Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
The war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the United States’ entanglement in Middle Eastern wars, and since assuming office, he has not changed his tune. Iran has no interest in a wide-ranging conflict that it knows it could not win. Israel is satisfied with calibrated operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza but fears a larger confrontation that could expose it to thousands of rockets. Saudi Arabia is determined to push back against Iran, but without confronting it militarily. Yet the conditions for an all-out war in the Middle East are riper than at any time in recent memory.
A conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities: it could theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. If Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies, an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle East could trigger a regionwide chain reaction. Because any development anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.
When it comes to the Middle East, Tip O’Neill, the storied Democratic politician, had it backward: all politics—especially local politics—is international. In Yemen, a war pitting the Houthis, until not long ago a relatively unexceptional rebel group, against a debilitated central government in the region’s poorest nation, one whose prior internal conflicts barely caught the world’s notice, has become a focal point for the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. It has also become a possible trigger for deeper U.S. military involvement. The Syrian regime’s repression of a popular uprising, far more brutal than prior crackdowns but hardly the first in the region’s or even Syria’s modern history, morphed into an international confrontation drawing in a dozen countries. It has resulted in the largest number of Russians ever killed by the United States and has thrust both Russia and Turkey and Iran and Israel to the brink of war. Internal strife in Libya sucked in not just Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but also Russia and the United States.
There is a principal explanation for such risks. The Middle East has become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most integrated. That combination—along with weak state structures, powerful nonstate actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously—also makes the Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement. Ultimately, the question is not chiefly whether the United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.
The story of the contemporary Middle East is one of a succession of rifts, each new one sitting atop its precursors, some taking momentary precedence over others, none ever truly or fully resolved. Today, the three most important rifts—between Israel and its foes, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between competing Sunni blocs—intersect in dangerous and potentially explosive ways.
Israel’s current adversaries are chiefly represented by the so-called axis of resistance: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and, although presently otherwise occupied, Syria. The struggle is playing out in the traditional arenas of the West Bank and Gaza but also in Syria, where Israel routinely strikes Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated groups; in cyberspace; in Lebanon, where Israel faces the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah; and even in Iraq, where Israel has reportedly begun to target Iranian allies. The absence of most Arab states from this frontline makes it less prominent but no less dangerous.
For those Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been nudged to the sidelines by the two other battles. Saudi Arabia prioritizes its rivalry with Iran. Both countries exploit the Shiite-Sunni rift to mobilize their respective constituencies but are in reality moved by power politics, a tug of war for regional influence unfolding in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the Gulf states.
Finally, there is the Sunni-Sunni rift, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE vying with Qatar and Turkey. As Hussein Agha and I wrote in The New Yorker in March, this is the more momentous, if least covered, of the divides, with both supremacy over the Sunni world and the role of political Islam at stake. Whether in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, or as far afield as Sudan, this competition will largely define the region’s future.
Together with the region’s polarization is a lack of effective communication, which makes things ever more perilous. There is no meaningful channel between Iran and Israel, no official one between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and little real diplomacy beyond rhetorical jousting between the rival Sunni blocs.
When it comes to the Middle East, Tip O’Neill had it backward: all politics is international.
With these fault lines intersecting in complex ways, various groupings at times join forces and at other times compete. When it came to seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were on the same side as Qatar and Turkey, backing Syrian rebels—albeit different ones, reflecting their divergent views on the Islamists’ proper role. But those states took opposite stances on Egypt, with Doha and Ankara investing heavily to shore up a Muslim Brotherhood–led government that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were trying to help bring down (the government fell in 2013, to be replaced by the authoritarian rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi). Qatar and Turkey fear Iran but fear Saudi Arabia even more. Hamas stands with Syria in opposition to Israel but stood with the Syrian opposition and other Islamists against Assad. The geometry of the Middle East’s internal schisms may fluctuate, yet one struggles to think of another region whose dynamics are as thoroughly defined by a discrete number of identifiable and all-encompassing fault lines.
One also struggles to think of a region that is as integrated, which is the second source of its precarious status. This may strike many as odd. Economically, it ranks among the least integrated areas of the world; institutionally, the Arab League is less coherent than the European Union, less effective than the African Union, and more dysfunctional than the Organization of American States. Nor is there any regional entity to which Arab countries and the three most active non-Arab players (Iran, Israel, and Turkey) belong.
