The United States has never had an alliance system in the Middle East that resembled NATO or SEATO. We have never had binding bilateral defense treaties with governments there. American policy fostered the fairly short-lived 1955 Baghdad Pact involving the United Kingdom and several American allies in the region, but it did not include us. Only due to Turkey’s membership in NATO have we had a full treaty commitment to the security of any country in the Middle East.
Yet the United States has repeatedly, under Presidents of both parties, asserted a responsibility in the region. The Carter Doctrine of 1979 responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by stating, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” President George H.W. Bush sent a huge armed force to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq captured it in August 1990. President after President has asserted a security relationship with Jordan and Israel, with Saudi Arabia, and, after 1979, with Egypt. Close relations buttressed by extensive military supply arrangements eventually developed with the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain as well.
This combination of sub-treaty relationships has made the United States the dominant power in the region since World War II weakened the United Kingdom, and especially since President Eisenhower opposed Britain and France over Suez in 1956 and the British withdrew from “east of Suez” by 1971. The Middle East has changed enormously in that period: from pan-Arab anti-colonial agitation, the appearance and disappearance of Nasserism, the dangers from several Arab wars against Israel, the rise and fall of the Soviet threat, the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah, to today’s new jihadi threat, rising Iranian power, and state failures in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria that have followed the “Arab Spring.” What had not changed until the Obama Administration was the shared sense that the United States would act to advance its interests, protect its friends, and either deter or, if necessary, defeat its enemies.
If this was not an alliance system in the formal sense, it was a network of friendships, economic and political interests, military bases, repeated American statements of intent, and forceful U.S. action that functioned just as well as a more formal alliance could have. It is this network that must be rebuilt by the next President, for Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, and Turks all doubt that it still exists. The reasons for their doubts are all too familiar. The United States in the past seven years set and abandoned a “red line” against chemical warfare in Syria, failed to back and build responsible Syrian rebel forces, abandoned Iraq before security and political normalcy could be fully established, abandoned its own demands that Iran bring its nuclear weapons program to a halt, and turned a close alliance with Israel into a tense and nasty series of confrontations.
This last matter is worth a moment’s pause. Sharing common enemies, Israel and its Arab neighbors have obvious common security interests. They face a dangerous enemy in Iran, newly enriched by the end of international sanctions and the unfreezing of more than $100 billion in assets. They also face a group of non-state and semi-state actors, the jihadis of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the powerful Iranian-backed Hizballah. Meanwhile, the prospect of major conventional warfare between the Arab states and Israel is virtually nil. What is so striking now is that, although the United States managed to maintain balanced and friendly relations with Israel and the Arabs for decades, even when they were nearly at war (and sometimes even when they were at war), today we have poor relations with both sides just when their own relations are the least fraught in their history.
Why is this? On the Arab side, the regimes see an American Administration that appears to view Iran as a potential partner. To them the nature of the Iranian nuclear program is crystal clear: Its goal is a nuclear weapon. For this reason they all supported previous U.S. demands that the program end: no enrichment, no secret programs kept from the IAEA, no underground sites. The UAE signed a nuclear energy agreement with the United States in which we demanded that they do zero enrichment. They signed readily, as other friends did, because this was an unwavering and universal American demand. Yet now they see the United States agreeing to allow Iran to have a vast nuclear infrastructure while effectively denying such rights to its own allies. Worse yet, they see the search for nuclear weapons as only one part of a broad Iranian effort throughout the region, including in several Arab countries, to establish regional hegemony. But at precisely this moment American officials appear smilingly on camera with Iranian diplomats, and the sense is widespread that with Iran, as with Cuba, the Obama Administration wishes deliberately to abandon, without significant compensatory conditions, a half-century of policy.
The first order of business should be ending the mistrust and tension with our closest friend and most valuable military ally, Israel.
