U.S. Middle East policy has long been plagued with goals that are contradictory and frequently mutually exclusive. While it is understandable that a global power such as the U.S. would find itself confronted with overlapping interests that do not necessarily match up with regional political realities, the lack of a coherent policy direction in pursuit of vital national interests has hindered United States’ ability to achieve its policy goals and has led to a significant loss of ability to influence regional events. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has plagued policy makers since the U.S. has attempted to influence events in the Middle East. Recent events in Iraq and Syria have raised this issue to a whole new level of importance, a level which deserves the attention of political leaders.
In the 1950s, the U.S. began to realize that Great Britain and France, drastically weakened by the devastation of World War II, could no longer be the guarantors of regional stability and, thereby, ensure the unfettered flow of the oil required to fuel the post-war economic boom. Efforts to maintain a stable region called for good relations with the oil producing Arab states and minimal conflict within the region. At the same time the conflict between Arab states and the fledgling state of Israel became a major source of instability. Beginning in the Kennedy administration and expanding during the Johnson administration, the U.S. evolved a policy of unconditionally supporting the State of Israel both militarily, economically and diplomatically. This unconditional support has prevented the U.S from being an unbiased broker between the Arab states and Israel, thereby hindering efforts to achieve any level of stability.
The Cold War between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union introduced a whole new set of geopolitical complications for U.S. policy makers. Western efforts to contain Soviet expansionism led to U.S. support for unsavory autocratic regimes such as that of the Shah of Iran, resulting in alienation of ordinary citizens and the rise of anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East. A number of the autocratic regimes that the U.S. attempted to enlist in opposing the Soviet Union, were also staunchly anti-Israel. The resulting conflicts led to oil embargos and oil supply disruptions, all of which negatively affected the U.S. economy.
Despite efforts over the years to minimize the impact of conflicting goals on broader U.S. policy, the same issues continue to surface today, most notably in the Syrian Civil War and related Islamic State crisis. The Syrian Civil War began in the spring of 2011 as a series of protests demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. At this point, in the interest of preventing a major conflict, it probably would have been possible to enlist Iran and Russia to influence President Bashar al-Assad to accede to some of the demands of the protesters and diffuse the conflict. Instead the U.S. looked at the conflict in geopolitical terms and, seeing an opportunity to weaken Iran and its ally Hezbollah, demanded that “Assad must go.” Iran and Hezbollah were never going to allow this to happen and, as Assad responded with increasingly deadly violence, the uprisings evolved into a full-fledged Civil War, a war that has led to a major humanitarian and refugee crisis, destabilizing the whole region.
As ISIS, taking advantage of the regional chaos and instability, has expanded its area of control in Iraq and Syria, the U.S response, once again, reflects conflicting policy goals. In Iraq, U.S. troops are fighting the Islamic State alongside the Shite-dominated Iraqi government and its ally Iran. In Syria, the U.S., in a continuing effort to overthrow the Shite government of Bashar Assad, is supporting and arming the Sunni rebel groups, many of whom are allied with ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry has attempted to enlist the so-called moderate Sunni Arab states, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, into the anti-ISIS coalition, the same states that have been supporting ISIS against the Assad regime. These policy goals that are at cross-purposes make it very difficult to craft a coherent strategy.
Changing this dynamic, which would demand that the United States make some hard choices, continues to be very difficult. Politicians in democracies are notorious for their inability to make tough decisions, particularly choices among those who all have strong political constituencies. The current situation is no different. The most likely outcome is that we will continue to muddle through, hope for the best and resolve nothing.