Yet in so many other ways, the Middle East functions as a unified space. Ideologies and movements spread across borders: in times past, Arabism and Nasserism; today, political Islam and jihadism. The Muslim Brotherhood has active branches in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Turkey, the Gulf states, and North Africa. Jihadi movements such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or ISIS, espouse a transnational agenda that rejects the nation-state and national boundaries altogether. Iran’s Shiite coreligionists are present in varying numbers in the Levant and the Gulf, often organized as armed militias that look to Tehran for inspiration or support. Saudi Arabia has sought to export Wahhabism, a puritanical strain of Islam, and funds politicians and movements across the region. Media outlets backed by one side or another of the Sunni-Sunni rift—Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya—have regional reach. The Palestinian cause, damaged as it may now seem, still resonates across the region and can mobilize its citizens in a way that arguably has no equivalent worldwide. Even subnational movements, such as Kurdish nationalism, which spreads across four countries, promote transnational objectives.
Accordingly, local struggles quickly take on regional significance—and thus attract weapons, money, and political support from the outside. The Houthis may view their fight as being primarily about Yemen, Hezbollah may be focused on power and politics in Lebanon, Hamas may be a Palestinian movement advancing a Palestinian cause, and Syria’s various opposition groups may be pursuing national goals. But in a region that is both polarized and integrated, those local drivers inevitably become subsumed by larger forces.
The fate of the Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 illustrates the dynamic well, with Tunisia, where it all began, being the lone exception. The toppling of the regime there happened too swiftly, too unexpectedly, and in a country that was too much on the margins of regional politics for other states to react in time. But they soon found their bearings. Every subsequent rebellion almost instantaneously became a regional and then international affair. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fortunes and the future of political Islam were at stake, and so Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE dove in. The same was true in Libya, where Egypt, once Sisi had prevailed and the Brotherhood had been pushed out, joined the fray. Likewise for Syria, where the civil war drew in all three regional battles: Israel’s confrontation with the “axis of resistance,” the Iranian-Saudi struggle, and the intra-Sunni competition. A similar scenario has played out in Yemen, too.
Along with the Middle East’s polarization and integration, its dysfunctional state structures present another risk factor. Some states are more akin to nonstate actors: the central governments in Libya, Syria, and Yemen lack control over large swaths of their territories and populations. Conversely, several nonstate actors operate as virtual states, including Hamas, the Houthis, the Kurds, and the Islamic State before it was toppled. And these nonstate actors often must contend with nonstate spoilers of their own: in Gaza, Hamas vies with jihadi groups that sometimes behave in ways that undermine its rule or contradict its goals. Even in more functional states, it is not always clear where the ultimate policymaking authority lies. Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, engage in activities that their titular sovereigns don’t control, let alone condone.
Weak states cohabiting with powerful nonstate actors creates the ideal circumstances for external interference. It’s a two-way street—foreign states exploit armed groups to advance their interests, and armed groups turn to foreign states to promote their own causes—that is all too open to misinterpretation. Iran almost certainly helps the Houthis and Iraqi Shiite militias, but does it control them? The People’s Protection Units, a movement of Kurdish fighters in Syria, are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, but do they follow its command?
The fact that nonstate actors operate as both proxies and independent players makes it hard to establish accountability for violence or deter it in the first place. Iran might wrongly assume that it will not be held responsible for a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack on Israel, or an Iraqi Shiite militia strike on a U.S. target. Saudi Arabia might misguidedly blame Iran for every Houthi attack, just as Iran might blame Saudi Arabia for any violent incident on its soil perpetrated by internal dissident groups. The United States might be convinced that every Shiite militia is an Iranian proxy doing Tehran’s bidding. Israel might deem Hamas accountable for every attack emanating from Gaza, Iran for every attack emanating from Syria, the Lebanese state for every attack launched by Hezbollah. In each of these instances, the price of misattribution could be high.
This is no mere thought exercise: After the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, the Houthis immediately claimed responsibility, possibly in the hope of enhancing their stature. Iran, likely seeking to avoid U.S. retaliation, denied any involvement. Who conducted the operation and who—if anyone—is punished could have wide-ranging implications.