Just as Israel and the Arab states see their interests beginning to coincide, our closest ally in the region, Israel, has been treated as an increasingly heavy burden to the United States. From the very first days of the Obama Administration, relations have been marked by tension. The Administration adopted in early 2009 the goal of zero new construction in any settlement, to include East Jerusalem — a goal to which no Israeli government could ever accede, and a condition no Palestinian leader had ever demanded. And when the Netanyahu government refused to accede, the Administration blamed Israel for sabotaging progress toward peace. Meanwhile, by demanding zero construction as a prerequisite for negotiations, the Obama policy backed the Palestinians into a corner: How could they appear less demanding than the Americans? So years went by without any negotiations at all. Secretary of State John Kerry’s intense efforts in 2013-14 to commence talks were finally met by Israeli agreement and then rejected by PLO chairman Mahmond Abbas—yet the Obama Administration has continued to speak and act as if Israel alone were to blame for the lack of peace negotiations.
Error followed error in U.S management of the relationship with Israel, including personal attacks on its Prime Minister. But when Israeli voters went to the polls in 2015, they did not punish the Prime Minister for mismanaging relations with Washington, as might have been the result if there were bilateral tensions ten or twenty years ago. They believed the problem lay at the American end, with the President rather than the Prime Minister, and re-elected him.
Arab leaders watching these tensions emerge might themselves, ten or twenty years ago, have been encouraged to see a wedge driven between Washington and Jerusalem—but not today. If this is how the Americans treat an ally as close and as popular as Israel, what kind of treatment could they themselves expect? Instead of gloating publicly they have winced in private, for they find themselves in the same boat with Israel, now facing a mutually goading combination of Sunni jihadi and Iranian threats. The state failures in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and prospectively Lebanon, as well as in Yemen, have allowed Iran to increase its role in the Arab Middle East, and allowed it to move its forces closer to Israel’s border with Syria. The opposition to Iranian power and proxies consists of Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf Arabs, who, needless to say, lack the cohesion that Iran’s leadership brings to the Shi'a forces.
Those common, and commonly acknowledged, threats provide a basis for rebuilding the American position in the region and regaining the trust of its leaders. The first order of business should be ending the mistrust and tension with our closest friend and most valuable military ally, Israel. Consultations between its officials and our new Administration should come quickly, and public displays of renewed confidence will be helpful—not only in Israel, but in showing the Arabs that something has changed and in reminding Iran of the closeness of U.S.-Israel ties. Early discussions of the bilateral military relationship are an obvious requirement, despite the Obama Administration's misleading claims that in this area relations are superb.
But the political side, not the military one, is where the real damage has been done and needs to be repaired. Diplomatically, the United States should reiterate that it will energetically—not grudgingly—defend Israel in all international fora. This will head off the need for some U.S. vetoes in the UN Security Council, because it will strengthen the American bargaining position as resolutions are drafted. Wielding the veto on Israel’s behalf should be viewed not as a failure of diplomacy but as a proud assertion of American interests and principles. In public and in private, the U.S. government should combat the BDS movement and similar actions meant to delegitimize Israel and harm its economy—including by adoption of new laws that deny access to the American market to those institutions and companies that boycott Israel.
The obsession with construction in settlements and in East Jerusalem should be replaced by the kind of quiet agreement reached by the Bush Administration with the Sharon government in Israel: to limit settlement growth and keep the “peace map” intact. Instead of a dramatic and unrealistic search for instant, comprehensive peace agreements (that Israelis and Palestinians alike see as improbable), the United States should focus initially on improving Palestinian life and building Palestinian institutions. Greater economic progress, more autonomy, improved security, deepened Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian-Jordanian cooperation, and the strengthening of Palestinian institutions will pave the way toward an eventual solution. Those goals are not dramatic, but they are both necessary and realistic.
If we are serious about preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon, as President Obama has repeatedly claimed is U.S. policy, let us both speak seriously and prepare seriously.
Similarly, the existence of common security interests between Israel and key Arab states presents an opportunity. An America mistrusted by both sides cannot take advantage of it, but in a moment of renewed alliances there will be possibilities. Perhaps some of the secret discussions between Israel and several Arab states could be made more public, or new “track II” discussions energized. Perhaps the 2002 “Arab Plan” could be discussed in official or semi-official gatherings, to see if there are any prospects for Arab flexibility and Israeli responses. Perhaps Egypt and Jordan, whose peace treaties and security ties with Israel are unique, can play a role. Such possibilities would need to be examined quietly, to see what the traffic will bear—and what it would take for the traffic to bear more. But these are all possible fruits of a reassertion of American leadership in the region.
