The West has been having a hard time controlling the Middle East for a long time. We have been like a viceroy suddenly called upon to ride an unruly camel. It is time to find a way to climb down.
We’ve been at it at least since the British and the French fought over the bones of Ottoman rule in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars (leaving aside the Crusades). The Brits won that fight, but the French later took Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, while the Italians took Libya. The Versailles settlement after World War I let the British and French draw the boundaries we still have; the French controlled Syria and Lebanon while the British had Palestine, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq. The Saudi monarchy emerged as a British client.
The canal at Suez was essential to gaining and maintaining the British Empire in Asia up through World War II. In the twentieth century, oil in the Persian Gulf region added another reason why the West had to control the Middle East. Add the rivalry with Russia in Iran and Afghanistan, transmuted after World War II into a front line of the Cold War, and it’s no wonder the Middle East has been for so long a focus of Western attention.
And yet the West (including the United States as the leading Western power since the Second World War) has never been comfortable or satisfied in the Middle East. Pliant client monarchies were set up not only in Saudi Arabia, but also in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Libya, with little attention to the complexities of local populations and politics. The 1950s and 1960s saw the emergence of Arab nationalism, often in the military forces that had been trained by the British and French. Kings were replaced by nationalist dictators in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The Iranian monarchy was only saved by a CIA intervention in 1953. An insurrection in Algeria led to an Arab nationalist regime there as well.
It is scarcely surprising to find that nationalists, both in Arab countries and in Iran, have sought to confront US imperialism on every front.
Zionist determination overcame British bumbling to establish the State of Israel in 1948. By the 1950s it was clear that Israel would be an American client, even though this conflicted with the American desire to cultivate conservative Arab regimes like the Saudis. Israel became a major target of Arab nationalists, thus putting the US and the West in a posture of opposing Arab nationalism.
So it is scarcely surprising to find that nationalists, both in Arab countries and in Iran, have sought to confront US imperialism on every front. From Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria in the present century, Arab nationalists have opposed Israel and challenged American interests. The unique Iranian blend of nationalism with Shi’a fundamentalism has declared the US to be “the Great Satan” from the inception of the revolutionary regime in 1979.
The present situation is the result of these long-term historical forces, as filtered through more recent events, the most notable of which was the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This substantially undermined the idea that the US could be relied on to support the political status quo, and freed up centrifugal forces in what was, after all, an artificial state.
In the name of democracy, the Shi’a majority was empowered at the expense of the Sunni minority who had largely supported Saddam. The Sunnis then erupted in a deadly insurgency that caused many casualties to both the US forces and those of the government set up by the occupation.
A military operation that was predicted to be brief and triumphant became an inconclusive quagmire. American popular support for Middle Eastern intervention plummeted, and was reflected in the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and of the presidency in 2008.
This was the context for President Barack Obama after 2008. He sought to advance US interests while avoiding further military adventures. But since it was clear that he would not put “boots on the ground,” his leverage was limited. In the abstract, his administration sympathized with those who pushed for democratization in the region, but it proved difficult, in Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi, and in the Syrian civil war, to limit political movements to those we approved of.
As a result, the US finds itself supporting a weak liberal opposition to Assad, while tacitly working with Assad (and his Iranian patrons) to oppose the radical Islamists of the Islamic State (ISIS). We are working with Preasident Erdogan of Turkey to oppose ISIS, while he attacks the Kurds, who have the most effective military force opposing ISIS. It is a fundamentally contradictory and untenable position.
The United States seems to have two broad strategic options going forward. One would be to revert to the classic imperialist stance, openly supporting our chosen allies and working to undermine or destroy of opponents. This is what conservative critics of Obama’s negotiation with Iran would advocate. But it’s not a viable strategy in the 21st century. The American public simply will not support the decades-long commitment of military forces it would take to back up such a strategy, and the Middle Eastern public is far more awake and mobilized in support of reform. We simply cannot just continue to back reactionary elites like the Saudi ruling family, on the assumption that they can keep the lid on the pressure cooker.
The second option is what Obama has been trying, and it’s not pretty. The nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran is the most spectacular result so far, and it is roundly condemned by conservatives at home and the Israeli government. Nevertheless, it is clearly the best option for avoiding war with Iran while at least postponing their acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The administration backed the “Arab Spring” uprisings that overthrew governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; it clearly hoped the same would happen to Assad in Syria. But complex realities have intervened: chaos in Libya, a truncated Islamist regime in Egypt, followed by a new military regime, and a potent Islamic State rebellion in Syria and Iraq. Frustrated in every attempt to move forward in the Arab world, Obama is reduced to defending our old allies, while unable or unwilling to credibly threaten military intervention, because (as pointed out previously) that is not a viable strategy anymore.
Obama is closer than his opponents to a viable strategy for the US in the decades ahead. But it’s not going to be easy. We and the other Western powers are coming to the end of our ability to control the region. We will have at best an ability to inflect the course of events to reduce the probability of worst-case scenarios. The agreement with Iran is an example: we have strengthened the hand of those who would move Iran toward a more pragmatic relation with the world, and away from doctrinaire theocracy. But there is no guarantee that the pragmatists will prevail.
Similarly, in Syria, we will have to accept an outcome far short of our hopes. For example, we might reverse ourselves and accept a continuation of Assad’s regime in return for a serious assault on the Islamic State forces. But there is no way we can establish a democracy in Syria, any more than we could in Iraq, Libya, or Egypt.
The American Century is over, especially in the Middle East.