Even in seemingly well-structured states, the locus of decision-making has become opaque. In Iran, the government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the branch of the military that answers directly to the country’s supreme leader, at times seem to go their separate ways. Whether this reflects a conscious division of labor or an actual tug of war is a matter of debate, as is the question of who exactly pulls the strings.
A series of global, regional, and local transitions has made these dynamics even more uncertain. The global transitions include a newly present China, a resurgent Russia, and a United States in relative decline. There are also the aftershocks of the recent Arab uprisings, notably the dismantling of the regional order and the propagation of failed states. These are exacerbated by domestic political changes: a new, unusually assertive leadership in Saudi Arabia and a new, unusual leadership in the United States. All these developments fuel the sense of a region in which everything is up for grabs and in which opportunities not grabbed quickly will be lost for good.
The United States’ key regional allies are simultaneously worried about the country’s staying power, heartened by the policies of the Trump administration, and anxious about them. The president made it a priority to repair relations with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, all of which had frayed under his predecessor. But Trump’s reluctance to use force has been equally clear, as has his willingness to betray long-standing allies in other parts of the world.
U.S. partners in the region are both taking advantage of Trump’s tenure and hedging against one of his sudden pivots.
That combination of encouragement and concern helps explain, for example, Saudi Arabia’s uncharacteristic risk-taking under the leadership of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS: its continuing war in Yemen, its blockade of Qatar, its kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, its killing of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi. MBS perceives the current alignment with Washington as a fleeting opportunity—because Trump might not win reelection, because he is capable of an abrupt policy swing that could see him reach a deal with Iran, and because the United States has a long-standing desire to extricate itself from Middle Eastern entanglements. The feeling in Israel is similar. The United States’ partners in the region are both seeking to take advantage of Trump’s tenure and hedging against one of his sudden pivots and the possibility of a one-term presidency, an attitude that makes the situation even more fluid and unpredictable.
Meanwhile, growing Chinese and Russian influence have given Iran some encouragement, but hardly real confidence. In the event of an escalation of tensions between Tehran and Washington, would Moscow stand with Iran or, hoping to benefit from regional disruption, stand on the sidelines? Will China ignore American threats of sanctions and buy Iranian oil or, in the wake of a potential trade deal with the United States, abide by Washington’s demands? Uncertainty about American intentions could be even more dangerous. Iran senses Trump’s distaste for war and is therefore tempted to push the envelope, pressuring Washington in the hope of securing some degree of sanctions relief. But because Tehran does not know where the line is, it runs the risk of going too far and paying the price.
To understand how these dynamics could interact in the future, it is instructive to look at how similar dynamics have interacted in the recent past, in Syria. Saudi Arabia and others seized on a homegrown effort to topple the Assad regime as an opportunity to change the regional balance of power. They banked on the opposition prevailing and thereby ending Damascus’ longtime alliance with Tehran. Iran and Hezbollah, fearful of that outcome, poured resources into the fight on the regime’s behalf, at huge human cost. Israel also stepped in, seeking to roll back Iran’s growing presence at its borders. Qatar and Turkey backed one set of Islamist-leaning rebel groups, and Saudi Arabia and its allies backed others. Russia—concerned about a shift in Syria’s orientation and sensing American hesitation—saw a chance to reassert itself in the Middle East and also intervened, placing it directly at odds with the United States and, for a time, Turkey. And Turkey, alarmed at the prospect of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces enjoying a safe haven in northern Syria, intervened directly while also supporting Syrian Arab opposition groups that it hoped would fight the Kurds.
With Syria an arena for regional tensions, clashes there, even inadvertent ones, risk becoming flash points for larger confrontations. Turkey shot down one Russian fighter jet (Moscow blamed Israel for the downing of another), and U.S. forces killed hundreds of members of a private Russian paramilitary group in eastern Syria. Turkey has attacked U.S.-backed Kurds, raising the prospect of a U.S.-Turkish military collision. And Israel has struck Iranian or Iranian-linked targets in Syria hundreds of times.
