US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: limited options in unstable times

Post-2011: From bad to worse

The failure of the United States to handle a rising tide of instability in the Middle East is not without precedent. Despite successes in other parts of the world, US foreign policy has long struggled to achieve positive outcomes in the Middle East. Still, today there is a new sense of failure surrounding American policy as negative regional trends following the Arab uprisings that began in 2011 have snowballed into new crises.

Most notably, Iraq is looking at the abyss after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inflammatory policies against non-Shia groups over the past eight years have sparked the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – now calling itself the Islamic State (IS) – and the loss of government control across huge swaths of Northern and Western Iraq. This has had the additional consequence of spurring the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to grab chunks of Kurdish-dominated, Iraqi territory, including the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. Emboldened by the failure of Maliki’s government and the rise of ISIS, KRG officials are more optimistic than ever about an independent Kurdish state breaking off from Iraq.

The festering conflict in Syria remains a thorn in America’s side. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly retaking opposition-held territory with the support of some familiar US foes, Iran and its Lebanese militia-cum-political party Hezbollah. On the other side of the ongoing civil war, secular, pro-Western rebels have failed to garner much outside support despite being the obvious preference for American interests. As a result, they have struggled militarily against both Assad’s Iran-backed military machine as well as the brutal, Islamic fundamentalist ISIS.

A discussion of problems in the Middle East would seemingly be incomplete without the re-emergence of its oldest conflict in Israel and Palestine. Following the highly publicized kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths and the retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teenager, tensions have created a state of low-level war between Israeli forces and the Palestinian Islamist party Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. That this new outbreak of violence comes after yet another failed attempt at peace by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry only seems to underscore the futility of American efforts to broker peace.

On top of all this, even stalwart allies are questioning the role of the US in the region. Bahrain, host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, declared a visiting US State Department official to be persona non grata on July 7, effectively deporting him from the country. The country has struggled with the political demands of its Shia majority due to the preferential treatment given to the Sunni minority, so after the State Department official joined an event hosted by the Shia opposition political party, the ruling Khalifa family moved quickly to show their displeasure. Long-time ally Saudi Arabia has been vocal in its displeasure with the US and its response to the Arab uprisings. Saudi Arabia was shocked by the Americans’ abandonment of its autocratic partner in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, and have been deeply frustrated by US ambivalence on interfering in the Syrian conflict.

Foreign powers are taking notice of America’s self-inflicted wounds in the region. The rise of China as a global power and Russia’s aggressive international posturing have placed these two countries as rivals to the US for power in the Middle East. China and its growing energy consumption are relying more and more on Iraq as Chinese firms control more Iraqi oil. Russia, whose power in the Middle East in Soviet days was significant, has made something of a comeback by discarding any moral qualms and stridently supporting the Assad regime in Syria. Assad’s recent gains on the battlefield seem to portend the victory of might over right, and Russia stands to gain from this.

Turkey has watched nervously as US policy in the Middle East leaves the Turks in a difficult position. US dithering on Syria, in particular, has left Turkey with hundreds of thousands of refugees and a highly combustible situation on its longest common border. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a hawkish position towards the Syrian conflict early on, but a lack of US support for any military solution contributed to his backtracking towards less dramatic options.

At home, American citizens have watched as nefarious dictators and brutal violence crush the hopes of democracy and human rights. Pundits have been quick to criticize the Obama administration for either failing to act (in Syria) or supporting causes detrimental to American interests (the Maliki administration in Iraq). A wide consensus has emerged that decries the lack of any coherent US policy on the Middle East after 2011’s Arab uprisings, helping drive the larger issues being faced today.


Self-inflicted and external limitations

Regardless of any US policy towards the region, or lack thereof, it is important to recognize the limitations of American power. Some of these limitations are surely the result of American policies, even if they were undertaken with positive intentions. Yet many are also subject to the intricacies of the Middle East’s Byzantine political dynamics.

Iraq may be the most tempting starting point for any critic of recent US policy, given the massive investment in lives and money that America expended from the 2003 invasion onwards. Maliki and his feckless rule are largely to blame for Iraq’s current implosion and marginalized Sunni groups are quick to blame the Prime Minister for driving them to take drastic measures such as allying with IS militants. Of course, it was the US who oversaw the election that brought Maliki to power in 2006, the US which offered consistent support to him in spite of his divisive policies, and the US which failed to secure a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Maliki in order to maintain a small troop presence in Iraq beyond 2011.

