Iranian president Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations on September 20, 2017 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images.
In the final years of his administration, President Barack Obama drastically reduced the aperture through which Washington viewed the Middle East. Identifying counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State as the top priority, he succumbed to a seductive vision: perhaps the Russians and the Iranians, America’s traditional adversaries, would partner with him to defeat Sunni radicalism.
Promising as it did to offer the United States a way to avoid costly troop commitments to the Middle East, this idea was as beguiling as it was wrongheaded. Obama’s pursuit of it led directly to the rise of the Russian-Iranian alliance and to a significant reduction of American influence in the Middle East.
Our essay in Mosaic sought to explain why this idea will not work, and to sketch a path back to a healthier approach to the Middle East. We are thankful that three distinguished observers of international politics—Michael O’Hanlon, Frederick Kagan, and Eran Lerman—have taken the time to offer thoughtful responses to our analysis, and we are pleased that, generally speaking, they approve our efforts.
But there was some disagreement, most notably from Michael O’Hanlon—who, among other things, chides us for the partisan tone of our article. He reminds us that Obama did not have a monopoly on error, and that George W. Bush bequeathed his successor a host of difficulties in the Middle East. O’Hanlon does not identify Bush’s mistakes explicitly, but he is presumably referring, among other things, to the fact that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened the door to Iranian influence in that country.
This fact is certainly true, and, if pressed, we have no problem admitting it. In our view, however, citing it was peripheral to our purpose. Our goal was not to keep partisan score but to unearth Obama’s most consequential strategic calculations. Even at this late date, those calculations remain buried under the mountain of misinformation generated by his hyperactive media machine. More to the point, it was Obama’s understanding of the Middle East, not Bush’s, that shaped the strategy currently being implemented by the United States military. We are more interested in contributing to the debate about that strategy than to the history of American policy.
On this latter score, O’Hanlon fears that we are perhaps unrealistic. He warns against defining the contest with Iran as “a zero-sum competition,” and argues that “shutting Iran out of the region altogether is simply implausible.” Instead, he urges us to engage in a kind of policy triage: “to think hard about which aspects of Iranian influence we find most problematic, and which ones we can live with.”
In fact, we have no illusions about shutting Iran out of the region altogether. Instead, our goal is to curtail its influence and to force Iran to work much harder to maintain its position. We thus contend that if the United States does not make weakening Iran an overarching goal of its strategy, it will end up working, inadvertently, to Iran’s advantage.
The main problem with America’s current strategy, in our eyes, is that it makes the United States the silent partner of Iran. Obama has maneuvered us into a position whereby we do not currently have the ability to pick and choose which aspects of Iran’s influence are tolerable. Regaining leverage is the essential prerequisite to conducting O’Hanlon’s proposed triage.
But Iran should also not be viewed in isolation. We will not enjoy freedom of action if we do not develop a strategy for the Middle East as a whole. There is something about the region that encourages American leaders to approach it in a piecemeal fashion. Thus does the Syrian problem become separate and distinct from the Iranian nuclear challenge, which, in turn, has no connection to Iraqi and Lebanese issues. Attacking this propensity to disaggregate the region was one of our major goals in writing “What America Should Do Next in the Middle East.”
Frederick Kagan, for his part, takes this logic one step farther. He argues that a comprehensive strategy must extend even beyond the Middle East, which is itself but one arena in a broader global competition between the West and revisionist powers.
In particular, Kagan’s analysis encourages us to consider the relationship between our current Middle East dilemmas and the North Korean nuclear crisis. We commonly hear that Russia (and, of course, China) might be useful in solving that crisis. But is it not just as conceivable that Moscow is working to pin down the United States in Asia while it and Iran are busy expanding their influence in Syria? One can imagine an adviser in the White House warning the president that we cannot get tough with Iran and Russia in the Middle East because we need Moscow’s help in reining in Kim Jong-Un.
This kind of reasoning, Kagan reminds us, need not dominate American strategic thinking. Russia, North Korea, and Iran are no match for the West—but only if the West decides to compete with them on their own terms.
Eran Lerman, by contrast, brings us back to the specific problems of the Middle East. In discussing the current contest in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, we tended in our essay to focus on its implications for the future orientation of Turkey. Lerman reminds us that if Iran succeeds in building a beltway of influence from Tehran to Beirut, then America’s allies in the northern Middle East will be severed from its southern allies, who are equally important to us. In this connection, he is particularly concerned about Jordan.
We couldn’t agree more. Today, Jordan is overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, many of whom live unregistered outside the established camps. For now, Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) officers and their proxies remain occupied with the fight for Deir Ezzour and with eliminating opposition remnants near Damascus. Eventually, however, they may turn south, past our “deconfliction” zones with Russia, to occupy the Syrian-Jordanian border region. From that launching pad, Tehran could take any number of initiatives to destabilize and weaken Jordan.
Such a prospect should alarm American policy makers now—just as it does Lerman. His recommendation for establishing an American presence on the Jordanian border would go a long way toward mitigating such a risk and relieving the pressure on Amman.
Surprisingly, none of our three respondents addressed what we considered our two most controversial points.
First, we raised doubts about the wisdom of decertifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal (JCPOA). Among people in Washington who agree with us regarding the need to get tougher with Iran, there is a strong conviction that the way forward is to convince President Trump to decertify. To us, by contrast, the urgent priority is to form an international coalition dedicated to containing Iran. We anticipated heated disagreement on this point. We also expected a spirited debate over our second point, which was to express skepticism regarding the role of Syrian Kurdish forces in the president’s strategy.
Was our failure to spark controversy over these two claims a sign that our respondents agreed with us, or, rather, that they despaired of ever getting through to us? We may never know. But we thank them, nonetheless, for the generosity with which they have shared their thoughts on every other aspect of the complex and daunting challenge now facing the United States.