Syria also illustrates why it is so difficult for the United States to circumscribe its involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. During the Obama administration, Washington backed rebel groups fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS but claimed not to be pursuing regime change (despite supporting forces that wanted exactly that), not to be seeking a regional rebalance (despite the clear impact Assad’s downfall would have on Iran’s influence), not to be boosting Turkey’s foes (despite supporting a Kurdish movement affiliated with Turkey’s mortal enemy), and not to be seeking to weaken Russia (despite Moscow’s affinity for Assad). But the United States could not, of course, back rebel groups while distancing itself from their objectives, or claim purely local aims while everyone else involved saw the Syrian conflict in a broader context. Washington became a central player in a regional and international game that it purportedly wanted nothing to do with.
A similar scene has played out in Yemen. Since 2004, the north of the country had been the arena of recurring armed conflict between the Houthis and the central government. Government officials early on pointed to supposed Iranian financial and military aid to the rebels, just as Houthi leaders claimed Saudi interference. After the Houthis seized the capital and marched southward in 2014–15, Saudi Arabia—dreading the prospect of an Iranian-backed militia controlling its southern neighbor—responded. Its reaction was magnified by the rise of MBS, who was distrustful of the United States, determined to show Iran the days of old were over, and intent on making his mark at home. Faced with intense pushback, the Houthis increasingly turned to Iran for military assistance, and Iran, seeing a low-cost opportunity to enhance its influence and bog down Saudi Arabia, obliged. Washington, still in the midst of negotiations over a nuclear deal with Tehran, which Riyadh vehemently opposed, felt it could not afford to add another crisis to the brittle relations with its Gulf ally.
Despite its misgivings about the war, Washington thus threw its weight behind the Saudi-led coalition, sharing intelligence, providing weapons, and offering diplomatic support. As in Syria, the Obama administration looked to limit U.S. aims. It would help defend Saudi territorial integrity but not join Riyadh’s anti-Houthi fight or get sucked into an Iranian-Saudi battle. As in Syria, this effort largely was in vain. The United States could not cherry-pick one part of the war: if it was with Saudi Arabia, that meant it was against the Houthis, which meant it would be against Iran.
President Barack Obama’s largely fruitless attempt to confine U.S. involvement in the region reveals something about the unavoidable linkages that bind various Middle Eastern conflicts together. It also reveals something about the choices now facing the United States. Obama (in whose administration I served) had in mind the United States’ extrication from what he considered the broader Middle Eastern quagmire. He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressed sympathy for Arab popular uprisings and for a time distanced himself from autocratic leaders, shunned direct military intervention in Syria, and pursued a deal with Iran to prevent its nuclear program from becoming a trigger for war. Libya doesn’t fit this pattern, although even there he apparently labored under the belief that the 2011 NATO-led intervention could be tightly limited; that this assumption proved wrong only reinforced his initial desire to keep his distance from regional conflicts. His ultimate goal was to help the region find a more stable balance of power that would make it less dependent on direct U.S. interference or protection. Much to the Saudis’ consternation, he spoke of Tehran and Riyadh needing to find a way to “share” the region.
But Obama was a gradualist; he was persuaded that the United States could neither abruptly nor radically shift gears and imperil regional relationships that had been decades in the making. As he once put it to some of us working in the White House, conducting U.S. policy was akin to steering a large vessel: a course correction of a few degrees might not seem like much in the moment, but over time, the destination would differ drastically. What he did, he did in moderation. Thus, while seeking to persuade Riyadh to open channels with Tehran, he did so gently, carefully balancing continuity and change in the United States’ Middle East policy. And although he wanted to avoid military entanglements, his presidency nonetheless was marked by several costly interventions: both direct, as in Libya, and indirect, as in Syria and Yemen.
In a sense, his administration was an experiment that got suspended halfway through. At least when it came to his approach to the Middle East, Obama’s presidency was premised on the belief that someone else would pick up where he left off. It was premised on his being succeeded by someone like him, maybe a Hillary Clinton, but certainly not a Donald Trump.
Trump’s policies make likelier the very military confrontation he is determined to avoid.
