, would lead to the elevation of better leaders and the flowering of peace, freedom and domestic tranquility there; and

• Imagining that dictators like Bashar al-Assad had little popular support and could therefore be easily deposed.

I could go on but I won’t. I’m sure I’ve made my point. Dealing with the Middle East as we prefer to imagine it rather than as it is doesn’t work.

The United States needs to return to fact-based analysis and realism in its foreign policy.

All these blunders have been compounded by the consistent substitution of military tactics for strategy. The diplomatic success of the Iran nuclear deal aside, the policy dialogue in Washington and the current presidential campaign have focused entirely on the adjustment of troop levels, whether and when to bomb things, the implications of counterinsurgency doctrine, when and how to use special forces, whether to commit troops on the ground, and the like, with nary a word about what these uses of force are to accomplish other than killing people. When presented with proposals for military action, no one asks “and then what?”

Military campaign plans that aim at no defined political end state are violence for the sake of violence that demonstrably create more problems than they solve. Military actions that are unguided and unaccompanied by diplomacy are especially likely to do so. Think of Israel’s, our and Saudi Arabia’s campaigns in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen.

By contrast, military interventions that are limited in their objectives, scale and duration; that end or phase down when they have achieved appropriate milestones; and that support indigenous forces that have shown their mettle on the battlefield can succeed. Examples include the pre–Tora Bora phase of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and the first round of Russian intervention in Syria.

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