What a workable Middle East strategy would look like if America had one

What a workable Middle East strategy would look like if America had one

Nearly a month ago, former defense secretary Bob Gates said in a discussion at MSNBC that America doesn’t have a Middle East strategy.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that when it comes to the Middle East, he does not think the United States has a strategy “at all.”

“We’re basically sort of playing this day to day,” Gates said in a discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I think our interests remain important in the Middle East.” …

“I think our interests are enduring, but I certainly don’t think we have a strategy,” the former defense secretary and CIA director said, adding that if Iraq begins to fall apart, Iran would only be emboldened in the region, noting concerns about unintended consequences of an independent Kurdistan, for example.

There can be little dispute that, in the terms Gates is speaking in, he’s right.  If we measure the Obama administration by the yardstick of conventional American policy since 1945, there is no discernible strategy – largely because there is no announced strategy, and no statement of American interests.

In an interesting and broadly-sourced editorial last week, World Tribune made the case that, given the lack of a coherent U.S. policy, the Middle East is “bracing for the ‘big war.’”  I assume this proposition comes as no surprise to most readers.

I’m not convinced that war on a mass scale is imminent; e.g., the regional war between Shias and Sunnis suggested by one of the World Tribune sources, Iraqi Kurdish commentator Hiwa Osman.  Middle Eastern conflicts tend to simmer in sub-massive twilight zones for years rather than turning into mass-scale wars on the Western model.  That has been the case for many centuries, and modern technology has shown no signs of changing the pattern.

But years of simmering conflict will still wreak havoc with national boundaries, central governments, alliances, and regional pressure points such as natural resources, chokepoints, and tradeways.  It’s not so much that the simmering pot sucks everyone else into armed conflict, as that it affects everyone else geopolitically and economically.

The flood of refugees from the Islamic South to Europe, for example, is very much about the simmering twilight zone of instability in Mesopotamia.  And in a short time, it will become evident that the entire Eastern hemisphere is affected by the crisis in Mesopotamia.

America’s alliances on either end of Eurasia have to be meaningful to the Eastern hemisphere allies in that context, as well as in the context of our own need to consolidate our ocean bastions.  If we’re not helping in an effective way to stabilize the Middle East, allies like the EU-3, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand will look elsewhere for tacit alliances (e.g., with Russia or China) that will get more done.

So, indeed, will our partners in the Middle East – as we see already with the repositioning of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to closer relationships with Russia, and of Israel with China.  We see the NATO allies nearest to the Middle East moving substantially closer to the Asian giants as well, with military and economic cooperation burgeoning between Greece and Russia, and Turkey and China.

All this inevitably means two things for the Eastern hemisphere: (1) giving up, to increasing degrees, on the American universalist principles of freedom of movement and equal geographic access; and (2) the Eastern hemisphere nations making arrangements that benefit them, regardless of their impact on the United States, or other nations not in one hegemon’s “club” or another.

We are where we are in 2015, and America can’t simply impose our will on the current situation.  But the challenge of true statesmanship has always been to pursue national interests from a position of limited power, in a largely predatory and recalcitrant field of foreign actors, while being a good ally and upholding the principles one wants to live by.  The Obama administration has failed, precisely, to do each of those things.  But there is nothing catastrophic or uniquely daunting about having to do them.  America has just gotten sloppy and forgetful about their necessity.

The launching points for a strategy

Given these realities, an American strategy for the Middle East must start with two core features.

One is the premise that we can’t have a disembodied “strategy for the Middle East.”  The Middle East affects and is affected by our national strategy for every part of the planet.  Having a national strategy for every part of the planet doesn’t mean we intend to dominate every part of the planet; it means we acknowledge that every part of the planet matters to our security and prosperity.  In fact, the various influences from around the planet interact with each other, and can’t be planned for in isolation.

The other core feature is determining our national priorities, both in general and for the Middle East in particular.

Our general priorities remain much what they have been for two centuries, and arise from our nature as a liberal maritime nation.  In key ways, the United States is a great island, with very long coastlines, and a heavy reliance on maritime freedom of movement.  To a greater degree than Eurasia, we require far-flung trade access across broadly exposed “exterior” lines of communication, in order to maintain a healthy economic diversity.

That geographic reality has been married for a long time with our liberal view of politics and trade – favoring openness, consensualism, voluntary agreements and exchanges, transparency – to form the basis for our national priorities.

At the most general and basic level, our priorities are (1) to keep our ocean bastions – the Atlantic and Pacific – friendly, so that we have free use of them but they can’t be used against us; (2) to keep our neighbors secure and friendly; and (3) to encourage openness and consensualism as far as possible across the globe, and discourage the formation of closed, armed, predatory blocs.

