U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East ended not with a bang but with a whimper. The rewards for his fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, proved paltry. Saudi Arabia did not commit to increasing oil production. No dissidents were released. Human rights only came up when MBS dismissed criticism of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, which was carried out under his orders, by pointing to American silence over Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was killed in May in the West Bank by the Israeli military. Saudi Arabia did not announce major moves toward normalization with Israel, and no new security alliance emerged.

Yet the Biden administration had broader ambitions for the trip that aren’t fully captured by the scorecard of short-term deliverables. The administration believed that it needed to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and other regional allies, working on the relationships for their own sake to better deal with a variety of issues. The likely impending demise of negotiations for a revived nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as the rippling shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, added some urgency. While media rumors ahead of the visit about the creation of a formal military alliance with the Arab states and Israel proved premature, the intent of the trip was to push the region toward a new regional order based on Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran under American guidance.

The trip did take some small steps in that direction—but none that are likely to increase regional stability. The security architecture envisioned by the administration would not be novel. Israel’s alignment with Arab states against Iran has been growing for decades. The Abraham Accords, first brokered under the administration of President Donald Trump, made cooperation formal and public and explicitly removed the questions of Palestine and human rights from the equation. The United States is gambling on the ability of autocratic Arab states to embrace a regional order that includes Israel without concern for how these policies are received by their publics back home. But taking that risk at a time of escalating economic, political, and social crisis across much of the region is likely to backfire—as it has in the past.

Orchestrating a U.S.-led Middle Eastern regional order has been a U.S. pastime since at least 1991, when the United States successfully led a military operation to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait. But today’s Middle East is in no condition to be ordered by Washington. Middle Eastern leaders prefer to hedge their bets within what they see as an increasingly multipolar world, as could be clearly seen in their refusal to take the side of the United States and Europe against Russia. Were Biden to succeed on his own terms by bringing Israel and the Arab autocracies into a formal regional alliance against Iran, it would only repeat the mistakes of the past. This would accelerate the next collapse of regional order by reversing progress toward de-escalation, encouraging domestic repression, and paving the way to the next round of popular uprisings.

THE MYTHOLOGIES OF 1991

The urge to establish a U.S.-led regional order runs deep in Washington’s DNA. In particular, there is a generation of the U.S. foreign policy community that views 1991 and the regional order constructed in the Middle East at the time as the ideal to be emulated. It’s easy to see why. The era immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union was the high point of U.S. global primacy. Following the 1990–91 U.S. intervention to reverse Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton launched ambitious efforts to rewire the region around U.S. unipolarity and lock in a regional order favorable to U.S. interests.

For a brief moment, all roads led to Washington. The United States launched the Madrid peace process to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also to establish a U.S.-led regional order that could include both Israel and Arab states. Former Soviet allies such as Syria cast about for ways to get into this new order through peace negotiations with Israel. Even Iran, exhausted from a decade of war with Iraq, looked to rebuild relations with Europe and the Gulf states, launching a “dialogue among civilizations” at the UN, taking small steps toward engagement with Washington, and dialing back its regional interventionism.

A positive normative purpose, as well as a military foundation, for a U.S.-led regional order briefly flickered into view. The U.S.-led military operation to retake Kuwait had been a genuinely multilateral affair, authorized by the UN Security Council and an Arab summit. Heavy U.S. investment in Arab-Israeli peacemaking after 1991 and stewardship of the Oslo peace process offered a potential positive vision for the future of the Middle East.

But those normative foundations did not take root, and regional order proved difficult to manage. Washington’s nostalgia for the Middle East of the 1990s runs deep, but that period wasn’t as orderly as the myth holds. Why the approach the United States adopted in 1991 failed to produce a stable, legitimate U.S.-led regional order even at the height of its global power offers instructive lessons for today.