With the key Arab states—Jordan, Egypt, and the GCC countries—a great deal of confidence has been lost. In private, Arab diplomats are withering in discussing the American negotiations with Iran and the apparent American misunderstanding of the nature of the Islamic Republic. What they seek from the United States cannot be satisfied by increased arms sales, nor even by “security umbrellas,” for the real problem is not mechanical: It cannot be solved by selling F-16s or even F-35s, much less by speeches about American resolve.
What these Arab allies really seek is a new American Middle East policy that recognizes our common interests—and common Israeli and Arab interests—in defeating Iran’s regional ambitions. Such a policy would oppose the Iranian and Iranian-proxy (Shi'a militias and Hizballah) military presence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It would understand that the Assad regime is an Iranian asset that is also a jihadi manufacturing engine, because the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria has been and remains the best recruiter for the Islamic State. It would drop fantasies that in some mysterious way the Islamic Republic can ever be an American partner—and fantasies that “moderates” in Tehran can gain power if only we give Iran sufficiently broad concessions. It would return to the previous American policy that an Iranian nuclear weapons program is unacceptable and will be opposed through wide sanctions and a credible military threat.
There is no reason why, to enhance that threat and to make practical preparations for a last resort that may yet come, the United States and regional allies should not publicly announce and then seriously commence talks about possible military options, likely Iranian responses (against the United States, the GCC states, and Israel), and how to limit and cope with them. There should be no taboo on discussion of ways to prevent the advancement of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and related matters. If we are serious about preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon, as President Obama has repeatedly claimed is the aim of U.S. policy, let us both speak seriously and prepare seriously.
More broadly, we should reinvigorate the Gulf Security Dialogue that the Bush Administration began, where conventional and nuclear threats to our Gulf Arab partners can be discussed. The goal should be to build a forum where we can coordinate with our partners on issues from the Iranian threat to counterterrorism to border and maritime security, in diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels.
The nature of U.S. alliances with the Arab states will never rival those with Japan, Australia, Canada, and the democracies of Europe, and not only because they are not formalized in a defense treaty. These relationships were built initially because the Gulf Arab states were critical sources of oil for the United States, but that is changing on both sides. Today we are moving to energy independence, while for the Gulf oil producers the Asian countries, not the United States and Europe, are now the key customers. Oil will not be a strong cement for our future relations.
There is another factor newly in play, too: the internal situation in many Arab nations. Most of the Arab countries (Tunisia is for now the only exception) are not democracies, and some are organized in ways that offend Americans: absolute monarchies in some cases, repressive dictatorships in others, with social patterns that often enough include the systematic oppression of women and minorities. A close partnership with them against common enemies should not include, and indeed is undermined by, the argument that our silence about fundamental American values is required for any alliance to exist. It is not. Prudence and humility dictate that we speak carefully, but pride and a deep belief in our own values demand that we speak about freedom, justice, and equality.
So does pragmatism, for, as we learned in Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, dictatorships that appear stable may be illegitimate in the eyes of the people—and may disappear overnight. In the Middle East as elsewhere, governments need legitimacy—whether its basis is traditional monarchy, popular sovereignty and free elections, or efficient rule and real economic progress. Some Arab governments have combined several of these positive qualities; others none at all. Today Tunisia, a brave experiment with Arab democracy, deserves full American support. Given the dangers now unleashed in the Middle East, managing our relationships with regimes that govern poorly presents great challenges: Do we downgrade ties and cut aid, or maintain them and risk greater complicity with oppression, whihc can bring long-term popular resentment? American policy must keep in mind that Arab states are more than the regime officials with whom we deal, and that behind that façade exist populations seeking better lives. There is no magic formula for balancing security issues and support for freedom, but our policy should always reflect the need to maintain a balance—rather than jettisoning our own principles as needless complications.
In fact, the United States has in past decades maintained close relationships with Arab regimes while speaking out about freedom, and kept close alliances with Arabs and Israelis at the same time. Today we have managed to weaken all of our formerly friendly bilateral relations in the Middle East and our regional role, diminishing American prestige and emboldening foes. American allies in the region, and pro-American forces there more generally (from parties to movements to individual leaders), are on the defensive. Our friends new and old await new policies that protect our interests and values. They will look to a new President to reassert the American leadership that marked U.S. foreign policy after 1945 under Presidents and congressional majorities of both parties. We should not disappoint them.