This last is partly because openness and consensualism are better for the human soul and economic prosperity.  But it’s also because they’re better for peace.  The attempts of aspiring hegemons to form closed blocs have long been the main menace to peace, largely because those who start outside the blocs are rarely anxious to be forced into them, and those inside chafe under them.

Islamists taking arms to form a caliphate are one type of aspirant to closed-bloc hegemony.  But so are the “co-prosperity-sphere” visionaries of today’s Russia and China, who want to dominate neighbors, chokepoints, and natural resources for exclusionary purposes.

In every dimension – security, politics, economics – it’s not just America that’s better off if these blocs are thwarted.  It’s everyone else too.  And note well: thwarting bloc formation isn’t about infringing on other nations’ national prerogatives.  It’s about protecting the national prerogatives of the nations that don’t want to be dominated or held at risk.

There is always a limit to what even the most powerful nation can do, and America can’t just reach out and accomplish everything our various political factions want.  That’s why we’ve always had just a small handful of unchanging priorities for national policy.

American national priorities

The most basic and enduring has been one we rarely think about today: maintaining a maritime posture that enables us to enforce security of access and movement in the world’s waterways.  Unlike our variable interest in land-based dramas abroad, this one has grown steadily and never waned – although in the last decade it has been neglected.

Close behind it has been the priority of having robust bilateral relations with as many nations as possible, and gaining access to trade, travel, and intellectual exchange with them.  Few remember today that this priority made us an annoying competitor and sometime-pest to the colonial empires of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The third main priority is one I would characterize differently from the usual formulation of it.  It infuses and overlays the first two, which are more mechanical and pragmatic in nature.  The third priority is “being America,” and carrying through on that in all our dealings abroad.  It doesn’t mean imposing our idea of a proper political order on other nations (or, shall we say, it only means that in extremis; e.g., when we have had to fight predatory nations into submission).  It does mean acting according to our principles, and pushing as far as we can for agreement from others to honor those principles as well.

This is most invincibly “defensible” in the realm of conventions for international relations, such as voluntarily negotiating boundaries, the use of resources, and the treatment of peoples.  The one and only reason why the world has consensualist expectations about such conventions today is that the United States has been the most powerful nation since 1945.  Without America, no such common expectations would have developed.

But the U.S. has also hoped to have a uniquely American influence with individual nations.  This isn’t merely a nice abstraction or a pipedream.  It’s a basic dynamic of human interaction.  I’ve put it this way in the past: America must either infect the world with hope, or be infected by the world with despair.

There’s no such thing as trying to relate to others while avoiding the exercise of influence or the expression of our character.  That goes for nations as well as for individuals and private institutions.  The challenge for America is choosing wisely in how we bring “being America” to the processes of international relations, which are mostly about convention, calculation, and a zero-sum view of advantage and disadvantage.

Our national genius, glimpsed rarely perhaps, but still nearly unique, has been to bust open the zero-sum dynamic of advantage and disadvantage in international relations.  We can’t always shape the conditions in which that’s possible.  But we can watch for and take advantage of them.

In fact, the best way to position ourselves for zero-sum-busting is to start our national strategy with the one indispensable element it must have.  If America is to “be America,” we have to be strong enough, not to unilaterally dominate every situation, but to be the independent actor whom other nations need to align with, rather than seeing ourselves as an actor who must align with someone else’s priorities.

Building the strategy

American strength is the starting point of a national strategy for the Middle East.  And that strength, in turn, starts with our will and our resources.  It’s easy to be pessimistic about both today.  But in terms of economic strength, political leaders like Rick Perry and Ted Cruz are spot-on:  we need to dramatically roll back the absolutely ridiculous burden of regulation on our economy.  If we do, it will take off like a rocket.

Pragmatically, that is the most important, near-term thing we can do domestically to restore our national strength.  Without doing it, the best we can achieve is managing a rapid descent into de facto indenture to other nations.  Doing it, on the other hand, would enable us to get our debt situation under control and navigate our way out of it – including addressing such towering problems as making good on our Social Security and Medicare obligations to seniors, while transitioning to a better system for younger Americans.

There are other measures we need to take to ensure our economic strength, but significant deregulation would allow us to do the most important things for our near-term security: rebuild the military, protect our borders, and get our debt under control.

The next step in building a national strategy for the Middle East is setting our specific priorities for the region.  I suggest they are the following:

1. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, while encouraging political change in Iran.