NOTHING TO SHOW FOR IT

The post-1991 regional order did not manage itself. The so-called dual containment of Iran and Iraq required the establishment of semipermanent U.S. military bases across the region, especially in the Persian Gulf. This was a massive shift from the previous decades of offshore balancing, during which the United States policed the region through its local allies and avoided large-scale permanent military bases. It also required devoting a disproportionate amount of diplomatic energy to the region’s problems, with each crisis seeming to demand even greater American attention. Dealing with these endless crises meant ignoring or even promoting the autocratic regimes that would ultimately undermine the order.

At the heart of U.S. micromanagement of the region was the containment of Iraq, which required the maintenance of a draconian, historically unprecedented sanctions regime. Cutting Iraq off from imports and exports was responsible for untold numbers of excess deaths and human misery that profoundly undermined American moral claims in Arab eyes. Clashes over weapons inspections led to repeated military actions, such as Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign of Iraqi targets carried out by the United States and the United Kingdom in December 1998. Ultimately, however, these efforts didn’t work. Saddam exploited the UN’s oil-for-food program to secure his own regime, and regional compliance with sanctions eroded.

Despite the diplomatic energy spent on it, the United States also failed to deliver on the promise of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Clinton administration certainly put effort into the negotiations but was unable to overcome the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, successive waves of Hamas terrorism, or Israel’s relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Washington similarly failed to deliver on Israeli-Syrian peace.

The 1990s also saw the downplaying of democracy out of fear of Islamist victories at the ballot box. Instead, Washington pretended to believe that Arab autocrats would cultivate civil societies and prepare their populations to someday be ready for real democracy. That, of course, is the same argument made by most Arab autocratic regimes today, a claim the Biden team has shown no interest in challenging. The result of trading off democracy promotion for stable order was the entrenchment of Arab autocracy in all of its pathologies. Not coincidentally, the 1990s were also a period of Islamist insurgency in Egypt and Algeria and the incubation period for al Qaeda.

Ultimately, the glory days of U.S.-led regional order in the Middle East were less than they appeared. The containment of Iraq and American efforts to secure Arab-Israeli peace both failed. The idea of building the conditions for democracy by working with Arab autocrats did not deliver. And the prominence of the U.S. role in all these failures arguably made it an attractive target for al Qaeda as it shifted from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy” on 9/11.

REPEATING MISTAKES

The presidential administrations that followed Clinton's each attempted their own redesign of Middle Eastern regional order. After the 9/11 attacks, the George W. Bush administration set out on a strategy of U.S. primacy. The centerpiece of this new regional order would be the “global war on terror,” which in the Middle East involved close U.S. cooperation with regional security services and a massive and intrusive expansion of the U.S. presence in the region. The invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam proved, of course, to be uniquely disastrous, creating a vacuum of stability in the heart of the Middle East. The U.S. occupation of Iraq unleashed brutal sectarianism, empowering both Iran and Sunni jihadist movements such as the nascent Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and generated a flood of millions of refugees. The Iraq war exhausted American willingness and capability to act militarily in the Middle East, and it ended with Iran’s somewhat Pyrrhic victory in establishing its allies in dominant positions in the Iraqi state.

There was an order to be found in this chaos, however. This “new Middle East,” a term coined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the height of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, was violent and hypercompetitive, but structurally, it was quite similar to today. On one side was what U.S. officials called the “axis of moderates,” which included Israel and most of the Arab states under the U.S. security umbrella, and on the other side was the “axis of resistance,” which included Iran, Syria, and nonstate actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. It is often forgotten that Saudi-owned media initially supported Israel’s 2006 assault on Hezbollah because of its antipathy toward the Iranian-backed Shia movement until a hostile public response forced them to change their editorial line. The extreme unpopularity of U.S.-led efforts, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, allowed Turkey and Qatar to make great political gains during this time by acting as swing states taking positions more in line with Arab public opinion writ large.

