I join Michèle Flournoy, Hillary Clinton’s would-be secretary of defense, who praised the nomination of Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense. He seems to understand the Middle East, which is the second major threat to U.S. security (second to North Korea). He realizes the merit of confronting Iran directly, rather than contending separately with each of its poisonous tentacles in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The merit of this realization stands out when one compares it to the alternatives: abandoning the Middle East gradually by allowing Iran, Russia and their allies to take over; or engaging in a handful of proxy wars with Iran.
Those who hold that the United States has little reason to remain engaged in the Middle East (now that it no longer relies on oil from this region) should note that when observers refer to Shia and Sunni in the region, they sound as if they are talking about two more or less equal camps. Actually, the Shia in the region are much more aggressive and powerful than the Sunnis. Moreover, the Shia are more united than the Sunnis. Thus, on the Shia side are the government of Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah (a major army and a fierce force), and the rebels in Yemen. Russia and Iran are pouring billions into supporting these forces as well as sending troops and weapons.
On the Sunni side is Saudi Arabia, whose military is weak and very reluctant to fight on the ground; teetering Jordan; Egypt, which is in economic shambles; and Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s feckless forces in Yemen. Hence, if America withdraws, the Shia—who also are a restive minority in Saudi Arabia and a majority in Bahrain—led by Iran, are very likely to dominate the region. Such a Shia-dominated Middle East is going to be—and, in effect, already is—a major breeding ground for transnational terrorism that is spreading into Europe and is threatening the U.S. homeland.
Moreover, whenever one talks to leaders of Japan, South Korea and other nations in Asia, one finds that they are watching the Middle East to determine how reliable the United States is as an ally. If Washington abandons the Middle East—as Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Kurds fear—its allies in Asia may well follow the Philippines and seek a middle ground between the superpowers, or even tilt toward China and Russia. That is, America’s role as global leader will be over. Neo-isolationists may favor such a retreat. However, they should be open about the implications for U.S. security, even if they do not care about America’s long-standing allies, its role as a supporter of liberal-democratic regimes and global common goods, such as freedom of navigation.
The second option is to seek to cut off each of Iran’s tentacles, in effect, by increasing U.S. interventions in Iraq, Syria and, indirectly, in Yemen—though nobody seems to know how to counter Iran’s debilitating effects in Lebanon. However, each of these confrontations faces serious difficulties.
In Iraq, the United States has been trying for years to convince the Shia-dominated government to become much more inclusive, allowing Sunni representatives a meaningful role in the government. Otherwise, Washington insists, the Sunnis will continue to support ISIS or other such groups. For the same reason, the United States is deeply concerned about the Shia military, which is trained, guided and partially armed by Iran. However, the Iraqi government has been moving in the opposite direction as Iran’s influence in Baghdad is growing. It has used American-trained and -equipped police and army units as death squads to kill Sunnis. It continues to exclude Sunnis from an effective role in the government. And it most recently moved to officially recognize the Shia militia as a government entity alongside the military. The United States clearly has not found a way to get the Iraqi government to follow the course it sees as essential for stabilizing the regime and countering Iran’s growing influence.
The situation in Syria is complex. Now that Russia has added an air force base to its naval base and invested heavily in supporting its last ally in the Middle East, it is likely to play a key role in Syria. In the process, Russia started to coordinate its activities with Iran, even using its air bases for its bombing missions in Syria. Moreover, Iran is not only a major source of financial and logistical support to Assad’s regime, but also sends some of its troops to fight the rebels. The United States’ policy in Syria so far has been to minimize the U.S. role. It surely has found no way to limit Iran’s role in that country.
In Yemen, the Saudi campaign against the Houthi, allied with Iran (a campaign the United States is supporting), is flailing. Despite numerous bombing missions, and a great number of civilian casualties, little progress has been made. It seems that the best the United States could achieve here is some kind of draw, a settlement that would divide Yemen between the Houthi and government forces—i.e., a clear, though partial, victory for Iran.