The Fractured Power
How to Overcome Tribalism
Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes (“America’s Middle East Purgatory,” January/February 2019) argue that because the Middle East matters less to the United States than it did 20 years ago, the region should receive less attention and fewer resources. “Heavy U.S. involvement in the Middle East over the past two decades has been painful and ugly,” they conclude. “But it is the devil we know,” they continue, “and so U.S. policymakers have grown accustomed to the costs associated with it. Pulling back, however, is the devil we don’t know, and so everyone instinctively resists this position.”
In fact, pulling back is a devil we know all too well. As Karlin and Wittes acknowledge, U.S. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, “seem to share the view that the United States is too involved in the region and should devote fewer resources and less time to it.”
Washington’s declining enthusiasm for the Middle East is reflected most clearly in the shrinking U.S. troop presence there. Today, there are only 35,000 American soldiers in the entire region—a fraction of the approximately 500,000 that U.S. President George H. W. Bush sent to the Gulf in 1991 or the nearly 285,000 that U.S. President George W. Bush sent to the Middle East in 2003. The size of the troop presence is inversely proportional to the political turmoil it is triggering. Trump’s decision to withdraw about 2,000 troops from Syria reportedly led U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign from his position, the first resignation on principle by a senior member of the cabinet in 40 years. And unlike the exponentially larger numbers of troops deployed for the two wars against Iraq, the U.S. troops in the region today are charged with defeating a terrorist group that has actually killed U.S. citizens.
Indeed, the United States is already well into executing the pullback that Karlin and Wittes fear American leaders will resist. This should be cause for concern, because the authors are wrong about something else, too: that the Middle East matters so much less than it once did that the United States can be indifferent about what happens there. In fact, contrary to what Karlin and Wittes claim, the potential for state-on-state conflict in the Middle East is higher today than at any point in the last two decades. Israel’s attacks against the Iranian forward presence in Syria, for example, are ominous signs of a potential war between Israel and Iran. And in the event of a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, if Hezbollah inflicted mass casualties on Israel, there is a good chance that Israel would extend its retaliation beyond Lebanon to the terrorist group’s masters in Tehran. Karlin and Wittes also argue that because the United States is now the world’s top oil producer, energy security has decreased as a driver of U.S. policy. But Washington still has an interest in a stable global oil market, given its allies’ reliance on Gulf energy, and in the security of the energy-producing countries.
Either Washington can work with local partners to mitigate problems before they leave the Middle East, or it can try to wall itself off from these problems.
Moreover, the argument that the United States should shift some of the resources it currently expends in the Middle East toward Asia fails to account for the fact that the Middle East has always been a theater for great-power competition. It would be naive to think that Washington can insist that China and Russia compete with the United States only where it wants (in Asia and Europe) and to believe that these countries will not try to fill the vacuum that a U.S. departure from the Middle East would create—especially when Russia has already reemerged as a power broker in the heart of the region for the first time in 50 years. Nor can one assume that the United States would be able to easily reestablish its dominance in the region once it pulled out. Regaining physical access to abandoned ports, bases, and airfields would be difficult; regaining the trust and confidence of Washington’s forsaken partners, even more so.
But the biggest mistake Karlin and Wittes make is that they ignore the Middle East’s tendency to export insecurity. They suggest that Washington should treat the Middle East with the same insouciance it displayed toward Africa during the Cold War: a policy they say may have had terrible consequences for Africans but was tolerable for U.S. interests. But Africa never excelled in exporting its insecurity the way the Middle East does. From jihadists flying airplanes into American buildings and decapitating American prisoners to refugees streaming across the borders of the United States’ European allies, the Middle East has been a persistent source of threats to vital U.S. interests. Such insecurity can be met with only one of two responses: either Washington can work with local partners to mitigate problems before they leave the Middle East, or it can try to wall itself off from these problems. I vote for trying to do the former, using many of the tools that Karlin and Wittes reject as “the Goldilocks approach,” such as a balanced mix of military engagement and vigorous diplomacy.
