The Middle East Never Changes

This post was originally published on The National Interest.

Following the coverage of analysis of foreign affairs in our leading media outlets, one occasionally gets the impression that some of the journalists and pundits are either millennials who work under the assumption that the first chapter in world history had been written during the presidency of Barack Obama, or baby boomers who have just woken up from a fifty-year-long coma. “The Shah of Iran? Ronald Reagan? The Yom Kippur War? Never heard about them!”

And I am not reflecting here on the many political obituaries that have been written about German Chancellor Angela Merkel by those experts who seem to be unware that threatening to hold new election is a familiar political tactic when the winning party in a European parliamentary election negotiates a formation of a coalition government with other parties.

What I had in mind is the ongoing fixation with, and excitement sweeping think tankers and others worldwide, over what has been celebrated as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Israel that is supposedly evolving under American guidance.

And according to numerous predictions, it was only a matter of time before the Saudi King lands in Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel-Aviv. Then the Jewish state and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would join forces as part of a new Middle Eastern NATO to contain, and perhaps even take military action against, the assertive and threatening Islamic Republic of Iran to prevent the creation of the so-called Shiite Crescent.

These reports and speculations, in addition to stories about “secret” meetings between Israelis and Saudis, range from amusing gossip about the growing friendship between Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner—or if you will, the union between the House of Saud and the Trump-Kushner Dynasty—to more serious “big think” commentaries envisioning a dramatic transformation of the balance of power in the Middle East in the form of a Sunni-Shiite cold or hot war that would change the world as we know it.

In that context, we are being warned to be afraid, very afraid, as we face the specter of the United States being drawn into the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Israel. From there, being maneuvered by both Riyadh and Jerusalem, and Israel’s supporters in Washington, into using the full force of American diplomatic and military power in order to demonstrate to the ayatollahs in Tehran who is now the real boss in the Middle East and to force them to cry uncle.

It’s déjà vu all over again, we are being told. It’s like the eve of the Iraq War all over again. Game, set, and match. And here we are once again stuck in another Middle Eastern military quagmire.

The problem with these and similar analyses and forecasts is that they are confusing a search for stasis with the pursuit of change, a counterrevolution with a revolution, an attempt to return to the pre-Iraq War and pre-Arab Spring status quo in the Middle East with an imaginary project to remake the region.

Which would make sense if you have bought into the fantasies concocted by the neoconservative and liberal internationalist advisors of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Your conclusion would then be that the mess they had helped create in the Middle East, having devastated its existing balance of power by advancing an illusionary Freedom Agenda, or by trying to ride on the historical waves of the Arab Spring, has become the new status quo that Washington needs to accept as a given.

One could have challenged the foundations of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II and the two main rationales for American diplomatic and military intervention there: containing regional and global threats to Western interests in the region—including securing the access to the oil resources in the Persian Gulf—and protecting the security of Israel.

But this strategy has continued to guide both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents, has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and wide public backing for much of the Cold War and its aftermath. It was not reassessed and changed in the aftermath of the Cold War and it still remains in place now.

This was the original reason why Washington partnered with Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchs, as well as with Iran under the Shah: it was a response to perceived threats from the Soviet Union and from radical governments and movements in the region, like Egypt under the leadership of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser; or Iran after its 1979 revolution; or the secular socialist Ba’ath-led dictatorships in Iraq and Syria.

The strategy went through major policy metamorphoses, including: the Eisenhower administration’s effort to form a regional security alliance aimed at Nasser and the Soviets; President Richard Nixon’s “Twin Pillar” policy under which the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia helped maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf; the Carter Doctrine that stipulated a U.S. commitment to defend Saudi Arabia against a more assertive Soviet Union and a revolutionary Iran; and the Reagan administration’s efforts to ensure that neither the ayatollahs’ Iran or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq emerge as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. This last strategy was pursued by both President George H. W. Bush, with his decision to use military power to force Saddam out of Kuwait, and by President Bill Clinton with his “dual containment” policy vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran.

This post was originally published on The National Interest.