The foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is expected to spend a lot of time on the attacks on embassies in Libya and Egypt, which were either sparked by an absurdly bigoted anti-Islamic film or used this film as cover for a pre-planned terror attack. Whatever its value as a debating point, this episode has laid bare the bipartisan incoherence of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Mitt Romney’s immediate response focusing on the question of whether the administration had “apologized for America” was widely criticized as misinformed and ill timed. But Romney’s mishandling of the issue distracted attention from the administration’s own disarray, symbolized by President Obama’s confusion over whether Egypt is or is not a U.S. ally.
The crisis in Syria provides an even more graphic illustration of the incoherence of the foreign-policy debate. It is generally agreed that the civil war now raging in Syria is, or ought to be, a matter of grave concern to the United States. The administration’s position, demanding an end to the rule of Bashar al-Assad but taking few concrete steps to bring this about, has been widely criticized. But the proposed alternative policies run the gamut from immediate military intervention on the side of the rebels to tacit, and occasionally overt, support for the status quo.
This confusion, in turn, reflects the way the Arab Spring has upended the dominant narratives in U.S. discussion of Middle Eastern policy. All previous discussions were premised on the view that in the absence of an external—that is, U.S.-driven—push, existing regimes were durable fixtures.
Several examples illustrate some of the problems with this U.S.-centric view of the dynamics at play in the Middle East:
● Once it was evident that claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were, at best, the result of a misreading of intelligence to reach a desired conclusion, the primary retrospective justification for the Iraq War was the belief that Saddam’s dictatorship otherwise would have lasted for generations. The Arab Spring suggests that perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and American lives, and trillions of dollars, were spent to bring forward regime change by a mere decade or so.
● Some realists such as Robert Kaplan have argued that support for autocratic regimes may provide the best way to pursue U.S. policy goals. However, this argument depends on the assumption that such regimes are stable and durable. At best, the fall of an autocratic regime means that the policy assets derived from links with the autocrat are dissipated. At worst, there is the risk that the new regime will be hostile to the United States precisely because it is viewed as having propped up the old one—Iran being the most notable case in point.
● Advocates of a strong prodemocracy policy typically have assumed that democratic governments will produce policy outcomes favorable to the United States and consistent with U.S. beliefs about good economic policy, social and civil liberties, and so on. But the whole point of democracy is that governments reflect the views of the majority of the people, which are likely to be less similar to the United States than the views of ruling elites.
● Many in favor of an unqualified pro-Israel policy have relied on the argument that Israel, as the only democracy in the region, was deserving of support for whatever policies its government proposed. Now that Israel is just one of a number of democracies (all of them imperfect), this argument can be turned on its head. The majority of democratic governments in the region clearly do not support the current stance of U.S. foreign policy.
Thus, U.S. policy responses to recent events appear to be incoherent. There is, however, a much deeper problem underlying these specific failures: there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East. As a result, U.S. intervention in the region has been driven by lobby groups with mutually inconsistent beliefs, goals and interests, yielding policies that largely negate each other. The one outcome that has been achieved with almost perfect consistency is to make Washington disliked and distrusted by most political leaders in the region—and even more by the general population.
The Danger of Outdated Assumptions
The perception that the United States has crucial national interests in the Middle East goes back to three events in the 1970s. The first was the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the subsequent OPEC oil embargo. The resulting lines at gas stations are still etched in political memory. The second was the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. The third was the fall of the Pahlavi regime in Iran and the subsequent occupation of the U.S. embassy by radical Islamist “students,” who held fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days.
These events entrenched a set of false, and mutually contradictory, beliefs that have led the United States into a long series of policy disasters.
The first misperception is that oil, and Middle Eastern oil in particular, is a strategic resource of vital importance; therefore the United States must ensure that the flow of oil does not fall under the control of hostile powers. In reality, the economic and strategic significance of oil is greatly overrated. The United States long has derived most of its oil either from domestic sources or from the Americas. A cutoff of Middle Eastern oil might create some inconvenience but far less than it did in 1973. Indeed, the loss of around 40 percent of U.S. refining capacity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina caused only minor disruption.
The second false belief is that the United States has a central role to play in negotiating a peaceful accommodation between Israel and its neighbors. The Camp David Accords were a big achievement for the Carter administration, but every subsequent effort has met with failure. At this point, the United States is so closely aligned with Israel that it has no credibility or capacity to act as an honest broker.
Closely related is the belief that Iran is a dangerous, hostile power that the United States must act to contain and whose government it should seek to overthrow. As Paul Pillar points out, U.S. policy on Iran is full of contradictions, leading to responses that are counterproductive at best.
All of these beliefs converged with disastrous effects in Iraq. First, during the 1980s, Washington encouraged Saddam in his bloody and futile war with Iran. A side effect was the need to overlook, until much later, Saddam’s use of poison gas, first in the Iran-Iraq war and then against his own citizens in the 1988 Anfal campaign. The perceived tacit assent of the United States led to Saddam’s disastrous miscalculation that he could safely annex Kuwait and then to the first Gulf War. The stationing of U.S. troops in the holy land of Arabia as part of this process was the trigger for Osama bin Laden (formerly a U.S.-backed anti-Soviet mujahideen) to establish Al Qaeda.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a rare occasion in which nearly all the competing groups in the Middle Eastern policy establishment agreed, each assuming it could shape postconquest Iraq to pursue its own goals. The new Iraq was supposed to supply vast quantities of oil to the United States on favorable terms, become an ally for Israel and form a democratic bulwark against (and an appealing alternative to) the regime of the Iranian ayatollahs. The attempt to achieve all of these contradictory goals ensured that none of them were actually realized.
With the Iraq War finally over, at least for the United States, and the old order in the Middle East crumbling, it is time to reconsider whether the United States really has significant national interests in the region—and if so, what those interests are. Assumptions inherited from the 1970s are no longer an adequate basis for policy.
John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland, Australia and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).