Twenty years ago Leon Hadar published Quagmire: America in the Middle East, an eloquent plea for U.S. disengagement from the region. He warned that American leaders had neither the knowledge nor the power to manage long-standing disputes involving faraway people of whom we know little. Attempts at meddling, he wrote, invariably made the various actors less responsible and less willing to settle their disputes, while breeding anti-American resentment and harming American interests. Hadar advocated political, diplomatic, and military disengagement from the region and a policy of benign neglect.
Those insights are still valid, after two decades of often ill-conceived and sometimes disastrous U.S. “engagement” in the greater Middle East. A key problem with the strategy of George W. Bush’s administration in the region was its tendency to treat opportunities as threats. A weakened, friendless, and powerless Saddam Hussein could have been managed for years, with sanctions and no-fly zones, at little cost to U.S. taxpayers and no cost in American lives. To a foreign-policy realist, this was an opportunity. For reasons yet to be explained fully, Iraq was fraudulently presented as a threat. There were never any weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda.
Today’s Iraq is an unstable, divided country whose people are more hostile to the United States than a decade ago. Her Shi’ite leaders look to Tehran, not Washington, for guidance and support. Contrary to American wishes, Iraq lets Iran fly arms, equipment, and men into Syria through her airspace. Al Qaeda feels so secure in the majority Sunni parts of the country, especially in the Anbar province, that it is now targeting the remaining U.S.-friendly regimes in the region. Last fall Jordan discovered a terrorist plot to carry out bombings in that country and produced evidence that Al Qaeda in Iraq masterminded the operation. By treating an opportunity as a threat in 2003, the Bush administration ensured that Iraq would evolve into a threat to U.S. policy objectives a decade later.
For the past four years, the U.S. Middle Eastern policy has suffered from a different, yet even more serious flaw: It has treated threats as opportunities. As we have warned from the earliest days of the “Arab Spring,” the removal of autocratic leaders in Libya, Syria, and above all Egypt could only favor forces inherently inimical to American values and interests. The opportunity to turn them into Washington’s friendly partners never existed. Far from ensuring their gratitude and loyalty, the Obama administration’s unexpected support emboldened them to show their true colors swiftly and unambiguously.
The events in Benghazi last September provided a spectacular illustration of the problem, but the behavior of the new leaders in Cairo has far greater strategic significance. Instead of Hosni Mubarak, a reliable client of the United States for decades, the leading country of the Arab world is now ruled by President Mohamed Morsi, a seasoned Islamic fundamentalist with dictatorial ambitions. Last November he issued a decree granting himself unprecedented authority, including immunity to any judicial oversight. His announcement that he could pass any law and take any measure that “advances the Revolution” was in itself revolutionary. It made Mubarak and his two predecessors, Sadat and Nasser, look like scrupulous constitutionalists. It was the Islamist equivalent of the Enabling Act passed in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire.
The ensuing protests brought hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians back to Tahrir Square and to the streets of Alexandria and other cities, but this time the regime weathered the storm. The State Department helped by releasing a supine statement urging “all Egyptians to resolve their differences . . . peacefully and through democratic dialogue.”
Morsi was able to act because in the preceding months the United States had exerted strong pressure on Egypt’s generals not to challenge his assumption of full executive authority. The administration pretended not to take note of the fact that he came to power because the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge to stay out of the presidential race. His first step was to use that authority to reconvene the constitutional assembly previously declared illegal by the courts because it was packed with Muslim Brotherhood deputies posing as independents. Secure in the knowledge that the resulting draft will be firmly based on sharia, Morsi disingenuously claimed that his new dictatorial powers would be temporary, “until a new constitution is approved.” That approval came in a two-stage referendum, on December 15 and 22, marred by violence, mass intimidation of Christians and secularists, and many irregularities.
The game is now over. The rhetoric and tools of “democracy” were adroitly used by the Muslim Brotherhood. The result is an Egypt very different from what the Obama administration and its media friends had heralded while supporting Morsi’s rise. Lest we forget, last July Hillary Clinton assured Morsi that the United States was doing all it could to “support the democratically elected government and to help make it a success in delivering results for the people of Egypt.” The “results” now include a constitution that makes a mockery of Clinton’s feminist idée fixe by abrogating the equality of women. The enduring Beltway consensus was nevertheless apparent in the December 12 issue of The New Republic (“The Riddler”), which claimed that Morsi acted as a guardian of democracy “when he courageously dismissed the military junta” while “[a]mong Morsi’s many critics, the suspicion remains strong that he is an Islamist at heart.” This is on par with saying, in December 1917, that among Vladimir Ilyich’s detractors the suspicion remains strong that he is a Bolshevik at heart.