A close inspection of their argument reveals that Karlin and Wittes seem to want it that way, too. Look at their long list of what still matters in the region—those interests for which the United States should be willing to continue investing blood and treasure. It includes “sustaining freedom of navigation” through the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, and the Suez Canal; fighting terrorism and preventing new threats from emerging; limiting the spread of the Middle East’s problems to other regions; and countering Iran’s “bad behavior.” Flesh out what it would take to achieve those objectives—the attention from the U.S. administration, the military deployments, the diplomatic effort—and one is left with a rather substantial agenda. And that’s before accounting for the United States’ heavy commitments to Israel, which the authors largely omit from their analysis.
“The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries,” Obama once said. In this mangled response to a question about Egypt’s and Israel’s human rights records, the president inadvertently captured the frustration he and many other American leaders have felt toward the region. By urging the United States to leave its Middle East purgatory, Karlin and Wittes have elevated that misspoken line to policy prescription. But in reality, the Middle East is just another part of the world where the United States has flawed allies, vicious adversaries, and enduring interests. It will not be able to escape from that reality anytime soon, as appealing as that prospect may be.
ROBERT SATLOFF is Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Ian S. Lustick
Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes argue that the United States’ tendency to overcommit to Middle Eastern partners has created “a moral hazard,” prompting them “to act in risky and aggressive ways” while feeling “safe in the knowledge that the United States is invested in the stability of their regimes.” As evidence of their claim that much of the chaos in the Middle East can be traced to this effect, Karlin and Wittes cite the perverse incentives that caused leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to adopt destabilizing policies toward Libya, Qatar, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories. But they neglect to mention the best example of this dynamic: Israel.
The economic and military aid the United States has provided to Israel, and the political and diplomatic protections it affords that country, have, by any measure, far exceeded anything it has given to the Arab states mentioned in the article. The United States has delivered more than $134 billion in direct economic and military aid to Israel, and it recently pledged another $38 billion to be delivered over the next decade—immense sums, especially considering Israel’s relatively small population and high standard of living. And since 1967, the United States has vetoed 41 UN Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel (accounting for 77 percent of all its vetoes during that period).
These policies have emboldened Israeli governments to engage in undesirable behavior in just the way Karlin and Wittes describe Arab states acting in response to overly generous, no-strings-attached support from the United States. The consequences of the cocoon of immunity that successive U.S. administrations have spun around Israeli governments include Israel’s defiant nuclear posture, its ruthless and violent policies toward the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, its refusal to negotiate constructively with the Palestinians or respond to the decades-old Arab peace initiative, its support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and its efforts to drag the United States into a war with Iran. What is more fundamental, by reducing the incentives for restraint, Washington’s virtually unconditional support has undermined moderate Israeli politicians and empowered belligerent ones. Why vote for moderates when their willingness to compromise never seems to be required, and when their predictions of a confrontation between the United States and Israel never come true?
By omitting Israel from their analysis (with the exception of one sentence wisely advising against further diplomatic efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), Karlin and Wittes ignore the most consequential alliance the United States has in the Middle East. Concern about the domestic political sensitivity of the question of U.S.-Israeli relations is precisely what explains why U.S. support for Israel has been so free of conditions and mechanisms of accountability. It is also the reason the authors’ advice—that U.S. Middle East policy be determined by core U.S. interests instead of the whims of overconfident Middle Eastern leaders—is even more important when applied to Israel. Bellicose Arab allies embroil Washington in needless quarrels abroad, but coddled and overconfident Israeli leaders also whipsaw U.S. presidents at home and thereby hugely complicate the pursuit of U.S. interests.