2. Bolstering the existing framework of security in the region, with an emphasis on secure tradeways (including airways as well as seaways); secure borders and conditions for our allies; active prevention of illicit flows of arms; and lively attention to the status of longstanding agreements and arrangements for stability. These latter considerations include things like UN and other monitoring missions, and the Israel-Egypt accord on the Sinai.  The arrangements may need tweaking; what’s important is that we affirm their significance to us, and keep them in the forefront of our policies.

3. Thwarting the formation of exclusionary blocs, whether the instigator is Iran, Russia, China, an aspiring Sunni caliph, or some other actor. America can’t and shouldn’t overrun the region and try to control it, or shoulder out other outside nations.  What we should do is act as a counterweight and offer alternatives, actively and energetically, to as many regional nations as will treat with us.

In Syria, for example, Damascus should have the option of turning to both Washington and Moscow as outside patrons.  Looking beyond the Assad regime, this should transition quickly into the U.S. encouraging Syrian factions to turn to and work with us, and making it most seriously worth their while. A settlement for Syria should depend on the concurrence of both the U.S. and Russia.

4. Building a new political arrangement for Mesopotamia and the Levant. The 100-year-old “Sykes-Picot” arrangement is dead.  There is nothing noble about trying to avoid involvement in building the new Middle East.  Such avoidance is actively stupid.

There are multiple outside actors with legitimate and illegitimate interests, as well as the regional ones.  If we want the common people of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to have a say in what happens to them, including special arrangements for the Kurds – and a care for the other peoples now being adversely affected by Iran and ISIS, such as the Yemenis and Libyans – there is only one way to advance that priority, and that’s to involve the United States in the rebuilding process.  There is literally no other nation that will care about the situation from that perspective, enough to make a priority of it and put national resources behind it.

Even from a narrowly “pragmatic” perspective, America must be involved if we are to prevent the formation of exclusionary blocs in the region.  Self-styled “realists” tend to see such blocs as stabilizing forces (as many in our State Department saw the Soviet Union during the Cold War).  But they aren’t.  Exclusionary blocs depend on despotism and extortion, and become brittle, overextended, and highly destabilizing over time, always feeling themselves at risk whenever some alarming example of freedom erupts near their borders.

The importance of “territoriality” and Westphalian process

Alert readers will point out that I haven’t yet spoken in a focused way about defeating ISIS or Sunni Islamist ideology.  Surely that’s a high priority, right?

And it is.  But in developing our strategy, we need to understand two important realities.  One is that ideology cannot be defeated in isolation from political control of territory.  People live, irreducibly and inseparably, on territory.  How it is controlled – by whom, and under what sort of political arrangements – dictates the options people have, and the vision and understanding they can aspire to.

Islamic State, or ISIS, has done us a great strategic favor by sorting itself into the mode of “territoriality” in advancing its ideological mission.  Islamic State has given us a way to defeat it.  We can’t kill Al-Qaeda by seizing territory and organizing it out from under a grab-bag of loosely organized jihadis.  But we can kill Islamic State by just that method.  And killing Islamic State – even if it means driving any surviving jihadis back into loosely organized, ephemeral bands – would be a watershed political victory of tremendous import.

Ronald Reagan understood clearly the connection of controlling territory with defeating ideology, which is why the doctrine that bears his name focused on supporting insurgencies and dissident movements in the Communist world.  His vision for rollback was about wanting the peoples in those nations to be able to overturn their despotic governments, and to gain control of what happened inside their borders.  Ideology is not defeated until it loses territory and can no longer impose itself on people through territorial control.

Although the same principle is at work in today’s Middle East, the mechanics of the proposition are different, because the borders don’t exist now – not effectively, at any rate – to make organizing against marauding despots a realistic goal.  The ruins of Iraq and Syria need updated borders, approved by armed patrons like the United States, more than they need anything else today.  Trying to “defeat ISIS” without drawing borders that would make “Islamic State” impossible is putting the cart before the horse.  There first has to be a political vision of what happens instead of Islamic State.

Here is the second, supremely important reality.  Drawing such borders will be a process that inherently builds on one set of philosophical principles versus another.  That very process is as important to defeating Islamic State as military action.

At this unique juncture in history, the strongest blow that could be dealt to radical Islamism is for the methods and principles of Westphalian statesmanship, and consensual multilateral action, to settle the internal chaos of Iraq and Syria, rather than having it fought out between ISIS and Iran.  The proof that would offer of which is the strong horse – responsible consensualism among nation-states, or apocalyptic Islamism – would resound for a generation, at least.

