U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona chat with members of the Saudi Royal Family
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona chat with members of the Saudi Royal Family
Last updated: April 27, 2015
US-Middle East dynamic: Why Fareed Zakaria is wrong

"It’s time for the U.S. to do something right in the Middle East."

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In his latest op-ed in the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria made some critically flawed assumptions regarding the U.S. - Middle East dynamic; including offering misguided suggestions as to a potential way forward for US foreign policy in a region seemingly locked in perpetual struggles for stability. Respected for his informed world view and practical approach to domestic issues, Fareed missed the mark on this. While it may be that his position is shared by many within policy circles, it is entirely inaccurate and does not encapsulate current and historical realities that offer lessons in foreign policy management.
 

Middle East: A U.S.-Engineered Quagmire

Fareed opined that, “…the Middle East is a crisis-prone region of dwindling importance to the U.S. national interest.” He is right, but also wrong. The Middle East is single-handedly the world’s most conflict-prone region, and in all likelihood will continue on this path for the next decade. Its economic and political landscape, however, and the salient implications it presents for the world, much less the United States, ensures that the region’s significance in international affairs remains strong. Undeniably, the U.S. has played a major role in the region’s developments, usually preferring to maintain the status quo over more politically inclusive initiatives on a local scale. By virtue of its political and military interventions, and via use of its covert operations and sanctions regime, the U.S. has become an inextricable variable in an equation that has proven more disastrous than beneficial to the region’s inhabitants for the past few decades. Simply because “…it is up to its neck in the Middle East morass” cannot be perceived as an intelligent justification for a U.S. withdrawal at this point as offered by Mr. Zakaria.

Many within the corridors of American power seem all too eager to ignore or conveniently forget the manner in which they participated in pushing the region to this point, birthing pangs and all. This geopolitical quagmire has the fingerprints of the United States all over it.

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* Beginning with the Truman administration’s purely political decision to recognize and support Israel’s statehood in 1948, despite the fact that virtually all of his advisors and diplomats stationed in the Middle East, including Secretary of State George Marshall, had strongly advised him not to, President Truman in a way set the stage for a series of disastrous policy decisions that continue to reverberate across the region.

* U.S. support for the Shah of Iran leading to the CIA-engineered coup in 1953 that deposed the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, demonstrated that the U.S. was more concerned with maintaining status quos that were largely brutal on indigenous populations throughout the region than securing for them similar liberties and socioeconomic conditions it espoused to defend and export.

* The devastating decade-long Iraq-Iran War cost both countries dearly in blood and treasure; not to mention that prior to the conflict, the U.S. had asked Israel to ship billions of dollars of American weaponry and spare parts to Iran.

* Shortly after the war commenced, Reagan decided to bolster Saddam’s military with arms, technology and intelligence, and knew about and looked the other way as Saddam gassed Iranians on several occasions.

* The Iran sanctions regime, a policy decision that has undeniably pushed Iran to the position it is in today, has been a fundamental reason why they have gone to painstaking lengths to acquire nuclear technology and the know-how in an effort to be self-reliant and resolve critical national challenges amidst a tightening of sanctions and dwindling international economic and trade opportunities. U.S. actions and influence in the region, including surrounding Iran with more than 45 strategically positioned bases, directly undermined their national security and was perceived as a threat, leading them to counter by supporting proxy groups like Hezbullah, create and fund Shia militias in Iraq and Syria, and recently, to seize an opportunity to influence the Houthi coup of a U.S./Saudi backed government in Yemen. These events did not happen in a vacuum.

* The second, illegal and subsequently tragic invasion of Iraq by then President George W. Bush in pursuit of WMDs, known by the CIA and many experts worth their salt, including the Bush White House, to have never existed, resulted in the clusterfrack that is Iraq today. Iraq now also serves as a crossing point into Syria for sectarian fighters looking for a change in the fighting scenery.

* While the Obama administration’s initial hesitation to recognize an unprecedented popular uprising against then President Mubarak until it was politically safe to do so seems largely forgotten, failing to acknowledge the removal of a first ever democratically elected President, Mohammad Morsi, as a military coup  still lingers in the minds of Egyptians and Arab street in general; giving additional currency to the popular notion that the U.S. cares more for the status quo than for democracy for the Arabs.

