Getting Smart about America's Middle East Policy

As a strategic concept, defeating the Iranian-led order plays to America’s strengths, serves its vital interests, and is poised to attract the support of its traditional allies.

Ali Akbar Velayati (C), chief foreign policy advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, on November 7, 2017, in Aleppo, Syria. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Ali Akbar Velayati (C), chief foreign policy advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, on November 7, 2017, in Aleppo, Syria. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images.

Last Word
Jan. 28 2019
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated.


I deeply appreciate the generosity of Elliott Abrams, Martin Kramer, and Steven Cook in providing thoughtful responses to “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” I’ll offer my reactions to their arguments—with each of which I respectfully disagree—one by one.

In my essay, I describe what I see as a coherent strategy toward the Middle East taking shape in the Trump administration. Elliott Abrams, for his part, sees no common worldview or sense of collective purpose at all. “[T]he decisions of the past two years,” he writes,

may instead reflect the many individuals who have affected decision-making (Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, James Mattis, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and for that matter Mohammed bin Salman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, etc.), not to mention the president’s own changes of mind.

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume Abrams is entirely correct. But will he concede that the administration has at least exhibited clear inclinations, and that these inclinations are unlikely to evaporate? Particularly relevant are five:

(1) The administration has an aversion to deploying troops on the ground.

(2) It has nevertheless displayed a willingness to use force to deter adversaries—as it did, for example, in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

(3) It is much more favorably disposed toward traditional American allies—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—than the Obama administration preceding it or the current Democratic leadership.

(4) It rejects the fashionable cant, on the American left and among Europeans, about the supposed centrality of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to Middle East international politics.

(5) It is very hostile to Iran and its ambitions, both in the nuclear arena and in regional politics.

In brief, if this administration is producing chaos, not policy, then it is chaos with a very distinctive shape—and one that should not be altogether displeasing.

The question then becomes: is there an organizing principle that can give strategic purpose to these inclinations? Hostility to Iran, I submit, is precisely that principle, and the element that has been most missing from American policy for many years. Now the Trump administration has offered us (and by “us” I mean explicitly to include all three of my respondents) a prime opportunity to develop just such a coherent anti-Iran strategy.

While Abrams does not entirely deny this opportunity, he perceives a fatal flaw in the administration’s reluctance to deploy ground troops. “In my view,” he writes, “the United States will build a security system with its own military or it won’t have one at all.”

This argument invites two objections. First, it exaggerates the significance of President Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, suggesting as it does that the American military will no longer be a major factor in alliance-building. But let’s not conflate an aversion to putting boots on the ground with an unwillingness to use force. The administration struck the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, and threatened the regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons when, last August, they readied an assault on Turkish positions in the province of Idlib.

Neither of these moves required the presence of 2,000 troops in the Syrian desert, and there is no reason to believe that removal of the troops will prevent similar conduct in the future. Moreover, not only can the American security umbrella remain largely unchanged, but it will purchase considerable room for maneuver in Syria by Turkey and Israel. This is not to minimize the very real threat of escalation that Turkish and Israeli leaders face when they conduct military operations in proximity to Russian forces. That threat can be reduced, however, by the deterrent effect on Vladimir Putin of knowing that any contemplated Russian reprisals will provoke a direct American response.

Second, Abrams’ argument ignores a mountain of counter-evidence from history—in this case, the history of the cold war in the Middle East. Our recent era of extensive troop deployments and the micromanaging of Arab societies may feel like the norm, but it was inaugurated only after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prior to then, the United States was preternaturally disinclined to deploy troops, for fear, among other things, of provoking a countermove by Moscow. It therefore worked through regional proxies to thwart the Soviet Union, and after some initial missteps it did so quite effectively.

By contrast, despite all of the power advantages held by the U.S. in the post-cold-war Middle East, despite all the blood and treasure it has expended, we can point to no major strategic achievement that comes close to rivaling the two greatest American successes in the previous era: the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement of 1979 and the arming of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The former flipped Egypt from the Soviet camp to the American; the latter delivered a knockout punch to the Soviet army in Afghanistan without ever putting American troops in harm’s way.

What I am advocating is a return to a cold-war template. According to this approach, America’s allies, in pursuing their national interests as they define them, will do so while taking American concerns—in this case, concerns about Iran—into account, just as they did with respect to American concerns about the Soviet Union in the cold war. In return for this deference to Washington, they will receive a military backstop from the world’s only superpower.