Features of a strategy

In briefly specific terms: there are Sunnis, Shias, and Christians in Iraq and Syria, and there are Kurds, Arabs, and ancient, non-Arab minorities in both nations.  All should have a voice in drawing boundaries for new political arrangements.  Alliances will form naturally among them; their voices will have to be guaranteed and brokered by outside patronage.

The UN has its uses in such a process, but it cannot have the final decision.  The nations that have to live with the result, and whose power would guarantee it, must be the patrons of last resort for the Iraqi and Syrian principals.  The U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the EU-3 would be the main outside actors involved in brokering and shaping the outcome.  They would represent the interests of others with whom they are aligned in the region; e.g., the Saudis representing the GCC and Jordan; the U.S. representing Israel and Lebanon; the EU-3 and Turkey – in however uneasy a combination – representing Cyprus.  Other interested parties like Egypt, China, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan would undoubtedly keep lines of communication open with multiple major actors.

Hezbollah should be excluded from participation.  Iranian maneuvers should be overridden peremptorily to exclude any demand intended to benefit Hezbollah.  Lebanon’s legitimate representation would be any that was aligned with the U.S. and the EU-3.  The connection of Hezbollah with Syria is to be severed, and Hezbollah to be isolated and starved.

Bashar al-Assad should not be involved.  It is not as important that he stand trial as that he be removed from power.  Let Russia put him up in a dacha somewhere if that’s the best way to get rid of him.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not to be involved as a distinct entity.  It doesn’t have political standing and should not have a voice.  Nor is the Arab League or the OIC to be a wedge into the process for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Nation-states will work this problem out.  Visibly doing so, and excluding non-state Islamists, is essential.

Islamic State cannot negotiate its way to any territorial concessions.  It is to be destroyed.  Likewise, any attempt by other Islamist jihadis to hitch their wagon to legitimate participants is to be ruthlessly prevented.

These parameters mean the U.S., and other key outside nations, will have to make choices: pick and choose whom they will support.  Only the United States will have any real angst about this.  To the other nations, even the EU-3, the necessity to back some factions is simply an obvious reality of statecraft.  (Bureaucrats in the rarefied precincts of the EU apparatus may be confused on that head, but in general, the foreign ministries of London, Paris, and Berlin are not.)

That means some folks at home will be upset and dissatisfied.  That’s how it works in doing the best you can to promote security and stability.  There’s no such thing as making everybody happy, or always getting it 100% right.

But would this be better than standing by and letting ISIS and Iran keep setting more and more of the Middle East and North Africa aflame?  Hell, yes.

Methodology and other considerations

The campaign for Iraq and Syria would entail prosecuting both political negotiation and military operations at the same time.  Nothing would focus and incentivize military effectiveness like having a political goal.  That’s the huge, gaping hole in the current situation.

Russia and Iran would perforce agree to negotiate, because the United States, without being all-powerful, nevertheless has the power to set a process in motion without them.  If the U.S. showed will and purpose, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be onboard quickly, along with the EU-3.  And the same factions that are currently disgusted with us inside Iraq and Syria would be encouraged and ready to get political.

It might be possible for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate on some forms of military activity.  Assuming that the main fighting forces are those of the U.S.-aligned factions in Iraq and Syria, along with the U.S. and Britain, France, Jordan, and the GCC (including the Saudis), decisions about the military campaign plan and its priorities would fall to the nations actually fighting.  It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the nations actually fighting will carry more weight in the political negotiations as well.

(The essential military problem is to surround and annihilate ISIS.  The beauty of putting in a U.S. force of perhaps 20,000, with about three-quarters of it on the Euphrates Corridor, is that when that level of concentrated force is exerted from one axis – i.e., pushing up the Euphrates from Fallujah – it won’t take that same level of force from the other axes to roll ISIS up.  Properly armed and supplied with air support and intelligence, the Iraqi national forces, the Kurds, and the other U.S.-aligned factions in Syria would be able to press ISIS from the other axes as ISIS retreated along the Euphrates.)

A depiction from an October 2014 post (link below) of a surround-and-annihilate, or "kesselschlacht," strategy  for annihilating ISIS.  Some factors have shifted since then, but the basic concept remains the same. (Google map; author annotation.  October 2014 link here: https://libertyunyielding.com/2014/10/26/zero-nowhere-obamas-syria-iraq-policy-leaves-reality-behind/)
A depiction from an October 2014 post (link below) of a surround-and-annihilate, or “kesselschlacht,” strategy for annihilating ISIS. Some factors have shifted since then, but the basic concept remains the same. (Google map; author annotation. October 2014 link here: https://libertyunyielding.com/2014/10/26/zero-nowhere-obamas-syria-iraq-policy-leaves-reality-behind/)


The sticky problem of Iran’s aspirations on Iraqi territory, including the participation of the Iran-backed Shia militias, is not necessarily the hill to die on in this effort.  There are a lot of Shias in Iraq who welcome Iran’s entry east and south of Baghdad.  And the existing central government is likely to remain readier for concessions to Iran than Americans would prefer.

