But instead of declaring victory and dancing off the field, we moved the goalposts. The United States launched an open-ended campaign and enlisted NATO in efforts to install a government in Kabul while building a state for it to govern, promoting feminism and protecting poppy growers. The poppies still flourish. All else looks to be ephemeral.
Mr. Putin’s intervention in Syria in 2015 relied for its success on ingredients similar to those in the pre–Tora Bora U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. The Russians committed a modest ration of airpower and special forces in support of a Syrian government that had amply demonstrated its survivability in the face of more than four years of Islamist efforts to take it down. The Russian campaign had clear political objectives, which it stuck to.
Moscow sought to reduce the complexities of Syria to a binary choice between life under the secular dictatorship of the Assad regime and rule by Islamist fanatics. It cemented a Russian-Iranian entente. It hedged against the likelihood that the Syrian Humpty Dumpty cannot be reassembled, ensuring that, whatever happens, Russia will not lack clients in Syria or be dislodged from its bases at Tartus and Latakia. Russia succeeded in forcing the United States into a diplomatically credible peace process in which regime removal is no longer a given and Russia and Iran are recognized as essential participants. It retrained, reequipped and restored the morale of government forces, while putting their Islamist opponents on the defensive and gaining ground against them. The campaign reduced and partially contained the growing Islamist threat to Russian domestic tranquility, while affirming Russia’s importance as a partner in combating terrorism.
Moscow also put its hands on the stopcock for the refugee flow from West Asia that threatens the survival of the European Union, underscoring Russia’s indispensable relevance to European affairs. It demonstrated its renewed military prowess and reestablished itself as a major actor in Middle Eastern affairs. And it showed that Russia could be counted upon to stand by protégés when they are at risk, drawing an invidious contrast with the American abandonment of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The cost of these achievements has been collateral damage to Russia’s relations with Turkey, a price Moscow appears willing to play.
But state failure in Syria continues, as it does in Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. Jordan and Bahrain are under pressure. Tunisia and Turkey – once avatars of democratic Islamism – seem to be leaving democracy behind. Israel is strangling Gaza while swallowing the rest of Palestine alive. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are in a near state of war with Iran, which is in the midst of a breakthrough in relations with Europe and Asia, if not America. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are trying to stay out of the fight. Once the region’s Arab heavyweight, Egypt now subsists on handouts from the Gulf Arabs and cowers under martial law. Sudan has been partitioned, sidelined and ostracized by the West.
The Middle East kaleidoscope has yet to come to rest. We can see that the region’s future political geography will differ from its past and present contours. But we cannot yet say what it will look like.
“More of the same” policies will almost certainly produce more of the same sort of mess we now see. What is to be done? Perhaps we should start by trying to correct some of the blunders that produced our current conundrums. The world’s reliance on energy from the Gulf has not diminished. But ours has. That gives us some freedom of maneuver. We should use it.
We need to harness our military capabilities to diplomacy rather than the other way around. The key to this is to find a way to reenlist Iraq in support of a restored balance of power in the Gulf. That would allow us reduce our presence there to levels that avoid stimulating a hostile reaction and to return to a policy of offshore balancing.
This can only be done if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Sunni states rediscover the differences between the varieties of Shiism in Iraqi Najaf and Iranian Qom. The Shiism of Najaf tends to be fatalistic and supportive of Iraqi nationalism. The Shiism of Qom is more assertively universalistic and activist. The Saudis and their allies need to make common cause with Shiite Iraqis as Arabs rather than castigate them as heretics. The limited normalization of Iranian relations with the West, including the United States, is an inevitability. The strategies of our Arab partners in the region need to anticipate and hedge against this. And we need to prepare them to do so.
Such an adjustment will take some very tough love from the United States. It will require the Saudis and their allies to back away from the policies based on Salafi sectarianism they have followed for the better part of this decade and re-embrace the tolerance that is at the heart of Islam. It will also require some measure of accommodation by them with Iran, regardless of the state of U.S.-Iranian relations. Without both a turn away from sectarianism and the achievement of a modus vivendi with Iran, the Saudis and their allies will remain on the defensive, Iraq will remain an extension of Iranian influence, and the region will remain inflamed by religious warfare. All this will spill over on Americans and our European allies.
Islamism is an extreme form of political Islam—a noxious ideology that invites a political retort. It has received none except in Saudi Arabia. There a concerted propaganda campaign has effectively refuted Islamist heresies. No effort has been undertaken to form a coalition to mount such a campaign on a regional basis. But such a coalition is essential to address the political challenges that Muslim extremists pose to regional stability and to the security of the West. Only the Saudis and others with credibility among Salafi Muslims are in a position to form and lead a campaign to do this. This is an instance where it makes sense for the United States to “lead from behind.”
For our part, Americans must be led to correct our counterproductive misunderstanding of Islam. Islamophobia has become as American as gun massacres. The presumptive candidate of one of our two major parties has suggested banning Muslims from entry into the United States. This is reflective of national attitudes that are incompatible with the cooperation we need with Muslim partners to fight terrorist extremism. If we do not correct these attitudes, we will continue to pay not just in treasure but in blood. Lots of it.
Finally, the United States must cease to provide blank checks to partners in the region prone to misguided and counterproductive policies and actions that threaten American interests as well as their own prospects. No more Yemens. No more Gazas or Lebanons. No more military guarantees that disincentivize diplomacy aimed at achieving long-term security for Israel.
The obvious difficulty of making any of these adjustments is a measure of how far we have diverged from an effective approach to managing our relations with the Middle East and how impaired our ability to contribute to peace and stability there has become. Our mainstream media is credulous and parrots the official line. Our politicians are devoted to narratives that bear almost no relation to the realities of the Middle East. Our government is dysfunctional. Our politics is, well . . . you pick the word.
Frankly, the prospects that we will get our act and our policies together are not good. But history will not excuse us for acting out Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing more of the same and expecting different results. We won’t get them.
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.) is a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs.
Image: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State.