Keeping American boots on the ground in Syria is not what will determine the success of this model. Success will come if the United States chooses the right allies and is wise in helping them define their national interests.

 

Martin Kramer finds my thesis “baffling,” and specifically as coming from me. For years, he reminds Mosaic’s readers, I’ve argued for the American troop presence in Syria—and for giving those troops an explicitly anti-Iran mission that would include direct military coordination with Israel. Therefore, he implies, I must now be withholding my true feelings, presumably out of some unspoken allegiance to the Trump administration.

Kramer reads me wrong. The plain fact is that I and like-minded others lost the debate over Syria policy, and lost it bigly. The subtitle of my Mosaic article might well have been “A Stocktaking after Defeat.” But I see no point in continuing to rehearse arguments that, in view of present-day realities, have zero chance of gaining support in either the White House or in Congress.

A major purpose of my article was thus to urge us to recognize that the debate over Syria policy, however significant, is also minor compared with the larger debate over American strategy. If we believe in the importance of continued American leadership in the Middle East, we must reckon with the fact of rising isolationism on the right and a continued mania for Iran-engagement on the left. Both sides have become fixated on side issues—the Khashoggi scandal being a salient case in point—that have no business occupying the attention of any superpower worth its salt.

Our task, then, is to help the White House devise strategies of global engagement that will pass muster in the court of public opinion. With regard to that larger task, I’ve been consistent all along. Since the mid-2000s, I have argued that if the United States fails to build an enduring anti-Iran coalition, it will face ever more setbacks in the Middle East. Only such a goal has the potential to enlist the support America needs from its most powerful and influential regional allies.

With that in mind, for the last two years I have also consistently argued, much to the consternation of my pro-Israel friends, that American policy toward Turkey had become dangerously reckless. By arming, training, and equipping the YPG Kurdish forces in Syria, Washington was rendering impossible any strategic accommodation with Ankara. Instead, in helping to build a PKK statelet on Turkey’s border, we were locking ourselves into a posture of permanent enmity toward a NATO ally—to say nothing of requiring a permanent deployment of American soldiers.

Polls show that the vast majority of Turks, more than 80 percent, now regard the United States as a hostile nation—that’s nearly double the percentage of Turks who approve of President Erdogan’s job performance. For a sense of the affront presented by American policy to Turkish sensibilities, imagine how Israelis would react if the United States were to tell them to sit down and shut up while it helped build a Hamas statelet inside Jordan. That Trump has cut this Gordian knot, and is now testing the possibility of renewing ties with Ankara, is a prudent step that ends an era of recklessness masquerading as principled realism.

Kramer avoids any discussion of Turkey, but many Israelis of his disposition fear the impact on Israel of a Washington-Ankara rapprochement. Those fears are not baseless, but it would be a grave error to lump together the Turkish and Iranian threats in the same sentence. Iran, through Hizballah, has 100,000 rockets and missiles trained on Israeli cities. It is a threshold nuclear power routinely prophesying the destruction of the Jewish state, and it is striving to turn Syria into a new base from which it can make good on its prophecy.

Whatever threat Ankara might pose to Jerusalem, it does not rise to anything approaching this level. Turkish and Israeli forces are unlikely ever to come into direct conflict, not least because Ankara and Jerusalem have much bigger things to worry about than their disputes with each other.

Here again, the cold-war example is instructive. For some 40 years, the United States presided over an anti-Soviet coalition that included pairs of states hostile to each other—two such pairs being Greece and Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. If both Israel and Turkey were to become members of an anti-Iranian coalition led by Washington, the existing tensions between them would be unlikely to worsen; they might even be somewhat ameliorated.

 

This brings us to Steven Cook, for whom pursuing a U.S.-Turkey rapprochement is a fool’s errand, and attempting to enlist Ankara’s support for a counter-Iran strategy is, if anything, even more misguided. Turkey, he writes bluntly, “is no partner” for the U.S. and has no incentive to become one.

What is his evidence for this thesis?

It is true, as Cook notes, that in 2010 Turkish diplomats sought to dissolve the existing impasse over Iran’s nuclear program by brokering a deal that was very favorable to Iran and ostensibly disfavorable to Washington. But the Obama administration, already embarked on its fixed aim of wooing Tehran, encouraged these efforts. Turkey, that is to say, was hardly thwarting its American ally; it was helping the White House pursue its own goals.

