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.