A reality-based US policy for the Middle East

What is the United States doing in the Middle East? How does the granular reality of developments seen from the region correspond to Washington’s strategic assessment?

Last week, a senior Biden administration official offered answers to these questions during a briefing for reporters on the White House’s plan for a realistic and scaled-down Middle East policy. (Although the official remained anonymous, looks a lot like Brett McGurk). Whether or not this plan works, and I’m not sure that’s the case – the administration’s description of its own approach seems accurate, and it’s a welcome change. It removes the huge “bombing gap” that has historically existed between what Washington does in the Middle East and what it thinks – or says – is doing there. Equally important, what the United States is trying to do in the region, at least diplomatically, is dramatically lower expectations – no big breakthroughs, no transformative realignments, no flourishing democracy – all the while s’ engaging at all levels in problem management.

“We are not trying to achieve the impossible; we are not trying to transform the Middle East, ”the unnamed senior official said. “We focus on the interests that impact Americans and our national security, and the national security of our friends. And we think these are achievable goals with deterrence, de-escalation, integration being the three themes we’re pursuing. “

Over the next three years under the leadership of US President Joe Biden, we will see whether Washington’s political apparatus continues the elaborate planning with actions of which it is well capable – economically, to counter Chinese influence with American investments; and on the military level, to reduce its permanent bases and its naval presence, as recommended by Becca Wasser and Elisa Catalano Ewers.

Strategically, the Middle East remains important to the rest of the world, despite occasional protests to the contrary. Nonetheless, Washington became disproportionately obsessed with the region after 9/11 and over-invested in military avenues to exert its influence – particularly its interventions in Iraq and Libya, which exacerbated the drivers of instability – to the detriment of of its diplomatic and economic tools. But a course correction always involves accurately assessing the region’s continued importance to Washington, its allies and partners, and the rest of the world, including as a source of energy, investment capital, d purchase of weapons and, on the negative side of the ledger, strategic instability.

It also requires acknowledging that it is a mistake for intervention powers, whether outside or inside the Middle East, to imagine that they can manipulate events there like master puppeteers, or force the powerful figures of the region to come together. Over the past two decades, the United States in particular has demonstrated that even by freely and destructively deploying the world’s most powerful army and spending billions of dollars on armed interventions, it cannot achieve none of the desired results by force. French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting a more dexterous diplomatic version of imperial management of the region, as Julien Barnes-Dacey astutely observes in his WPR briefing last week, but he too quickly encounters the limits of influence that the outside powers can exercise. .

The continuing Middle Eastern lesson for the United States and all other contenders for master puppeteer status is that no matter how daring your vision is, the size of your army and how many rules you are prepared to make. violate, in the end you have to bow to reality. The United States invaded Iraq and effectively occupied it until 2011; today, Washington has considerable influence there, but neither control nor domination. There are countless other examples over the past decade of the proud attempts by interventionist powers, including Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to attempt to impose political results and safe in conflict zones abroad, even if it is difficult to do so in their own country.

Whether the United States can maintain a cohesive foreign policy approach in the region across multiple administrations is another question that will certainly be answered over the next decade. Otherwise, the current correction will be one of many oscillations of Washington’s pendulum that will make it a powerful, albeit disruptive, pole in a regional multipolar landscape. But looking at the current state of American politics at the end of the first year of the Biden administration, the goal, at least, is to seek solidly plausible median results. There is no dream of transformation here, no claim to spread democracy or promote more human rights. Instead, we see modest goals, accompanied by preparation for stumbling blocks. This administration wants to lower expectations for the Middle East and US objectives there, so that the inevitable setbacks are not seen in the region as a sign of US inattention, and in Washington as a politically costly sign of weakness. or Biden’s incompetence. .

On Iran, for example, the Biden administration wants to revert to the multilateral nuclear deal, officially known as the Common Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which its predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew, without giving up the leverage provided by the sanctions introduced by Trump. But the White House already appears to be considering a Plan B if, as expected, negotiations to revive the deal fail. This is a welcome recognition of one of the region’s reality checks, for despite exaggerated claims by Israel and other US partners in the Middle East that Iran poses an existential threat, the obvious fact is that no one can stop Tehran from building a nuclear power plant. bomb if he really decides. Tehran also cannot be forced to abandon its nuclear program, either through sanctions or even preemptive strikes against its enrichment facilities. In other words, the nuclear deal remains the best option, but one that the Biden team cannot rely on.

Biden’s Middle East policy is apparently intended to pass the “rubber meets the road” test: more realistic goals, with adequate resources to achieve them. Regional hands should spend the 15 minutes it takes to read the transcript of the year-end briefing, to get a feel for how Biden sets US priorities and his theory of US power projection in a region that has become a medium priority for Washington. , despite its continued strategic importance to the world.

Overview of human security

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Lebanon on what he described as a “solidarity” mission, perhaps inadvertently highlighting the role the international community has played in the acceleration of the collapse of Lebanon. International aid and support, including loans and bailouts administered by the International Monetary Fund and the world Bank, have kept Lebanon’s kleptocratic ruling class on life support for decades. Meanwhile, its worst militias continue to thrive with foreign support.

Guterres arrived on Sunday and is expected to stay until Wednesday, December 22. After meeting with President Michel Aoun, Guterres called for the international community to spend more money to help Lebanon, which is plagued by an epic collapse that made everyday life unmanageable for all, except for its richest citizens. Supporters of international aid, however, are faced with a Catch-22. Foreign aid has so far kept the poorest Lebanese from starving. But it also bolstered the mafia power of a group of warlords who, over the course of four decades, transformed a small, prosperous country into a catastrophic agglomeration of fiefdoms, devoid of modern physical infrastructure and constantly on the brink of armed conflict. Cutting aid would punish the most vulnerable, but more aid appears only intended to prolong their misery at the hands of the Lebanese rulers.

Best reads

Earlier this year, two tragic and preventable hospital fires in Iraq—one in Baghdad in April, the other in Nasiriya in July– killed 174 people, illustrating the consequences of a government system centered on corruption and corruption. Now, Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim of the Washington Post have continued their powerful media coverage of the incidents with an investigation into the mechanisms of corruption in the Iraqi health sector.

Their story traces the looting of the Basra Children’s Hospital, which was supposed to be an exemplary cancer treatment center, but which, due to looting and corruption, cannot meaningfully treat patients. He marries a
fascinating and disheartening academic study by Mac Skelton and Abdulameer Mohsin Hussein from the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani which sheds light on some of the dynamics at work in these hospital fires and others in Iraq. Their presentation convincingly argues that widespread corruption to enrich the country’s political parties has crippled Iraq’s healthcare system, making similar tragedies inevitable in the future. Both reports are the product of long-term investments in field reporting, combined with institutional support for Iraqi researchers and journalists.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international politics program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story”, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions” and four edited volumes on politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the Iraq war. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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