The problems posed by unconditional U.S. support for Israel are glaringly apparent when it comes to Iran. Karlin and Wittes advise the U.S. government to abandon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announced policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran in favor of returning to the nuclear deal. Such advice treats the issue as if it could be addressed independent of the pressure that Israel, and the Israel lobby, put on U.S. politicians and policymakers to prevent the agreement, scuttle it after it was signed, and then adopt an all-out strategy of regime change against Iran—including military action—a call that Israeli leaders have been making regularly for the last 15 years. Indeed, a major obstacle to dealing comprehensively with Iran’s nuclear threat is that doing so would ultimately mean transforming the Middle East into a nuclear-weapons-free zone, a proposal that Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states have already made. But this would require Israel to acknowledge and dismantle its large nuclear arsenal, something the United States has refused to advocate.
According to Karlin and Wittes, curbing Iran’s “bad behavior” remains a priority for the United States. They recommend doing so in coordination with regional allies. Although they note the difficulties that aggressive Saudi policies toward Qatar pose for an effective alliance in the Gulf against Iran, they ignore the need to distinguish U.S. interests from Israeli policies and actions in Syria, Lebanon, and the Golan Heights. The United States is so closely associated with Israel that no tough but restrained policy toward Iran will be sustainable so long as Israel is launching hundreds of air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, sparring with Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, and taking every opportunity it can to drive Washington to undertake regime change in Tehran.
The authors also contend that combating terrorism remains a priority, but here again the relationship with Israel gets in the way: nothing makes it easier for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) or al Qaeda to recruit terrorists than U.S. support for a state that blockades the Gaza Strip, shoots and gases Palestinian protesters, and takes Arab land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to construct settlements. Anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic appeals are prominent in the propaganda of these groups not because their leaders necessarily care about the issue but because they know that many of the people they are trying to recruit do.
Karlin and Wittes refer in passing to “recalcitrant domestic politics” in Israel (and among the Palestinians) to advocate an end to U.S. efforts to rescue “the fairy-dusted prospect” of successful peace negotiations. I agree. Improving Israeli-Palestinian relations is not about establishing a separate state in some of the territory Israel rules—the two-state solution. It is—as Karlin and Wittes say is true for all U.S. partners in the Middle East—about building regimes that are “transparent, responsive, accountable, and participatory.”
In Israel, that will be achieved not by negotiating an impossible separation of Jews and Palestinians but by democratizing the state that dominates, even if it does not directly govern, all who live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Working to improve this one-state reality will require that the United States shift its focus, for example, from where Israel constructs housing to whether that housing is available to all who need it, whether Jewish or Arab. The United States often invokes democratic values to justify its special relationship with Israel, but it rarely applies them. Changing that would mean insisting that all who live under Israel’s power enjoy civil and political rights and equal protection under the same laws.
Neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor his successor is likely to be able to overcome the United States’ own recalcitrant domestic politics when it comes to Israel. But the sound advice offered by Karlin and Wittes—to end extravagant and open-ended commitments to allies in the Middle East in order to reduce reckless behavior and U.S. exposure to its consequences—will never be followed if U.S. profligacy toward Israel is treated as unmentionable.
IAN S. LUSTICK is Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the forthcoming book Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality.
Our article outlined the growing and profound opportunity costs of the United States’ decision to continue wallowing in purgatory in the Middle East and sketched a sustainable path forward for U.S. policy. We wish to add three points in response to Robert Satloff and Ian Lustick.
First, there is a wide space between the overwhelming resources and attention the United States has devoted to the Middle East over the past two decades and what Satloff decries as being “indifferent.” As we argued, continued U.S. involvement is crucial for protecting U.S. national security, and ignoring the region is a recipe for disaster. But the Middle East does matter less to U.S. national security than China and Russia, great-power competitors whose visions of international order directly collide with that of the United States and whose militaries present a serious challenge to American power. If the United States cannot credibly compete with China and Russia to defend regional security and order in Asia and Europe, respectively, then its ability to contest their influence in the Middle East will not make up for that failure.
The region’s disorder limits how much the United States can shape its trajectory, no matter how much it invests.
