The Middle East: Still Not Russian

October 9, 2013 Topic: Global Governance Region: RussiaUnited StatesMiddle East

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.

The alignment patterns that I identified in my original piece, which began in the Cold War, are important for how we understand the U.S. position in the Middle East today. Whether or not Russia is trying to return to a position of influence or trying for the first time today is irrelevant; the historical trend has long been one of American predominance.

In fact, these patterns have allowed Washington to coast for some time, cushioning it against the Arab uprisings. The distinction is important: For internationalists, if one believes the U.S. position is in mortal danger like never before, one is more likely to take an extreme position—either that America is teetering on the edge of impotence, and that it needs to take more aggressive action (mostly conceptualized as military force) to push back against Russian or other encroachment; or all hope is lost and America’s credibility throughout the world is doomed. Both are alarmist claims, with dangerous policy consequences.

These policy debates are critical. But they need to begin from a more realistic assessment of America’s position in the Middle East. I warned that Washington’s ability to shape regional events isn’t open-ended. My concern was not to show where its influence was declining, but to note that it isn’t being replaced by Russia. One can argue how hard Washington has been trying, but even a partial list of places and issues over which the United States seems to have lost its ability to manage, much less control, does not include any sense that Russia is filling the gap.

In Egypt, the United States has not been able to stop the internal violence; but nobody is asking for Russian mediation. In the stop-and-start Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was demanded that American interlocutors John Kerry and Martin Indyk be brought into the mix; but nobody asked for the Russian foreign minister or a Russian envoy to help manage the negotiations. On the Iranian nuclear program, President Hassan Rouhani spoke mostly to his domestic audiences, but also to the United States in his General Assembly speech on September 24, and to Barack Obama in most of his media interviews—not to Russia or Vladimir Putin.

Where we agree is that the United States needs to react to events in Syria and take a more proactive and firm role there. Where we disagree is over how much time the United States has to do so. I’ve suggested Washington does have some time, which has appropriately allowed it to be more cautious in its approach.

Professors Nichols and Schindler conclude: “The fact of the matter is that no serious student of Russian affairs would deny that Moscow now has more power in the Middle East than at any time since at least 1973, if not longer.” But that they did not refute my specific examples or provide examples of their own (i.e., of Russia getting regional actors to change their behavior or to call for Russian involvement) only underlines my point, and indicates they might be the ones detached from “historical reality.”

I admit that I am not a student of Russia; but I am a student of Middle Eastern politics. And judging by the ability (or lack thereof) of Russia to shape regional events, to get regional actors to do what it prefers them to do that they wouldn’t otherwise have done, and by the demands of local actors themselves, I see nothing to suggest that their claim is correct. American influence is Washington’s to lose, not Moscow’s to take.

Brent E. Sasley is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches Middle East and Israeli politics. He blogs at Mideast Matrix and Open Zion. Follow him on Twitter at @besasley.