“You have to look at the history of the Middle East in particular. It has been one of failure and frustration, of feudalism and tribalism.” – Alexander Haig


I just recently read the very long and insightful piece by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, the Obama Doctrine. In it we get an intimate glimpse into the worldview of the 44th President of the United States as it pertains to the foreign policy issues of the day. I debated whether to add my comments, such as they are, to the vast amount of commentary dissecting every aspect of the article. Seeing that most of the headlines seemed to concern themselves with the somewhat undiplomatic quotes on various foreign leaders, I decided to add my 2 cents to what I find interesting about the President’s views.

Headline-making quotes aside, what is truly interesting is to see how the President reads the Middle East, not how he insulted various allies. According to the article, the President believes that tribalism is one the most destructive forces in the region, “a force no President can neutralize”. Clearly it has been the mistake of many a Western leader and thinker to underestimate the enduring power of tribalism and sectarian divides, and conversely, overestimating the power of the nation-state to bridge ancient divisions. Examples of this could be seen in the Bush Administration’s attempt to democratize the Middle East, where he made the bold claim that “Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation”. It could also be seen more recently in the Obama Administration’s passive support for the overthrow of the former Egyptian President Mubarak during the “Arab Spring”, which led to the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or as Obama said in his speech in Berlin: “This is the moment we must help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East”.

It is almost 8 years later and that new dawn seems further away than ever. Iraq was allowed to unravel completely, the Syrian civil war had a death toll of a quarter million up until August 2015, according to the UN, and Libya has been broken down by tribal and religious warfare, with ISIS playing a major part in the fighting in all these (former) countries.

Goldberg describes how the President grew disillusioned, as brutality and dysfunction overwhelmed the region. What is truly astonishing is not just how Obama, but how so many Western analysts and politicians from the political left and right, so fundamentally misread what was happening. The Israeli perspective was much more somber, given the possibilities for chaos and the impact on its national security. The former Israeli general and member of the Knesset, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer, was heavily criticized for lamenting the fall of Mubarak, saying in 2011 that “he [Mubarak] was one of the leaders who was able to keep the stability in the Middle East.” It is highly unlikely that Mubarak would have been able to influence events to the point where the region wouldn’t have descended into tribal warfare, but nevertheless it is telling how differently the news of his downfall were greeted in Israel.

Obama has come to the conclusion, according to the article, that the Middle East isn’t “terribly important to American interests” and that in any case, there is little a US President can do about it even if it was. Goldberg writes that for Obama, the Middle East is a region to be avoided and that it is soon of negligible importance thanks to America’s energy revolution. The troubling part is not only the idea that American shale oil production, at some 5 billion barrels a day while consumption stands at roughly 7 billion barrels a day, would somehow allow the US to divest itself of its interests in the Middle East. Oil is, as we all know, a globally traded commodity and while the US might be able to get by on domestic production alone, its economy is linked to the rest of the world’s in a such a deep way that it must be considered a vital American interest to keep that oil flowing, which in turn means ensuring stability in the region. It is in my view more alarming that Obama has concluded that there is little a US President can do about the region. True, he sees the terrorism emanating from the region as something the President can and must deal with, as well as preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. Yet, with Obama it often seems to be a choice between all or nothing. In Syria pretty much nothing was done to thwart the full descent into chaos and war, although many analysts and decision-makers, even inside the administration, argued that something could in fact be done that wouldn’t mean another Iraq-style entanglement. With regards to the Iran-deal, Obama argued implausibly that the only alternative to the final deal was war.

The truth is that the US can’t remake the Middle East in its image, it can’t turn the regions’ nation-states into liberal democracies and it can’t prevent all bloodshed. Letting the region turn into chaos, however, is not the only other alternative that doesn’t demand a massive amount of American boots on the ground. I’m sure that foreign policy experts could, and have in fact, come up with plenty of other options to break the impasse. In my view, the US could for example increase support for the few progressive elements in the region, such as the embryonic Kurdish state in Iraq (and Syria). It could support the establishment of multiple new states based on ethnic, religious and sectarian lines – or tribal lines, if you will. Instead of working on gluing all these failed states back together, perhaps progress could be made if new borders were drawn and alliances made to contain the ambitions of new strongmen. Iraq, Syria as well as Libya are at this point beyond redemption as nation-states, but instead of letting Russia and Iran run roughshod in these countries, a new strategy based on division enforced by no-fly zones, alliances with the Gulf States and the Kurds, and working with the Europeans and perhaps even the Chinese, could perhaps at best give rise to the possibility of social progress in less divided states, or at the very least stop most of the slaughter of civilians. It would still be messy and it wouldn’t be pretty, but the region is already paying the butcher’s the bill in blood and this might be a way out.

I will end with a quote by Winston Churchill, outlining the need for a more realistic approach to the Middle East:

The Mid­dle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has estab­lished firm influ­ence and shown that it would main­tain its will. Your friends must be sup­ported with every vigour and if nec­es­sary they must be avenged. Force, or per­haps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all bet­ter recog­nise it. At present our friend­ship is not val­ued, and our enmity is not feared.” (Lon­don, 1958. Anthony Mon­tague Browne, Long Sun­set, 166–67., as quoted in Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations)

4 comments

  1. Is there anything in the quote that doesn’t ring true to you, especially in the light of the present situation? The romantic notion that this region could somehow make progress instead of descending into chaos without foreign influence, is misguided. What I’m talking about is giving the region a better chance, and my “solution” is in many ways the opposite of the imperialism that led to the current borders of these failed states.

  2. I always learn something when you share your thoughts. This is a complex area with territorial and cultural issues that probably cannot be solved from the outside and yet it affects us all. New states would be an option if there were discussion between warring factions. Do you think there is an “all or none” mentality in this region?

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I don’t know if there’s an all or nothing mentality in the region. I think people are stuck in outdated ways of thinking in general. I think the regional experience of nation-states is problematic, since they did not develop organically and were often constructed in such a way to foster dependencies on Britain, France and others, by installing weak minority rulers.
      This mess probably can’t be solved from the outside, as you say, but it doesn’t mean we can’t begin to work to stabilize the region and the most important aspect of that is to separate the various sides. Implementing no-fly zones, building alliances and pushing the Gulf states to help, could lead to the creation of smaller and more coherent political entities.
      I don’t think that the warring factions necessarily need to engage in discussions for this to happen. It could to various degrees be enforced from the outside. I don’t mean by the US alone, but by everyone who has an interest in the stability of the region such as the EU who struggles with the migrant crisis. The Chinese might not be willing to act, but perhaps both they and the Russians could be persuaded to at least refrain from using their vetoes in the UN Security Council (Russia would retain its bases in Alawite-controlled territories) and pave the way for a restructuring of these countries with the help of UN peace-keeping forces.
      I think that if prevailing logic says that the Israelis and the Palestinians should live in two states since they obviously can’t and do not want to live together, then the same logic should be applied on Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Alawites and others. This might be completely unrealistic, but if the President of the United States made it a priority and began to lead in this direction, then it’s doable. I don’t envision a quick process, but a long and messy one.

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