How do we find ourselves here? In January of 2016 the Middle East is in shambles, and not its typical variety. The Islamic State holds sway in Iraq and Syria, a largely forgotten civil war smolders in Yemen, and, years after the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring, only little Tunisia finds itself in possession of a functioning democracy. Meanwhile, the region’s heavyweights (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey) are engaging in increasingly serious and interwoven wars of words with one another, and America, the ostensible global hegemon, is left scratching her head in disbelief at a 21st century unraveling of the cradle of civilization. What, then, can policy makers possibly do to find some vestige of a path back to relative stability? If I knew, I would probably have free tuition. I don’t, but I have some ideas. To me, the fundamental brokenness of America’s Middle Eastern policy emanates from an inability to pick the right partners in the region, a fact which is becoming increasingly apparent. There seems to be no shortage of examples of failed partnerships (see our recent efforts to train “acceptable” rebels for combat in Syria), but three stand out: those with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.
The Saudi monarchy’s recent execution of Shia icon Nimr al-Nimr represents the latest escalation in the state’s rancorous feud with the Shia authority of Tehran, not to mention its own extremely dissatisfied Shiite minority. The move, which shocked and enraged many of the kingdom’s allies, can perhaps best be seen in the broader context of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s heavy, proxy-ish involvement in Yemen’s civil war. That conflict has seen a Saudi-led Gulf State coalition engage in a determined response to Iranian backing of the Shia Houthi rebel group, which the Saudis view as an alarming and inflammatory incursion. The Iranian burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran led to the severing of diplomatic ties between the two states, and poses a question for the United States: Do we support our rather draconian ally in a largely sectarian feud, or work for broader conciliation throughout the region (something which isn’t possible if the two largest players are not on speaking terms)? In unquestioningly backing the Saudis, America plays into the hands of hardliners within the Iranian regime, undermining the maneuverings of moderates like President Rouhani by refusing to treat the penitent government fairly. Beyond this, the lukewarm response to the rather unwarranted execution of a religious leader is sure to convince the region’s Shia (namely in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen), that the U.S will put its geostrategic priorities before the wellbeing of a minority which perceives itself as embattled. What is our pay off from taking a risk of this magnitude? It certainly isn’t the Saudi state’s proliferation of its hardline Wahhabi Sunni ideology, which is exported around the globe in the form of Koran schools and religious education materials in many countries in Africa and Asia. In endorsing a reactionary sect of Islam, the Saudi state inhabits a gray area in America’s broader attempts to combat extremism, a reality which must cause some measure of discomfort in Washington.
In 2013, Egypt, one of the traditional (and invariably autocratic) heavyweights of the region, inaugurated its first democratically elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi. The U.S.’ longtime ally, former dictator Hosni Mubarak, had been toppled a short time before in one of the most memorable episodes of the wider Arab spring. Morsi’s election, however, presented the United States with a unique opportunity: to show support for the fragile and novel process of democracy in the region, a long-held goal of American policy makers. Morsi’s attempts at autocratic consolidation set off new rounds of protests shortly after his election, and he was undemocratically deposed by the Egyptian military less than a year after he took office. The U.S once again adapted to the new status quo, and offered support to the new al-Sisi regime. In failing to register much protest at the unceremonious termination of the long-suffering Muslim Brotherhood’s (a group which is not entirely palatable to American values) first stab at governing, America sent a message to moderate Islamist parties across the region our commitment to democracy may be limited by our alignment with any of its eventual winners. Our failure to adequately support the more moderate Islamist elements (a very, very relative “moderation”) among the Syrian rebels is further evidence of the practical necessity of working with such groups. Instead, al-Sisi represents a return to square one for would-be Egyptian democrats, and regimes like his function as breeding grounds for extremism (see Sayyid Qutb in 1950s Cairo).
The mother of all policy quandaries, of course, answers to the name of Israel. Simply put, our dogged insistence on adjusting to Israeli policy as it is formed is a massive risk in terms of our regional standing. Benyamin Netanyahu’s mindboggling determination to continue to illegally annex Palestinian lands in the West Bank for Jewish settlement has led to nothing more than empty warnings from the U.S government. As Palestinian statehood is a cherished cause to many Arabs, the implicit toleration of flagrant mistreatment of Palestinians makes any talk of a peace deal difficult to believe. At the same time, Israel’s statements to the effect that it stills considers the use of military force against Iranian nuclear capacity its right despite the brokering of an American-designed deal on the dismantling of nuclear facilities is a massive embarrassment to the Obama administration. At times it is difficult to determine which ally is the world hegemon, with Israel’s willful departure from American policy standing in stark contrast to America’s reluctant change of course to follow the whims of the hawkish Netanyahu administration.
Part of being a hegemonic power is selecting and working with the proper allies. In our approach to relationships with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, America has recently missed the mark, alienating many of the region’s inhabitants in the process. So what can we change? First and foremost, a working balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia must be found, and their relations must be repaired. Second, the U.S needs to steel itself to work with unsavory but relatively preferable Islamist groups if it wants to build a democratic future for the region and defeat ISIS. A doubling down on what may well be a distinctly Muslim democracy would go a long way towards “winning hearts and minds” in a region where we have grown accustomed to losing them.