The assumption that whatever happens in the Middle East must be of great interest to the United States, and therefore to Australia, is deeply embedded in public discussions, as much on the left (where Israel–Palestine relations attract more attention than the whole of Africa or Southeast Asia) as on the right. It is also deeply misguided.
In 2012, I wrote that “US policy responses to recent events [in the Middle East] appear to be incoherent. There is, however, a much deeper problem underlying these specific failures: there is no clearly defined US national interest at stake.” At that time, the US administration was:
• debating how much support to give to a Sunni insurgency against Bashir Assad
• cautiously endorsing the overthrow of longstanding, and dictatorial, US ally Hosni Mubarak and his replacement by a democratically elected government
• continuing its support for the government of Nouri al-Maliki, who had demonstrated his credentials by defeating anti-American Sadrist militias
• pressuring the regime in Iran, seen as the primary adversary of the United States in the region
• uncritically supporting whatever policies the Israeli government chose to pursue.
Although Washington’s policy was criticised from a variety of perspectives, the predominant theme was that it was not doing enough, particularly in relation to Iran. Senator John McCain was among the strongest critics, rejecting any notion of engagement with the Iranian government.
Two years later, everything has changed, and nothing. The US administration is now:
• debating how much support to give to Assad against the Sunni insurgents, now dominated by the ISIS group
• quietly accepting the emergence of an even more brutal military dictatorship in Egypt
• engineering the replacement of Maliki by new leaders who can mobilise the support of the Sadrists, needed to fight ISIS
• effectively allied with Iran as the main supporter of the Iraqi government
• uncritically supporting whatever policies the Israeli government chooses to pursue.
And, as before, the criticism is primarily that the Obama administration is not doing enough. McCain is yet again calling for military intervention, this time in effective alliance with Assad and the Iranians. Others are suggesting that if troops had not been withdrawn from Iraq (despite the refusal of the Iraqi government to countenance any extension of the schedule agreed with George W. Bush) the United States would somehow have been better able to impose a government of its own choosing. And, of course, the marginal qualifications of Washington’s support for the Netanyahu government have been the subject of bitter condemnation.
The current policy failures continue a long history, stretching right back to the early postwar era, when the United States inherited the poisoned chalice of Anglo-French imperialism, reflected most notably in the secret Sykes–Picot agreement (partitioning the area into British and French spheres of influence), the Balfour declaration (promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine) and the McMahon–Hussein correspondence (promising the same land to the Arabs).
The United States had some apparent successes along the way: the CIA coup against Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected nationalist Iranian prime minister; the Camp David agreements between Israel and Egypt; and the first Iraq war. But these only paved the way for greater disasters to follow: the overthrow of the US-installed Pahlavi regime by the Iranian ayatollahs, decades of failure on the Israel-Palestine issue and, most of all, the second Iraq war.
How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.
Unsurprisingly, the United States has no genuine friends in the region. The one constant beneficiary of US support, the Israeli government, correctly views the US state with contempt, recognising that Israel’s political powerbase within American domestic politics means that it need take no account of US national interests or of any attempt by Washington to maintain its long-discredited position as an “honest broker” in the dispute with the Palestinians.
Along with support for Israel, the only constant element in the US approach to the Middle East is a concern to maintain control over the flow of oil (even though the United States is effectively self-sufficient and European oil users are far more concerned about Russia). Both of these seem perfectly calculated to arouse the hostility and suspicion of the vast majority of people in the region.
The horrors now being perpetrated by ISIS on ground prepared by the 2003 invasion of Iraq are such that it is, effectively, impossible for the United States to stand by and do nothing. But its current actions are already producing the de facto partition of Iraq widely advocated a decade ago. A coherent strategy for intervention in Syria is as far off as ever, as is any constructive contribution to the Israel–Palestine dispute.
The best policy option for the Obama administration in the short term would be to stabilise the front lines in Iraq in a way that confines ISIS to Sunni strongholds. Assistance to the less extreme components of the Syrian resistance might also be tried, though this is unlikely to succeed for the reasons set out by Juan Cole.
The ideal follow-up would be an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.
Given domestic political constraints, it would be necessary to maintain a commitment to defend Israel against any armed attack. But, as a lame-duck president, Obama could do a great service by honestly admitting that the United States has no capacity to promote a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine. Of course, it would be necessary for his successor to repudiate this admission. But once the truth was stated, it would be impossible to unsay.
In Australia, rather than pretending that we have any genuine concerns of our own in the Middle East, we ought to admit that the only question at issue is whether it makes sense to go to war whenever Washington calls us, and if so, how much we need to spend on this. There are good arguments on both sides, but the need to pretend to be something more than a client state means that they are never made openly.
The trillions of dollars and thousands of lives the United States and its allies, including Australia, have spent trying to direct events in the Middle East have produced nothing but bloodshed and chaos. Rather than waiting for today’s allies to become, yet again, tomorrow’s enemies, it’s time to let the people of the region make what they can of it, with whatever assistance the usual forms of foreign aid may be able to provide. •