How America lost its way in the Middle East
America's military prowess has never been greater, but our thinking about foreign affairs has rarely been so pedestrian.
In the days since the U.S. military followed through on direct orders from President Trump to kill Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, we've heard from a wide range of pundits and analysts. On one side, the right reverts to self-congratulatory chest-thumping about inflicting punishment on a "bad guy" who "deserved" his fate. On the other, the left declares Trump's actions "illegal," denying the legitimacy of his rationale for striking Soleimani.
Each side has a point. Soleimani has been sowing chaos in the region, and he had taken a series of provocative actions against American troops and allies since the summer that more than justified a strong response. At the same time, the Trump administration's stated casus belli (attempting to preempt future attacks about which we purportedly possessed firm intelligence) sounds suspiciously like the ginned up justifications the Bush 43 administration used to make the case for going to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
All of this is horribly familiar and insufficient. International affairs involve so much more than demonstrations of moral purity and the punctilious following of legal procedures. Yet you would never know this from the level of discussion and debate in Washington and the mainstream media, where far more fundamental and important issues — like whether it was wise to take out Soleimani, whether it advanced America's vital national interests, and how the act fits into our broader strategy in the world — hardly ever come up. Instead, the focus repeatedly returns to questions of moral righteousness and legality.
But wait, some are bound to object, haven't plenty of analysts been debating whether the attack on Soleimani was a bad idea, including whether it could provoke a painful Iranian counter-strike on the U.S. and its allies? People have indeed been arguing about such questions. But these are questions of tactics, not strategy. They presume that the broader aim of our policy — pushing back against Iranian influence in Iraq while we also continue to pursue additional goals within the country, among them stamping out the last remnants of ISIS — is settled, obvious. They presume that our strategy in the region — including partnering with Saudi Arabia in its proxy war with Iran in Yemen — is sound. That it's reasonable. That it benefits the United States to keep attempting to militarily micromanage the Middle East 18 years after the September 11 attacks and nearly 30 years since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
That's when today's unspoken, unquestionable assumptions about American strategy and interests in the Middle East — assumptions that desperately need to be subjected to scrutiny — were first formed and then hardened into a supposedly self-evident dogma.
When Hussein invaded Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush decided to turn it into a decisive moment of the post-Cold War world. One nation had invaded another, and Bush set out to lead a broad-based coalition of countries, working through the United Nations, to show that such behavior would not stand. The world would come together, behind American leadership, to turn back and punish this extra-territorial aggression. This would be a "New World Order," a model of how international relations might be conducted in a world with just one superpower at the helm seeking to uphold liberal norms.
As Bush defined its goals, the Gulf War was a smashing success. The international coalition held together and Hussein's invasion was reversed. But because Hussein was left in power, the U.S. ended up in the unenviable role of serving as the primary enforcer of U.N. disarmament resolutions and No Fly Zones that were imposed to protect minority groups in the country's north and south. It turned out that the New World Order boiled down to the American military periodically launching punitive air strikes against a dictator 6,000 miles from American shores in the hopes that he might learn to play nice with the "international community."
This continued throughout the administration of President Bill Clinton, while several members of the Bush 41 administration, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, came to the conclusion that they'd made a mistake in allowing Hussein to stay in power (even though any effort to overthrow him after his expulsion from Kuwait would have shattered the coalition Bush had assembled to fight and support the war's narrow aims). On the one hand, Hussein's sovereignty was severely curtailed. On the other, he now considered the U.S. his mortal enemy. Was it really in America's interests to allow him to stay in power, waiting for the world to grow tired of policing him? Eventually he'd reacquire the right to use his airspace as he wished and restart his weapons programs. And then the U.S. would be confronted with a potent adversary out for revenge.
In the context of the late 1990s, with the U.S. seemingly on top of the world, this anxiety sounded more than a little paranoid. But after 9/11, with the U.S. feeling wronged and newly vulnerable, it seemed indisputable to many. Certainly for Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others now working in the Bush 43 administration, it was clear that the U.S. needed to solve its Hussein problem once and for all. This would be good for America, of course, but also for its allies in the War on Terror, and for the U.N., which would finally be assured that its post-Gulf War resolutions were being enforced, and for the Middle East, which would learn a valuable lesson about the potency and righteousness of American power, and about the potential for democratic reform in the region.
All good things would go together. There would be no need for trade-offs. The U.S. would overthrow Hussein, our troops would be greeted as liberators, Al Qaeda would quake in its boots, and the next thing you know everyone from Tel Aviv to Kabul would be singing a happy American tune about the glories of freedom and democracy. Bush 41's vision of a New World Order had been transformed into a worldwide crusade to spread liberal democracy with heavy weaponry.
The amazing thing about this Panglossian vision of the world is that it not only survived the disaster of the Iraq invasion, occupation, insurgency, and civil war, but actually spread and took deeper root throughout the American foreign policy community as George W. Bush completed his second term and Barack Obama entered the White House. In 2003 these analysts hoped and assumed the dual process of ensuring American safety and transforming the Middle East in our image would be a quick and easy operation. Now they recognized that its endpoint may well be indeterminate. But that didn't mean it was any less choiceworthy. The members of America's foreign policy establishment now believed that upholding and enforcing order around the world required the U.S. to militarily micromanage the Greater Middle East.
Obama, decisively influenced by the tragic Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, was skeptical of this vision, and worked during his administration to resist it. In his early efforts to get Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt settlement expansion in the West Bank, his conciliatory Cairo speech about relations between the West and the Muslim world, his decision to withdraw troops from Iraq, and his pursuit of the Iran deal, the opening to Cuba, and the pivot to Asia — in all of these ways, Obama attempted to adopt a different, less messianic geopolitical strategy for the United States. And at each step leading members of the foreign policy community worked to thwart his efforts. At other times — as in his decision to repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Libya and his willingness to aid the Saudis in their efforts to crush an Iran-backed insurgency in Yemen — he proved too weak to withstand the institutional and ideological inertia in favor of intervention.
How does Trump differ from his predecessors? He appears to be motivated in large part by the desire to reverse every policy Obama enacted — which has had the effect of turning back the clock to the latter years of the Bush administration, though with some important differences. His tactics are more unpredictable than those of previous presidents, careening wildly from dovish restraint to provocative threats and acts of violence. And he neither talks about democracy nor acts in a way that displays any concern for the good of the people living in the parts of the world in which we continually meddle.
Yet Trump's actions nonetheless demonstrate that he believes it's in the interest of the United States to continue our military micromanagement of the Middle East, now with special emphasis on Iran. That is the key assumption that no one wants to acknowledge or examine, from the president on down through his advisers and the leading foreign policy "experts" of both parties.
Until someone in our public life questions this supremely questionable assumption, suggests an alternative strategy for our actions in the world, and builds popular support for it and against the stultifying status quo in Washington, American foreign policy will continue to drift from one pointless Middle Eastern war to the next, with no end in sight.
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