With the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of the geographic, demographic, and cultural center of the Arab world well-nigh irreversible, the entire Middle East is in turmoil. The region is in far worse shape than when Obama assumed office in January 2009. Back then, there was as much stability as could be expected in the most turbulent region of the world. Libya is a failed state in which rival tribal militias and terrorist groups run the show outside central Tripoli. In Syria, the United States continues to support the rebels—now recognized by Obama as “legitimate representatives” of the country—although it is clear that the “Syrian National Coalition” is a Potemkin village. Its claims to authority are scorned by the fighting groups on the ground, which include the Islamic People’s Brigade, the Islamic Dawn Movement, the Battalions of Islam, the Army of Muhammad Brigade, the Sultan Muhammad Battalion, the Shield of Islam Brigade, the Pearls of the Ummah, und so weiter. If victorious, these seasoned foreign and homegrown jihadists will make the three decades of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him look like an era of tranquility, prosperity, and religious tolerance.
If the momentum of the past two years provides pointers for the future, by the end of Obama’s second mandate the Greater Middle East will be more firmly Islamic than at any other time since the heyday of the Ottoman Empire under Suleyman and more anti-American than ever. Along the region’s eastern fringes, Afghanistan will be ruled by the Taliban in the south and east, and by tribal warlords in the north of the country. Pakistan will remain unstable at best, and more likely ruled by a military leader with fundamentalist leanings, a latter-day Zia-ul-Haq. At the western edge, Morocco will come under increasing pressure from the late Abdessalam Yassine’s Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Charity) movement. The Islamic movement’s youth wing is more likely to act assertively and eventually test the regime in the streets now that the stern yet cautious Sheikh Yassine is gone.
Closer to the center, Iran is likely to refrain from developing nuclear weapons in order to evade an attack by U.S. forces—which I still believe will not take place—and before the end of this year we are likely to see a major breakthrough in the nuclear standoff. On the other hand, Iran will strengthen her position as a regional leader by encouraging unrest by the dispossessed Shi’ite majorities along the southern shores of the gulf. The emergence of a “Shia Crescent,” with Baghdad acting as Tehran’s junior partner, may be disrupted if the Hezbollah in Lebanon is cut off by the Sunni jihad in Syria, but in the long run that may not make much difference to the family despotisms in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. The ability of Saudi Arabia’s royal kleptocrats to retain control will also be tested, in view of the pending peak and rapid subsequent decline in oil exports—fueled in part by the kingdom’s demographic time bomb.
In the center, the Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate its control in Egypt, turning the country into an Islamic republic in all but name (and perhaps in name, too). Its protégé, Hamas, will prevail over the more moderate Fatah in the Palestinian power struggle. The precarious stability of Jordan will be tested by sectarian tensions between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin. King Abdullah’s reluctant reforms may create a revolution of rising expectations and lead to actual revolution. There will be no “peace process,” of course. With the storm clouds gathering, many Israelis will have reason to regret the support that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s friends in Washington had given to the Arab Islamic Winter.
Globally, the prospect of an unstable, increasingly fundamentalist and anti-Western Middle East may be seen as good news by the new Communist Party leadership in Beijing, headed by Xi Jinping. Four years ago, Obama pledged to shift his administration’s foreign-policy focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. This resulted in several moves perceived as unfriendly by China, including the opening of the U.S. “forward base” in Darwin, Australia. As recently as late November the President chose Southeast Asia for his first overseas tour since winning re-election, indicating an enduring interest in the region of China’s expanding economic and military power. The Middle East now promises to take precedence over Asia, yet again, in his second-term priorities. In recent months the term “pivot-to-Asia” has been quietly changed to the less ambitious “re-balancing-in-Asia.” This is good news, provided the act is geared to the establishment of a stable regional balance of power and—soon thereafter—to the long-overdue U.S. withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula.
In the long run, the less President Obama does in the Middle East in his second term, the better for all concerned—not least for the United States.