It seems to me….
“Middle East history is replete with examples of missed and lost chances to make peace.” ~ Richard N. Haass.
The Middle East has been a major conundrum for the U.S. since approval of the Balfour Agreement (which was opposed by both Roosevelt and Churchill). It is difficult to discern the U.S.’s Middle East policies; especially since our supposed friends also act like our enemies. We remain “friends” with countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that continually act in opposition to us but break our treaty agreement with Iran which had adhered to a signed accord. It is quite possible that the U.S. in fact does not have any coherent policy toward the Middle East.
It always is advisable to know who are one’s enemies. It is not always that clear. It might be that who we consider our better friend actually is our enemy. The U.S.’s only actual friends in the Middle East are Israel, who is dependent on the U.S. for its very existence, and the Kurds, who we recently betrayed.
Saudi Arabia, while supposedly a U.S. ally, has until recently constituted a larger threat to the U.S. than Iran. Not only is it from where the majority of the World Trade Center bombers originated, it also finances the Madrassahs, the radical Islamic missionaries whose religious schools spread their Wahhabis doctrine of extremist teaching and hatred throughout the Islamic world. These Islamic-extremist Wahhabis religious schools teach and foment radicalism throughout the area. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful and tolerant but the extremist Wahhabi and Salafist sects, primarily funded by the Saudis, Qataris, and Kuwaitis, represent a significant philosophical strain within Sunni Islam that is a clear and present danger to the rest of the world.
For years Saudi Arabia seemed inert, relying on its vast oil wealth and the might of its U.S. patron to buy quiet at home and impose stasis on its neighbors but as oil prices have tumbled, the U.S. has stepped back from leadership in the Middle East. The visible result is the brutal treatment of dissent at home and assertiveness abroad.
Low prices are a time-bomb for a country dominated by oil and a government that relies on it for up to 90 percent of its revenues. Their budget deficit swelled in 2016 to 15 percent of GDP. There remains much in the Saudi budget that could be cut but that would be a perilous undertaking requiring dismantling a system where petro-cash, not taxes, pays for free education and healthcare as well as highly subsidized electricity, water, and housing.
Their economy is chronically unproductive and dependent on foreign labor. Two-thirds of Saudi workers are employed by the government where it has been too easy for Saudis to avoid actually working. With the workforce projected to double by 2030, the country will prosper only if the lethargic statist economy is turned around, diversifying from oil, boosting private business, and introducing market-driven efficiencies. The government announced plans to do this by getting the state out of all but its essential functions but, at least so far, the new regime has shown resistance to any meaningful political reform.
From health and education to state-owned companies, the new generation of Saudi leadership is looking to the privatization and private provision of public services. It has plans for charter schools, an insurance-based, privately provided healthcare system and is supposedly considering either the complete or partial privatization of more than two dozen agencies and state-owned companies including the national airline, telecoms firm, and power generation. Their biggest corporation is Aramco, a national icon and almost certainly the world’s most valuable firm.
Pakistan, another supposed U.S. ally, has knowingly harbored members of the Afghan Taliban and Quetta Shura. Pakistan has alleged that the U.S. has done little to control security in Kunar Province of Afghanistan where Pakistan’s most-wanted terrorist, Mullah Fazlullah spent time in hiding. Furthermore, as a result of the Lahore incident and black operation in the country which killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden several years ago, followed by the Salala incident, relations between the two countries have become increasingly strained.
Pakistan is identified as a base for terrorist groups and their supporters operating in Kashmir, India, and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s army has conducted unprecedented but largely ineffectual counterterrorism operations in the country’s western tribal areas where Al Qaeda operatives and pro-Taliban militants are said to enjoy “safe haven”. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the cross-border infiltration of Islamist militants from Pakistan into Afghanistan is a key obstacle to ever neutralizing the Taliban insurgency.
Afghanistan’s Taliban movement itself began among students attending Pakistani religious schools (madrassas). Many of Pakistan’s madrassas are financed and operated by Pakistani Islamist political parties such as the JUI-F (closely linked to the Taliban), as well as by multiple unknown foreign entities, many in Saudi Arabia. As many as two-thirds of the seminaries are run by the Deobandi sect, known in part for traditionally anti-Shia sentiments and at times linked to the Sipah-e-Sahaba terrorist group.