Trump has opted for a very different course (perhaps driven in part by a simple desire to do the opposite of what his predecessor did). Instead of striving for some kind of balance, Trump has tilted entirely to one side: doubling down on support for Israel; wholly aligning himself with MBS, Sisi, and other leaders who felt spurned by Obama; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and zealously joining up with the region’s anti-Iranian axis. Indeed, seeking to weaken Iran, Washington has chosen to confront it on all fronts across much of the region: in the nuclear and economic realms; in Syria, where U.S. officials have explicitly tied the continued U.S. presence to countering Iran; in Iraq, where the United States wants a fragile government that is now dependent on close ties to Tehran to cut those ties; in Yemen, where the administration, flouting Congress’ will, has increased support for the Saudi-led coalition; and in Lebanon, where it has added to sanctions on Hezbollah.
Iran has also chosen to treat the region as its canvas. Besides chipping away at its own compliance with the nuclear deal, it has seized tankers in the Gulf; shot down a U.S. drone; and, if U.S. claims are to be believed, used Shiite militias to threaten Americans in Iraq, attacked commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, and struck Saudi oil fields. In June of this year, when the drone came down and Trump contemplated military retaliation, Iran was quick to warn Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that they would be fair game if they played any role in enabling a U.S. attack. (There is no reason to trust that the domino effect would have ended there; Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria could well have been drawn into the ensuing hostilities.) And in Yemen, the Houthis have intensified their attacks on Saudi targets, which may or may not be at Iran’s instigation—although, at a minimum, it is almost certainly not over Tehran’s objections. Houthi leaders with whom I recently spoke in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, denied acting at Iran’s behest yet added that they would undoubtedly join forces with Iran in a war against Saudi Arabia if their own conflict with the kingdom were still ongoing. In short, the Trump administration’s policies, which Washington claimed would moderate Iran’s behavior and achieve a more stringent nuclear deal, have prompted Tehran to intensify its regional activities and ignore some of the existing nuclear deal’s restraints. This gets to the contradiction at the heart of the president’s Middle East policies: they make likelier the very military confrontation he is determined to avoid.
A regional conflagration is far from inevitable; none of the parties wants one, and so far, all have for the most part shown the ability to calibrate their actions so as to avoid an escalation. But even finely tuned action can have unintentional, outsize repercussions given the regional dynamics. Another Iranian attack in the Gulf. An Israeli strike in Iraq or Syria that crosses an unclear Iranian redline. A Houthi missile that kills too many Saudis or an American, and a reply that, this time, aims at the assumed Iranian source. A Shiite militia that kills an American soldier in Iraq. An Iranian nuclear program that, now unshackled from the nuclear deal’s constraints, exceeds Israel’s or the United States’ unidentified tolerance level. One can readily imagine how any of these incidents could spread across boundaries, each party searching for the arena in which its comparative advantage is greatest.
With such ongoing risks, the debate about the extent to which the United States should distance itself from the region and reduce its military footprint is important but somewhat beside the point. Should any of these scenarios unfold, the United States would almost certainly find itself dragged in, whether or not it had made the strategic choice of withdrawing from the Middle East.
The more consequential question, therefore, is what kind of Middle East the United States will remain engaged in or disengaged from. A polarized region with intersecting rifts, where local disputes invariably take on broader significance, will remain at constant risk of combusting and therefore of implicating the United States in ways that will prove wasteful and debilitating. De-escalating tensions is not something the country can do on its own. Yet at a minimum, it can stop aggravating those tensions and, without abandoning or shunning them, avoid giving its partners carte blanche or enabling their more bellicose actions. That would mean ending its support for the war in Yemen and pressing its allies to bring the conflict to an end. It would mean shelving its efforts to wreck Iran’s economy, rejoining the nuclear deal, and then negotiating a more comprehensive agreement. It would mean halting its punishing campaign against the Palestinians and considering new ways to end the Israeli occupation. In the case of Iraq, it would mean no longer forcing Baghdad to pick a side between Tehran and Washington. And as far as the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is concerned, the United States could encourage the two parties to work on modest confidence-building measures—on maritime security, environmental protection, nuclear safety, and transparency around military exercises—before moving on to the more ambitious task of establishing a new, inclusive regional architecture that would begin to address both countries’ security concerns.
An administration intent on pursuing this course won’t be starting from scratch. Recently, some Gulf states—the UAE chief among them—have taken tentative steps to reach out to Iran in an effort to reduce tensions. They saw the growing risks of the regional crisis spinning out of control and recognized its potential costs. Washington should, too, before it is too late.
Neither Side Wants a Fight, but That Doesn’t Eliminate the Danger