* The Syrian Civil War, now in its fourth year and the region’s largest and most devastating humanitarian crisis in modern history, could have been mitigated early on had the Obama administration acted upon its own red line criteria, heeded calls to impose a “no-fly zone” and established safe corridors to permit displaced individuals to flee the mostly sectarian violence that has gripped the never-to-be-same-again historically important Arab nation.      

You Break It, You Own It

These are but a few of the major events that have highlighted fundamental failures of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and ISIS are not even mentioned yet. Containment and sustaining the status quo in the Middle East has been the stubborn norm for successive U.S. administrations. It points to an undeniable reality for many outside the United States: that outside the homeland, Americans cannot be trusted to uphold principles they consider representative of fair and inclusive government with unobstructed access to justice and equality for all.

Fareed’s take on the current situation - “Let the Iraqis and Saudis feud, let Yemen continue in its five-decade-long civil war, let Iran waste resources in Syria.” -  is endemic of a “we tried” and now let’s “cut and run” mentality within the corridors of American power. It has been Washington’s signature prescription for the last two decades. To pivot away from the Middle East, having been a major factor for the failures in the region, and instead focus on deterring rather than working with China, demonstrates a myopic vision of world affairs to say the least. Advocates of this not-so-strategic redirection seem to have borrowed heavily from the same policy script of deterrence, containment and manipulation, interjected with cautious cooperation used in the Middle East.  It seems, therefore, that Americans are either unable or unwilling to fix the problems created by uninformed strategies and misguided tactics. It’s time for the U.S. to do something right in the Middle East.  

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A Familiar Way Forward

Fareed is wrong to suggest the U.S. pivot away from the region. Equally misleading is to think its relative importance to the American national interest is dwindling. The fact of the matter is American influence in the region has been declining in the past few years for valid and verifiable reasons. Not in the least the manner in which the U.S. hypocritically ignores Arabs’ aspirations for the same civil liberties and opportunities enjoyed in the homeland out of fear of angering ruling regimes. This reality has never been lost on the Arabs.

The U.S. must look to its founding ideals for inspiration in order to put forth a viable foreign policy strategy. Not entirely unique to Americans, many of the ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence are universally accepted and pursued by all societies, regardless of the types of governments they have respectively. It must finally retire for good the “pillars” strategy, and not simply repackage it to fit current realities. This decades-old plan has been a key destabilizing factor leading the region from one crisis to the next.

"Fareed is wrong to suggest the U.S. pivot away from the region"

The U.S. needs a fair and balanced approach for the Middle East, one that carefully aligns American values with indigenous principles. It must first understand what it wants from the region, and if what it wants is achievable given the local and regional contexts at play, and at what cost. Above all, the U.S. must marry its wants with the needs of local societies. Americans can no longer afford to ignore the masses of the Arab Spring, offering lip service and a patronizing attitude, while conducting business as usual with repressive and sometimes brutal regimes.

U.S. decision makers need an adjustment in expectations and a comprehensive understanding of the realities on the ground. This is an inextricable element of sound foreign policy missing from an American campaign that has preferred to sustain the status quo and then mitigate the inevitable fallout from it. It needs fresh perspectives underpinned by a genuine pursuit of the common interests that bind humanity; and it cannot happen with the existing crop of individuals whom have made the U.S. Congress their home for decades. It needs an American public with the courage to confront itself and the strength to aggressively engage hawkish and destructive elements deeply embedded within its society.  A society that desperately needs to acknowledge that “exceptionalism” lies not in adhering to belief or a particular faith, but in action that compels granting equal freedoms and justice for all peoples of the world.

The United States must endeavor to forge stronger ties built upon mutual interests with the people of the Middle East, rather than seek to impose its will, manipulate governments and exclude others from participating in the development of the region. It must recognize that long term strategy is not a four to eight year affair in tune with political campaigns. But rather a generational development sustained by mutually beneficial partnerships; and the political will to accept lessons learned from past mistakes.

For the U.S. to pivot away from the Middle East, where it owns a significant portion of the region’s troubles, would have severe implication for the future and would serve to further erode whatever remaining influence it has in the region. A strong pivot to China as Fareed envisions, would require a U.S. emerging from the Middle East with a reclaimed reputation, something it cannot boast of having at this point or in the near future.  

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