After all the failure, they still look at our wars in the Middle East as some kind of golden age…
I wish to call attention to an instructive essay about U.S. policy in the Middle East—instructive in the sense that it reveals the utterly impoverished nature of establishment thinking on this subject.
The title of the essay is “The US Has One Last Chance to Halt Its Withdrawal from the Middle East.” The author is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, who shall remain nameless since I bear him no ill will. Let us refer to him simply as X, in honor of George Kennan, author of a famous 1947 essay offering counsel on how to deal with the Soviet Union. Kennan published that essay under the pseudonym X. And so shall I refer to the author of “One Last Chance.”
Kennan’s purpose was to sound the alarm regarding the Soviet threat and to propose what came to be called the strategy of Containment. The purpose of our present-day Mr. X is to sound the alarm about the United States lowering its profile in the Middle East.
To avert that prospect, he proposes what can only be termed a strategy of staying-the-course-while-ignoring-the-facts.
X concedes that throughout the region, things have not gone especially well for the United States over the last couple of decades. He rightly notes that Americans are “still reeling from costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continuing chaos in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.” He ever so briefly acknowledges that this is “a region where even pro-American governments are often undemocratic and can be disdainful of fundamental human rights” and “where billions of dollars are spent that would be better used at home.”
Of course, to say that the U.S. has expended billions in the Middle East is the equivalent of saying that my wife and I paid thousands for the home we purchased last year. While nominally correct, the statement is wildly misleading. X has an aversion to actual numbers. He prefers tidy generalizations to specifics.
Yet the essence of X’s argument boils down to this: setting aside these recent errors of judgment by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, U.S. policy in the region has actually been a smashing success. From the end of World War II until ever-so-recently, Washington pursued a course in the Middle East that was reasoned, careful, and eminently wise. “This bipartisan tradition of American leadership worked,” X asserts. While it might have been “imperfect, time-consuming and often unsatisfying,” the nation’s “vital interests in the region remained protected. The U.S. presence was sized to align with those interests, and we were not overextended.” X approvingly calls this a Pax Americana in the Middle East.
When one encounters a claim of an American-constructed Pax, the first rule is to look for what the writer leaves out. In this case, among the incidents and developments that our X totally ignores are these: treating Saudi Arabia as a de facto protectorate; CIA involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh regime; the pro-Israel tilt in U.S. policy dating from the 1960s, to include turning a blind eye to Israel acquiring a nuclear arsenal; the Iranian Revolution; various Arab-Israeli wars; oil “shocks” during the 1970s; the Beirut debacle of 1983; the U.S. role in destabilizing (and then abandoning) Afghanistan; Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War; the rise of al-Qaeda; and the events of 9/11.
Admit these into the conversation and the question you confront is this one: what Pax? In truth, Pax Americana no more describes the postwar Middle East than the phrase “Long Peace” describes the Cold War. The purpose of such formulations is to preclude actual thinking, attaching labels to preempt analysis.
“It took many decades to build a Pax Americana in the Middle East,” X writes.
Not true: it took only a handful of hours—the time he invested in writing his essay. The Pax Americana is a figment of X’s imagination.
Yet once having conjured up his fictive Pax, X easily convinces himself that it can exist again, if only the next president—he writes off Trump as a total loss—will act to “reestablish American leadership in the Middle East, restore deterrence with our adversaries, and begin renewing trust with our partners and allies.” But what does “leadership” actually mean in this context? What will it entail? What will it cost? Once again, when it comes to specifics, X is essentially silent, offering only this:
“The next commander in chief will require political fortitude to lead the United States back to its traditional role in the region, demonstrating what in previous generations was deemed a profile in courage.”
That and four bucks will get you a latte.
All of that said, I submit that X has written something worthy of reflection. Here on full display is a model of establishment thinking—heavy on clichés, light on substance, and short of memory.
Let me briefly sketch out an alternative narrative that more accurately captures our present predicament.
Since the end of World War II, successive administrations have sought to devise a formula for assuring American consumers access to Persian Gulf oil while also satisfying pressing domestic political interests. Over a period of decades, that effort succeeded chiefly in giving birth to new problems. Out of these multiplying difficulties came the 9/11 attacks and their immediate sequel, a “war on terrorism” meant to settle matters once and for all.
To state the matter bluntly, 9/11 was an expression of chickens coming home to roost, a massive strategic failure that the ensuing military campaigns beginning in 2001 and continuing to the present moment have affirmed. Given the dimensions of that failure, the likelihood of resuscitating X’s illusory Pax is essentially zero.
There is no going back to an imagined Golden Age of American statecraft in the Middle East. The imperative is to go forward, which requires acknowledging how wrongheaded U.S. policy in region has been ever since FDR had his famous tete-a-tete with King Ibn Saud and Harry Truman rushed to recognize the newborn State of Israel.