SOME OF the most acutely counterproductive U.S. policy revolves around the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. That intervention has caused thousands of civilian casualties, turning what would have been low-grade civil warfare into a humanitarian disaster, without bringing Yemen any closer to conflict resolution. The United States has created enemies it would not otherwise have had (especially among the Houthi rebels, who, contrary to popular belief, are not Iranian proxies and have acted against Tehran’s advice) and has weakened its moral standing to criticize Russia or the Assad regime for harming civilians in Syria. Fortunately, enough dismay over the situation in Yemen has already arisen in Congress to provide some political basis for the new president to disengage from this military mistake. The United States has little or no stake in the internal political composition of Yemen and should diplomatically support whatever formula offers the prospect of ending the war. This might even include a re-division of Yemen into north and south, which would roughly correspond to current battle lines and ought to satisfy the Saudis’ traditional objective of not having a strong Yemen on their doorstep.
Yemen represents the most immediate symptom of regarding the U.S.-Saudi relationship as an “alliance” worthy of blanket support. Extensive relations do need to be maintained with Saudi Arabia, given its role in several regional issues as well as the world oil market. But keeping Saudi leaders happy and comfortable is not itself a U.S. interest. The Saudis have goals based on ethnic or religious divisions or local rivalries that are not U.S. objectives. Cooperation should be predicated on converging interests, and honesty about disagreements should prevail where they do not.
This perspective applies to the trans-Gulf competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would be hard to find reasons—whether based on the degree of democracy and personal freedom in each of these states, the states’ relationship with the sorts of violent extremism that most preoccupy Washington, or the extent to which each is stoking rebellion or using armed force beyond its borders—to favor one side, and specifically the Saudis, in this rivalry. The competition is the kind of local balance that serves U.S. interests by helping to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon. A U.S. tilt would be in order only to correct any marked imbalance.
U.S. relations with Iran necessarily will focus, in the near term, on continued implementation of the agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. A breakdown of the agreement would be a serious setback to nonproliferation and would reopen Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon. The agreement has removed one of the shackles on U.S. regional diplomacy, and it should be built upon by moving toward more normal dealings with Iran. Full diplomatic relations are probably more than the politics in either capital will bear during the next four years, although establishment of a U.S. interests section in Tehran would be useful in facilitating communication. Low-key, ad hoc cooperation where there are at least some parallel interests, such as with security problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be beneficial. Where interests differ, the example of the nuclear agreement should be followed: requirements need to be made very specific, along with a realization that the United States must give something to get something. Vague demands to stop “nefarious” behavior or to cease “destabilizing the region” do not distinguish Iran from other actors and do not give even willing Iranian leaders something to say yes to.
Domestic Iranian politics will be affected by how the relationship evolves over the coming years. Moves in the direction of a more businesslike relationship will benefit those elements in Tehran who favor doing business normally and will weaken those who prefer confrontation. Greater economic ties with the West, with a resulting improvement in Iran’s economy, will strengthen the more moderate and pragmatic elements, such as President Hassan Rouhani, who is likely to be elected to a second term that will nearly coincide with the term of the new U.S. president. Economic pain in Iran is not inherently a U.S. interest, despite much rhetoric and many congressional votes on sanctions that make it seem as if it is.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, a similar selective approach to issues, in which states in the region are not simply labeled as friends or foes and either given a free pass as the former or condemned to permanent antipathy as the latter, should shape U.S. policies. Egypt, still important because of its size and centrality in the Arab world, will require this kind of finesse and selectivity, as the increasingly harsh rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi engenders increased extremist violence and further instability. The U.S. interest in security cooperation with Egypt is still there, but Washington should shape the relationship to avoid either becoming entangled in the regime’s excesses or someday being charged with shoving a friend under the bus, as it was accused of doing with Hosni Mubarak.
That leaves one of the longest-running disputes in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Any moves toward new U.S. diplomacy addressing this problem are invariably met with predictions of futility and fruitlessness. Some of this cold water comes from observers understandably extrapolating from unsuccessful efforts in the past. Some of it comes from those carrying water for the current Israeli government, which prefers no action on, or spotlight directed at, the occupation. But strong reasons for making a renewed effort at resolving this conflict persist. This issue continues to engage the emotions of an especially broad audience, even beyond the region itself. It is repeatedly exploited by violent radicals, and particularly so in bills of particulars against the United States. Moreover, the clock for a two-state solution is ticking, with continued Israeli colonization of the West Bank threatening to make such a solution infeasible. Some assess that the clock already has run out, but U.S. policy does not need to rest on a judgment about whether it has or not; a push for a two-state solution, which is the only outcome that would fully realize the nationalist aspirations of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, does not preclude resorting to a plan B of equal rights for all in a single state.
Unlike the countless other regional hotspots that are mistakenly associated with American ownership, the United States has bought this issue with years of extraordinary financial and diplomatic support to Israel. A special U.S. focus on this conflict, more so than on problems elsewhere of human and political rights and contests over land, is warranted not only to limit damage to the United States from its association with Israeli actions in the territories but also as a matter of moral responsibility, given how U.S. backing and diplomatic cover have facilitated those actions. The new U.S. president takes office in the wake of a $38 billion gift (to be dispensed over the next ten years) from American taxpayers to Israeli citizens, who live in one of the more prosperous countries of the world and could themselves pay to keep the Israel Defense Forces the most potent military in the Middle East. Regardless of what the new administration does to try to resolve the conflict, no one can plausibly accuse Washington of not being an exceptional champion of the security and prosperity of Israel.
Exactly what the new administration should do depends on what the Obama administration does, if anything, on the subject in its final days. But the emphasis probably should be on engagement of multilateral organs of the United Nations, such as with a new Security Council resolution laying out the unavoidable features of any fair and enduring settlement. Such a multilateral approach would be both a contrast to the unilateral actions that have been so unhelpful and a tacit admission of how the United States has tended to tie itself in political knots on the subject and thus has been ineffective as a diplomatic manager of the topic.
Although U.S. interests should always be distinguished from Israeli interests, one useful way to deal with the inevitable domestic political resistance to a diplomatic initiative is to frame the need for it in terms of Israel’s own future. Persistence of the conflict would mean that Israel never lives in peace and never has a normal relationship with its neighborhood, that it lives forever by the sword and, as a result, that some of the marginalized population in its midst lives by the knife. Self-described strong supporters of Israel should be challenged on whether that is the kind of future they wish upon the country for which they profess affection.
Also to be challenged are those who habitually criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East for not fully utilizing U.S. strength and being too submissive to other governments—a common theme in criticism of Barack Obama’s Middle East policies. There is no more glaring example of unrealized U.S. leverage and submissiveness to a lesser state than the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The United States does need to pivot away from the Middle East, in some respects—but not in others. It needs to turn away from interventionist policies that have made the region a drain through which the United States has lost so many lives, material resources and international goodwill. It needs to relinquish ownership of the regional problems not derivable from fundamental U.S. interests or a treaty. The Trump administration will, however, need to continue to devote plenty of policy attention to this region, in which the United States already is messily enmeshed. Disentanglement will require both farsightedness and political courage.