This I see as both a manageable problem and a bargaining chip in the project of preventing Iran’s nuclear ambitions (as well as arm-wrestling Iran down from her destabilizing career in Yemen).  What Iraqis and the GCC can live with, America probably can.  Red lines must be drawn with Iran, but there is no use in drawing them where we’d have to actively overrule the local Iraqis to enforce them.

That means, however, that Iran should be excluded from Anbar, where she is unquestionably not wanted.  Iran should be squeezed out of Syria too, at least as a political kingmaker.  The U.S. can be a much better friend to Syrians who oppose Sunni radicalism than Iran can.  The Russians are welcome to keep us honest in that regard.  Iran should also be frozen and whittled away at in Lebanon.

The new political arrangements – however they are designated (e.g., accords, autonomous provinces, states within states) – should reflect such considerations, and in fact can only be made stable and sustainable if they do.

They must also form boundaries that deter Iran and hem her in, reminding the mullahs that they’re in a death spiral of their own making, and the Iranian people that they’d be better off with a more Persian and less Islamic-revolutionary regime.

The moral level of strategy

Strategy should always proceed from what we think is right, and what we think is most important.  If it doesn’t, it’s mere cynical maneuver, and will quickly be exposed as brittle and uncompelling.

What happens to Iraq and Syria will be a turning point for mankind, one way or the other – and as such, this juncture represents as much of a singular opportunity for the Western moral ideal of state-based consensualism as it does for Islamic apocalypticism.

It’s no accident that this opportunity is centered, in practical terms, on what nation-states can accomplish.  The nation-state is the West’s sub-imperial defense for peoples against the indifferent brutality of empires and collectivist ideologies.  Tribes can’t protect people’s rights, and empires don’t want to.  It’s only where the nation-state has become ascendant, as the chief unit for political organization, that rights like those expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and the UN Charter have been protected.  Indeed, the very ideas of limited government and accountable sovereignty demand the existence of the nation-state: tribes can’t be sovereign, and empires can’t be held accountable.

If the nation-state and the construct of Westphalian consensualism don’t have an answer for Iraq and Syria, the cost of trying to reconstruct an order that gives people hope and future, after Middle East chaos and the ISIS model of guerrilla lightning-war have metastasized, will be colossal.  America, along with every other member state of the UN, has an indivisible interest in seeing these Western constructs used, and seeing them succeed.

Unfortunately, most Westerners under the age of 40 are ill-equipped today to realize that we have the nation-state, and have prized a Westphalian order, for good reasons.  These measures are better than armed tribalism, ideological militarism, and hegemonic imperialism.  The West tried all those forms too, and found them unsatisfactory.

We gradually chose and fought our way to the basis for order that we had after World War II: a set of arrangements, based on moral assumptions, that has been astoundingly and unprecedentedly successful.  But our younger generations have been assured otherwise by the media and the academy.

What we do in this hour will nevertheless decide what the future of our civilization will be.  The strategy we choose should reflect our values and what we believe to be a responsible use of power.  Both of these things operate through the interlocking vehicles of nation-state power and consensualism; if we are not employing those vehicles, we aren’t acting according to our values.

Our strategy should have as its objective a stable political outcome based on the best consensus we can manage, in imperfect circumstances, that gives legitimate stakeholders a fair voice and an accountable process.  It must involve the destruction of ISIS by military means; it must exclude jihadism and other anti-consensual influences; it must also hem in Iran and set boundaries for her legitimate interests.

The ultimate goal has to be sustainable follow-on political entities that organize the suffering territory and people of what used to be Iraq and Syria: political entities that won’t be taken over within months by predatory radicals.

America can’t fire and forget on this one.  But we shouldn’t want to, nor does any of this involve dominating the landscape by ourselves.  It involves being active, agile, and vigilant, not heavy-handed.

Above all, it involves starting with a political objective – the one thing no one seems willing to acknowledge that we need.  The good news is that it’s not only OK, it’s essential, to let the Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and the other stakeholders, do much of the thinking about that.


Tragically, the Obama administration is incapable of organizing any of this.  But that deficiency doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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