Similar considerations apply to Cook’s second example of supposed Turkish anti-American perfidy: namely, the Halkbank gas-for-gold scandal. In 2013, with American sanctions severely constricting Tehran’s ability to sell its petroleum products, the Turkish national bank colluded with Iran to evade the sanctions regime by purchasing Iranian gas and oil with massive shipments of gold easily convertible to foreign currency. The scandal was thus a case of old-fashioned corruption, an impulse that God has distributed equally among the nations, and was directly connected to Turkey’s dependency on Iranian energy supplies, a fact of Turkey’s economic life and not a character flaw.

Corruption and energy-dependency are, precisely, the kinds of challenges that American diplomacy excels at handling, and indeed it is already doing so. The Treasury Department is tracking down and punishing sanctions evaders, while the State Department is helping the Turks and other allies similarly dependent on Iranian energy supplies to identify practical alternatives.

Moreover, even as Cook exaggerates the degree of Ankara’s favorable attitudes toward Tehran, he ignores the factors that set the two at odds—factors rooted in a historical rivalry that stretches back over five centuries. Today, Turkey harbors a deep and abiding hostility to the Assad regime in Syria— Iran’s greatest proxy. More particularly, the Turkish military is all that stands between Assad’s retaking the province of Idlib and, in the process, driving millions of refugees northward to Turkey. To help shore up its position in Idlib, Ankara needs American support (and, as I noted above, received a token of it last August). These factors alone suggest that a policy designed to bring Turkey into an anti-Iranian coalition is a much more sensible proposition than Cook will permit.

Similarly unconvincing is Cook’s description of Saudi Arabia as unfit for duty in the effort to counter Iran—an idea that for him “resides only in the realm of aspiration.” His reason:

[I]n the real world, the Saudis under [Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman] have pursued a range of policies that have been unhelpful to, and in some cases have actually set back, American efforts to contain Iranian influence.

What are those cases? The Saudis pressured Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign after he made a raft of concessions to Iran’s proxy Hizballah. And it intervened in Yemen to stop the advance of the Houthis, another Iranian proxy. Are we to believe, then, that Saudi Arabia has disqualified itself as an effective partner in an anti-Iran coalition because it is excessively anti-Iranian? How can that possibly be true?

 

In discussing why Turkey is an unreliable partner for the United States, Steven Cook observes that “[i]t shares neither America’s interests nor its values.” Let’s pause over this statement. A country that was the most democratic in the Muslim world has gone from being a loyal ally of four decades’ standing to being almost entirely unreliable in the eyes not only of Cook, a Turkey specialist, but of a significant segment of America’s foreign-policy elite.

One can certainly appreciate the alarm sparked by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist and expansionist ambitions. But however much Turkey has changed, American foreign policy has changed as well—specifically, in the latter-day devotion to the concept that the proper goal of that policy is the spread of “the liberal international order” to the four corners of the earth. Under this concept, an ally is a state or a people that shares our civilizational values.

That is not the idea that won the cold war. When the architects of the strategy to contain the Soviet Union conceived of their project, “shared values” was not an aspect in the forefront of their minds, and even “shared interests” was defined by them very narrowly, summed up as a common intent to challenge the hegemony of the Soviet system. The very narrowness of the definition, allowing for a correspondingly wide avenue of eligibility for participation, was a key to its success.

In his memoirs Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state and a leading architect of the containment strategy, makes this point clearly. Drawing a sharp distinction between the Soviet and American approaches to international relations, he wrote:

It was true and understandable to describe the Russian motivating concept as being that “no state is friendly which is not subservient,” and ours that “no state is unfriendly which, in return for our respect for its rights, respects the rights of other states.” While our own society felt no compulsion to bring all societies into conformity with it, the Kremlin hierarchy was not content merely to entrench its regime but wished to expand its control directly and indirectly over people within its reach.

The Soviet requirement of ideological subservience was, to Acheson’s way of thinking, an evil and self-defeating inclination. And so it would prove to be. The American impulse, to accept differences as long as differences were respected, was a winner. Today, however, many in the circles of American policy makers and intellectuals are increasingly attached to a doctrine of conformity and specifically to making “liberalism” a condition for admission into their non-barbarian community of nations. They, and we, would be much better served by returning to the older and tested practice of defining both the criteria and the goals of an American-led coalition very narrowly.

Defeating the Iranian-led order is a smart strategic concept. It plays to America’s strengths, serves its vital interests, and will allow it to work much more effectively with its traditional allies, mobilizing their power and local knowledge instead of working against them.

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More about: Iran, Israel, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Syria, Turkey