President Barack Obama offered a genuinely different vision of regional order based on creating a stable and workable balance of power between Iran and its neighbors through nuclear diplomacy and a reduced U.S. military presence. It is telling that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) opposed virtually everything the Obama administration attempted, including the Iran nuclear deal, because their leaders thrived within the regional order he was seeking to change. The Gulf states wanted nothing to do with Obama’s ideas of sharing the region with Iran and even less to do with his heretical ideas about embracing democracy and the Arab Spring uprisings. At the same time, Israeli leaders were against Obama’s ideas about restarting peace negotiations that would work toward creating a Palestinian state and even more opposed to the idea that a two-state solution would be necessary to establish relations with Arab states. Iran, too, proved unwilling to meaningfully moderate its regional policies of using proxies to fight in places such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen after the nuclear deal was signed. This further undermined Obama’s efforts to craft a new regional order.

The urge to establish a U.S.-led regional order runs deep in Washington’s DNA.

Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—like many other Arab leaders—therefore welcomed the Trump administration’s return to the George W. Bush–era “new Middle East” model. Trump adopted their views as his own and stopped pressuring Arab states on their human rights records or pushing them to resolve the Palestinian issue. His administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and instead pursued what it called a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. But once again, attempts to impose a regional order backfired. His tight embrace of these Arab states and Israel encouraged the worst instincts of those governments, including aggressive interventionism that inevitably accelerated civil wars and state failures across the region, from Yemen to Libya and Syria. Stepped-up repression at home only increased domestic instability and the risk of renewed uprisings, while Israel’s rapidly accelerating seizures of Palestinian lands triggered repeated crises.

To the dismay of those regional allies, Trump’s tight embrace proved to have limits. His refusal to retaliate against Iran after the unprecedented attack on two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia in 2019 proved especially sobering to the region’s leaders. If the friendliest American administration in memory could not be counted on to respond militarily to such a transgressive attack, could any U.S. security guarantees be trusted?

NO MORE LIP SERVICE

Biden’s concept for the region shows that this vision of regional order endures among the region’s leaders and in Washington policy circles, despite all the conflict and human misery it has generated. Arab regimes have adapted quite effectively to Washington’s demands and have proved quite effective at pushing back on any U.S. efforts to change policies. Members of the Biden team are, for the most part, creatures of the Clinton administration who believe they learned the right lessons from both the Obama years and the Trump years. But ironically, the Middle East they hope to design more resembles the regional order attempted by President George W. Bush.

What’s telling about the Biden team’s embrace of the Bush-era model of regional order is what it leaves out: the “freedom agenda.” Bush may have given up notions of promoting democracy in the Middle East once Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, but the administration’s rhetoric about democratic change at least offered some positive vision for regional order. On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden abandoned that completely. That’s understandable for an administration that wanted to mend relations with Arab leaders and avoid anything that might antagonize them. But it has real costs.

Arab autocracy was the glue holding together the U.S.-led regional order in both the 1990s and the first decade of this century. The 2011 Arab uprisings undid that in ways that are still not fully appreciated. They did not produce sustainable democratic transitions anywhere, with Tunisia’s presidential coup in July 2021 sealing the fate of one of the few that had emerged. Today’s Arab autocrats want Washington to believe that there has been a full restoration of the old order, that democracy is now off the table, and that they are firmly back in control. The dismal economic indicators in most of the region, exacerbated by COVID-19, along with Russia’s war in Ukraine and the repeated explosions of popular mobilization in unexpected places such as Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan, suggest that this faith is misguided.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

Even setting aside the likelihood of new mass uprisings, the region today looks quite different from previous eras of U.S.-led regional order. Today’s Middle East is internally multipolar, with Arab power shifted from the traditional heartlands of the Levant and Egypt to the Gulf, and non-Arab states such as Israel, Iran, and Turkey, increasingly involved. Existential regime insecurity following the shock of 2011, combined with the proliferation of failed states and civil wars, shifted the logic of intervention and changed the balance of power. Obama’s refusal to intervene directly in Syria, Trump’s refusal to respond to the Saudi oil attacks, and Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan fundamentally changed Arab leaders’ view of the United States as a security provider.