A key aspect of the madrassas’ enduring appeal to Pakistani parents is the abysmal state of the country’s public schools. Pakistan’s primary education system ranks among the world’s least effective.
I am not defending Iran – it remains a rogue state and a major sponsor of regional terrorism. Iran, being a major backer of terrorism throughout the Middle East, is definitely not a friend of the U.S. (though since the U.S. was instrumental in overthrowing their duly elected government, has constantly sought regime change, and recently assassinated a much revered national hero and leading government leader, that probably should be expected).
Despite Trump’s decision not to recertify what he labeled the “terrible” Iran deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has largely remained in effect though Iran recently took another step away from the JCPOA by injecting gas into centrifuges at its Fordow facility which could produce enriched uranium to be used possibly either for nuclear energy or, if highly enriched, a weapon. Iran said it would reverse any enrichment if the JCPOA’s other signatories; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia; provide economic relief from crippling U.S. trade and industry sanctions. Considering the latest deterioration of U.S./Iranian relations, it is questionable if that will remain true.
Europe strongly condemned Trump’s decision, and along with China and Russia, pledged to remain committed to the JCPOA as long as Iran complies, even if the U.S. backs out. Were such a breakdown between the U.S. and other permanent UN Security Council members (as well as Germany) to occur, the U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran could well disappear as European, Chinese, and Russian firms deepen business ties with Iran.
The continued success of the JCPOA is also vital for the prospects of a peaceful resolution of tensions with North Korea. Indeed, some argue that the JCPOA could be a blueprint for a similar agreement with North Korea. By contrast, the U.S. has almost certainly lost negotiating credibility with North Korea after Trump pulled out of the Iranian agreement.
Trump’s policies, the withdrawal from the JCPOA, and the stiffening of sanctions, are weakening Iran’s moderate factions and strengthening its hardliners. Trump has irritated the allies, opened a new avenue for Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East, and heightened the probability Iran will revive its nuclear program, all for the sake of killing a deal that blocked this program for the next two decades and in pursuit of an unrealistic fantasy, which has been punctured by so many other dark escapades in U.S. foreign policy, that ousting an unfriendly regime will bring to power a much friendlier one.
Trump’s constant barbs against Iran come with political risk along with some potential political benefits: talking tough on Tehran will please Trump’s Republican base as well as Israel and some Arab states. But the broader reaction has been to expose how isolated Trump is on the world stage, especially after unilaterally quitting the JCPOA. European leaders are sympathetic to many of Trump’s complaints about Iran as they are concerned about Iranian aid to terrorist groups implicated in attacks across Europe. But these same allies believe Trump should have built on the nuclear agreement instead of walking away from it. They also fear the U.S. is doing what it can to collapse the regime without a long-term strategy which could result in additional political chaos and human suffering in the already volatile Middle East.
For most of the past half-century, U.S. leaders knew who their friends and enemies were and had a fairly clear sense of what they were trying to accomplish but not now. U.S. strategy has failed to consider the dramatic changes that have transformed the Middle East’s strategic landscape. Our current Middle East strategy is not working and principles that shaped U.S. policy in the past are no longer helpful.
If the strategic importance of a region is declining, if none of the local actors deserve unvarnished U.S. backing, if our best efforts make both friends and foes angry at us, then maybe we should stop trying to fix problems that we have neither the wisdom nor the will to address. In the end, the fate of the Middle East is going to be determined by the people who live there and not by us, though we might be able to play a constructive role on occasion. We have long recognized the benefits of coaching from the sidelines rather than getting bloodied on the field. The difficulty has been translating that strategy into a viable and sustainable long-term policy. So far, it has not been successful.
The U.S. will never be able to solve all the problems in the Middle East but should admit it shares culpability for their origin. Our premature abandonment and lack of support for the Afghanistan following their defeat of the Soviet Union allowed the Mujahideen to transition into the Taliban. Our unwarranted overthrow of Iraq freed Iran to pursue regional terrorism. The list goes on….
Perhaps reversal of the U.S.’s moronic withdrawal from the JCPOA if Iran agrees to refrain from terrorist support would salvage some semblance of order. But now, there is much well-warranted resentment toward the U.S. by many nations in that area. The prospect of securing any lasting peace has been greatly diminished by U.S. policies. Regaining the trust and confidence of those nations will be challenging.
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Richard Nathan Haass is an American diplomat. He has served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State.