The US in the Mideast: balance of power and domestic forces

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Trump in Jerusalem

 The core message sent by President Donald Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia is that the US intends to consolidate security ties with traditional allies in the region (including Israel). This message is an explicit corrective to various trends that had emerged in the Barack Obama years, and starts from a divergent analysis of the forces on the ground and US interests.

The main premise seems to be that Obama’s attempt to integrate Iran (at least under certain conditions) in a deeply unstable and shifting regional landscape was simply an aberration, but also that the Arab revolts of 2011 (with their uneven repercussions) were freak one-off episodes, thus essentially irrelevant to the future. However, we all remember that those social and political events, sweeping the region from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, were followed by a torrent of analyses and commentaries explaining (ex post) how the socio-economic outlook of a dozen countries in the region made the political order obviously unsustainable. The same structural conditions are present today, and yet most critics of the emerging Trump approach are focusing only on the potential risks of an excessive focus on Iran. In fact, misreading broader developments in the Middle East also produces a one-sided and incomplete understanding of the Iranian question – the two  strands of the ongoing policy change are thus linked, by the role of domestic forces.

President Trump set a clear priority in his speech in Saudi Arabia: “…we must be united in pursuing the one goal that transcends every other consideration. That goal is to meet history’s great test—to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred.”

What is missing is a reference to civic freedom as part and parcel of the kind of social environment that presumably will help counter and prevent political extremism. Understandably, an official reception in Riyadh is not the easiest occasion to delve into the virtues of human rights and political freedoms, but a passing mention would have been consistent with American practical interests, not just abstract values – especially in light of post-2011 experience, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s systematic behavior demonstrates.

It is useful to step back from current events and identify some threads running through recent history. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was also (rightly or wrongly) a consequence of 9/11 – lest we forget, a terrorist attack by a group that had grown and expanded its reach in very badly governed regions of the world, thanks to strong connections with several US allies in the Middle East. That the 9/11 perpetrators and masterminds also happened to adhere to an extreme (and very marginal) variant of Sunni Islam may be secondary but it also deserves some attention, given today’s renewed emphasis in Washington on a large scale (Iran-led) “Shia threat”. Iraq was invaded partly because of the bahavior of its uncontested strongman and longtime leader, Saddam Hussein, who was an old-time partner of the West – however problematic. In sum, the precedent of 2003, which is still haunting US foreign policy in so many ways, reminds us of a long history of multiple and mixed motives for American choices.

The simplified, black-and-white view of the Middle East that President Trump has fallen back on , is puzzling because it lacks context, as if the 2011 revolts had never happened. Those confusing events, with some recurring features and many unique national elements, put in question the viability of regimes that had looked resilient, indestructible and even irreplaceable. The Saudis themselves were embroiled at least indirectly (mostly through the Yemen war and their external role in the Syrian disaster). But what to do in the event of  a new “Arab revolt” ? Will the White House remain staunchly on the side of any semi-(or wholly) authoritarian regime in the name of the fight against ISIS or the containment of Iran?

In short, the Trump administration seems to have forgotten that the nature of states and regimes does matter because there is a strong correlation between domestic politics, regional relations, and security spillovers that possibly affect American (and certainly European) interests: scarcely legitimate, economically ineffective, politically repressive regimes and ISIS-type movements feed  off each other. It’s hard to determine exactly the causal effects over short periods of time, but the correlation is pretty strong over the long haul (decades).

If this is the case, any meaningful policy review needs to ask  whether US policies can do something to influence this link between domestic and regional factors, rather than focusing exclusively on the balance of power between discrete and artificially impermeable entities such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, Egypt and Israel. The region has experienced – and will continue to experience – rapid and intense contagion effects and feedback loops involving sectors of the citizenry that are particularly mobilized and connected. Of course, a few of them have turned to political extremism and terrorist violence: they do not come from another planet, but are immersed in Middle Eastern societies.

Little positive influence on such complex phenomena will be exerted by considering Saudi and Egyptian leaders as “automatic” allies only because they want to contain Iran and are fearful of ISIS – while Israel is a very different case precisely because its domestic and international dynamics are radically different. Such a binary view of the strategic landscape, where Sunni allies are rewarded regardless of their domestic behavior and Iran is punished regardless of its attitude toward ISIS, hides more than it reveals. It is not even grounded in a correct balance of power analysis but rather on an arbitrary ideological divide.

Recently, a few timid attempts have been made by members of the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to articulate a more sophisticated approach to the link between internal politics of some states and their international alignments – particularly in a speech he gave on May 3. On that occasion, he accepted the challenge of the inevitable trade-offs between values and interests, describing a path of selective value-based choices guided by interests. However, a more interesting way to have this difficult debate would be to focus on the international repercussions of whatever (supposed) US allies in the region actually do domestically. That was exactly the crux of the matter in tackling the spillover of the 2011 revolts: the Obama administration was far from flawless and certainly made mistakes, but it is worth reflecting on that phase rather than pretending it left no mark in Middle Eastern societies.

Of course, the age-old question of “interests versus values”, or Realpolitik versus ideology, goes well beyond the Middle East and has posed recurring dilemmas  for all US administrations. The fact that a simple solution has yet to be found is no reason to ignore those dilemmas. Governments everywhere are keeping a careful watch on the kind of balance that is struck by the Trump administration. Someone who recently took notice in very explicit terms is Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: after his meeting with President Trump on May 10, he declared to the press that “Right now our dialogue is free from the ideological bias that was characteristic of the Obama administration… The Trump administration, the president himself and the Secretary of State, I have become convinced of this once again, are people who mean business. They want to reach agreements.”

They perhaps “mean business”, but the unanswered question is what deals would be acceptable to them and what thresholds should not be crossed by their counterparts, in terms of values. The approach to the Middle East that has emerged on the occasion of Trump’s first visit abroad does little to clarify this, and cannot strengthen Washington’s hand on the global scene.