At the same time, this is not a period of U.S. dominance. That isn’t to say that there is anything like a new bipolarity or even multipolarity in the world. Russia was always more of a spoiler than a competing pole to U.S. power, and it is now consumed by its war in Ukraine. China has not yet made a bid to translate its rapidly growing economic presence into political or military influence, and for the most part, it shares core U.S. interests such as keeping Gulf oil flowing.

But even without a true peer competitor, the United States simply does not have the resources or the political capabilities to play the role of hegemon in the Middle East. Regional powers no longer believe the United States can or will act militarily to defend them. The Arab uprisings taught these autocratic leaders that Washington could not guarantee the survival of regimes that worked toward U.S. interests. Their nationalist posturing and relentless complaint of abandonment by Washington are not just a bargaining position aimed at securing more U.S. arms and political support (though they are that). They also reflect Arab states’ increased capabilities and their profound feelings of insecurity. Attempting ineffectually to reassure these states will go nowhere: their doubts are too deep, and American capabilities and political will are too obviously insufficient.

This sounds like a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather than attempt to rebuild an order whose foundations have eroded beyond repair, a better approach would be to encourage the moves countries took on their own to de-escalate regional tension in the absence of American leadership. Over the last year, the UAE rebuilt its relations with Qatar and Turkey, cease-fires took hold in Libya and Yemen, and Saudi Arabia even held preliminary talks with Iran. The United States’ moves to build a united front against Iran—escalating arms sales and reaffirming security guarantees—could prove deeply counterproductive to these local efforts. The more that Washington moves to expand its military and political commitments to lead a new regional order, the less stable the region will likely become.

Arab regimes have adapted quite effectively to Washington’s demands.

The region has been profoundly disordered since 2011, and its problems have been legion. But how order is rebuilt has profound consequences, and outdated conceptions of order will rapidly contribute to more failure. Today, the Gulf is a more independent region, with Arab states willing and able to act without regard to a superpower patron. But outside of a few wealthy Gulf states, the region is also a patchwork of warscapes and a place where ever-fiercer autocrats are barely holding on in the face of massive and mounting economic problems. Despite recent cease-fires, conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen continue to smolder and could reignite at any time. Autocrats and kings across the region project stability and normality, but in reality, both economic and political conditions are worse today than on the eve of the 2011 uprisings. In the absence of any hope for a two-state solution or any serious international restraint on its occupation, Israel’s relentless expansion into the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza could spark another crisis at any moment.

At the same time, the United States is a mess, consumed by political infighting and polarization. Washington has largely abandoned even the pretense of promoting democracy or human rights. Advocates in Israel and the Gulf argue that the Abraham Accords provide a vision for the region around which an order can be built, but all evidence suggests that Arab publics overwhelmingly reject the idea of normalization with Israel without a resolution of the Palestinian issue. An order relying on autocratic regimes to suppress public opinion rather than building an order that commands legitimacy beyond the palaces will not be a stable or enduring one.

It would be ironic indeed if this order ended as did Clinton’s 1990s regional order—in an unnecessary and disastrous war. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 fatally ruptured the Obama effort to build an alternative order. Biden could not overcome the toxic effects of that. With the Iran nuclear deal dead, it is all too easy to envision the same steady slide toward U.S. support for a regime change war in Iran. To be sure, Biden has avoided discussing the use of force against Iran, and his withdrawal from Afghanistan gives some credibility to his determination to avoid another large-scale war. But pressure to take decisive action will grow as the choices narrow down to accepting a nuclear Iran or acting militarily to prevent it. The path Biden is taking to rebuild regional order makes that disastrous outcome more likely.

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  • MARC LYNCH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
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