Matching the United States’ ambitions in the Middle East to its interests and capabilities cannot be done wholesale. Rather, it requires a clear-eyed assessment of what the region’s turmoil, the recalcitrance of the United States’ partners, and the United States’ own priorities enable it to do, and what they do not. Satloff invokes the half million U.S. troops President George H. W. Bush sent to fight the Persian Gulf War and the more than a quarter million that President George W. Bush sent to wage the Iraq war, but those anomalies are unhelpful in deciding which U.S. military posture will be sustainable or effective in responding to today’s and tomorrow’s threats. And contrary to what Satloff writes, Secretary of Defense James Mattis did not resign over President Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria. As his resignation letter made clear, he left because of the president’s wanton disregard for U.S. allies and partners—evident in his decision to leave Syria, which blind-sided the European allies fighting there alongside the United States.
Second, the region’s disorder limits how much the United States can shape its trajectory, no matter how much it invests. Both friendly and adversarial governments in the Middle East are preoccupied with regional rivalries and what they view as existential challenges from their enemies. Satloff writes that the potential for state-on-state conflict is at its highest in decades, but tensions were certainly higher in the period between 2007 and 2012, when Israel and the United States considered using military force to delay Iran from developing nuclear weapons. We agree with Satloff that the region’s ability to “export insecurity” is a genuine concern. Managing that threat, however, does not require an unlimited commitment. With a proper staff and a functioning policy process, the U.S. government has proved capable, and will again be so, of resolving conflicts in the region with far less cost and effort than it has spent fighting them in recent years. The House of Representatives’ recent vote to force Trump to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen demonstrates that taking a harder line with U.S. partners in the region, especially in the Gulf, can advance, rather than undermine, U.S. interests. By establishing the limits of U.S. support, this approach can do more than unbounded commitments to deter destabilizing or escalatory behavior and tamp down regional conflicts. And although the current moment offers few opportunities for U.S.-led democracy-promotion efforts to gain traction with governments in the region, Washington can and should continue to advocate human rights, support civil society, and articulate to rulers its view that accountable governance, rather than repression, is the key to lasting stability.
Finally, all of the United States’ major relationships in the Middle East deserve a keen eye. But we vehemently disagree with Lustick’s argument that Israel is the most destabilizing and least helpful of the United States’ partners. When polls show that three-quarters of Americans across the political spectrum see Israel as a strategic asset, and defense cooperation has yielded benefits such as qualitative leaps in missile defense, one does not need the nefarious influence of a moneyed “Israel lobby” to account for the depth and breadth of the U.S.-Israeli partnership.
That is not to say that Israel’s actions do not deserve scrutiny from Washington. Like other U.S. partners, Israel looks at regional turmoil and sees not only dire threats but also opportunities for expanded influence and economic gain; like others, it seeks to enlist greater U.S. support on its side of regional arguments and is unlikely to subordinate its own preferences to those of Washington when making choices about what it views as existential threats. As it pursues Chinese infrastructure investment and sells weapons to Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam or surveillance technology to repressive Gulf governments, Israel should be mindful of U.S. interests and concerns.
It is Washington’s job to be active and forthright about protecting those interests, and it has proved eminently capable of doing so. From President Ronald Reagan selling Airborne Warning and Control Systems to Saudi Arabia in 1982, to the various types of U.S. civilian support for Israel that Congress has legislated may not be used outside the June 1967 borders, to Barack Obama negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and Congress allowing it to stand, the United States’ elected leaders have repeatedly advanced policies that are contrary to Israeli preferences. Overall, the United States’ partnership with Israel stands out as more mutually beneficial and more strongly rooted in public and political support than any of the others it has in the region.
The Middle East is not, as Satloff writes, “just another part of the world where the United States has flawed allies, vicious adversaries, and enduring interests.” Washington can do better than choosing between abandoning its interests there and making a boundless commitment to reordering the region on behalf of partners whose goals and means do not fully align with its own.