At the same time, American policy is limited in terms of what it can do to control Maliki. US troops are no longer in Iraq, removing the most potent form of influence that America had. The SOFA agreement that would have extended this influence was rejected by the Iraqi government, so keeping troops in the country was simply unfeasible. In these circumstances, for any politician in Iraq to be seen as serving US interests would be political suicide, so few leaders would publicly bow to American demands. Maliki has been especially obstinate in his desire to cling to power. The US has been trying for weeks to broker a political solution to the political clash between Shia and Sunni groups, the ultimate goal being to replace Maliki with a more ameliorable candidate. But Maliki’s refusal to leave office, even if it means tearing the country apart, is a problem that could lie outside America’s power.

The rise of the IS is a conglomeration of these limitations. With no air force, Iraq is helpless to launch a quick strike against the militants, so using US air power seems to be the most logical option. Yet American officials are reluctant to do this without first guaranteeing that Maliki, the root of the problem, will step down. Launching a strike without such a guarantee provides a free pass for the problematic Prime Minister and reduces the odds of a much-needed political solution, which is the only way that Shia and Sunni parties can reconcile and neutralize domestic Iraqi support for the IS.

Syria represents a different set of issues. President Obama famously prevaricated over a military strike on Syria’s chemical weapon supplies, only to pull back at the last minute after a Russian-brokered settlement to destroy the weapons outside of the country. Still, it is unlikely that a military strike would have achieved much, since the Assad regime could easily have stashed chemical weapons elsewhere. Additionally, such a strike would have easily succumbed to domestic complaints of developing “mission creep” that could ensnare the US into yet another conflict in the Middle East, as well as not being strong enough to eradicate the chemical weapons or spur Assad’s downfall. America’s options in Syria, as former diplomat Robert Ford puts it, are all bad. The fear that today’s moderate rebels could be tomorrow’s anti-American jihadists deters US aid for the one side that would be worth supporting. How this complicated conflict ends up is largely out of US control. Domestic limitations on the use of US force and aid, tied with limitations on the ground in Syria, restrict how much influence America can actually have.

The US is perhaps most constricted when it comes to Israel and Palestine. Obama did not inspire confidence among Israelis early in his administration and Kerry did walk away from the recent peace talks. However, domestic politics in Israel have played a much larger role and the US is severely restricted in what it can do to change this. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently backed the hardline, pro-settler movement in his country, not least because it represents a powerful part of his parliamentary coalition. US demands for reducing or even simply stopping settlements have been rebuffed by Netanyahu time and again. Without this, no peace talks will succeed. For their part, the Palestinians remain politically fractured, even after a reconciliation between Hamas and the more secular Fatah party, which governs the West Bank. Extremist factions in both Israel and Palestine are bent on winning a zero-sum game, leading to a continuous cycle of violence that offers no real solution. For the US to try and broker an agreement in this environment would be futile, as recent experience shows.

It is among traditional Arab allies that America’s self-made limitations are more to blame. The aforementioned support for Mubarak’s departure in Egypt and the lack of action on Syria have communicated an inconsistency on behalf of US policy to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE. If anything, American officials have failed to keep these partners in the loop on policy discussions, leaving them in the dark when decisions are finally made. This does not mean that the US is solely responsible for events in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain politically excludes its Shia majority at its own peril; as a close partner, America is undoubtedly advising the Bahraini government of this fact, although how willing it is to listen to this advice is another question.

In terms of other foreign powers operating in the region, China and Russia are not in as strong of a position as it might seem. China’s interests concerning energy, leaving the country bereft of much other political or military influence. Russia may be throwing its weight around with aplomb but its role is limited to that of a spoiler. Russian arms supplies are not the game-changer in Syria – Iran plays more of that role – while Russia’s support for Assad has generated a large amount of distrust on behalf of millions of people in the region, limiting its operating capacity outside of Syria.


Stuck in the Middle East with you

If the Middle East has been a famously unstable region in the past several decades, then the post-2011 environment has been especially so. The US has tried to remove itself from a part of the world that has shown little appetite for US involvement and holds many limitations to what any US involvement could be. The resulting American policy in the Middle East has been a mixed bag, with many notable failures. However, this is as much the result of regional governments failing to provide responsible leadership as the US choosing unwise tactics.

Still, the US can ill afford to move away from a region where conflicts have global implications. To borrow Trotsky’s advice, the US may not be interested in conflict in the Middle East, but conflict in the Middle East is interested in the US. How American policy contends with such a troublesome part of the world is an issue that will continue to hound US leaders for years to come, much as it has for the past several decades.

About Cenk Sidar

Managing Director, Sidar Global Agency