In Search of a New Middle Eastern Paradigm

I don’t remember how long I have been using Leon Hadar for his insights into the Middle East and the complications engendered by the prolonged and increasingly aggressive American interventions – indeed, as Leon puts it, the ongoing efforts to establish the United States as the hegemonic power – in that endemically troubled region. The former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, longtime foreign policy research fellow for the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute, author of a previous book on the region, and current Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times has always had provocative things to say when I called him, backed by up-to-date information lodged in historical context and surrounded by more details and cultural insights than I have ever been able to get into a column or editorial.

It was Leon who first laid out for me what I had long suspected through general knowledge but hadn’t put into precisely those terms. With the end of the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict had become, from the standpoint of core U.S. interests, simply another regional conflict that was likely to continue until both parties were exhausted enough to end it, but whose outcome had about the same genuinely geostrategic implications as Bosnian-Serb, Azerbaijani-Armenian, or any of a dozen or more other regional conflicts in the world. The continuing American effort to mediate or “do something” about the conflict, he argued – let alone American subsidies to the military capabilities of both sides – more likely prolonged the conflict rather than shortening it because it prevented the parties from shouldering the full economic and social burdens of war, thus postponing the day when they were ready to end it or negotiate a settlement.

Besides being a helpful source for me, Leon Hadar has also been a prolific writer, appearing often on and, as well as writing insightful policy papers for Cato and pieces for magazines. Now he has made his insights available to all, in the form of a new book. Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East challenges almost all the conventional wisdom in every wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. He argues that the most sensible course for the United States now would be a policy of “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East, allowing regional powers or the Europeans to be the “balancers of last resort” in the area, if they saw it in their interests to do so.

He’s not predicting that his advice will be followed soon, so he suspects the eventual outcome is more likely to be “destructive disengagement” – arising from a situation in which the cost to the United States, in money, blood, and rising anti-American sentiments translated into anti-American actions, simply becomes too much for the American people to endure. But he writes in the hope that at least a debate will ensue on the wisdom of continuing to throw more money and American lives into the region’s sandy terrain while there is time to cut at least some potential losses.

The Old MEP

Leon doesn’t attribute the United States continuing to follow policies that harm the country to a clever cabal of Israelis whispering in Washington ears, the oil lobby, or a widespread lust for imperial glory, though he acknowledges that these are all factors that continue to sustain policies that do the United States more harm than good. In addition, however, he sees a larger picture that includes commitments entered into in the wake of World War II and before, which few U.S. policymakers have questioned. The time to raise such questions, however, is long past.

He argues,

“Current American policy toward the Middle East results from entrenched assumptions of long standing. During the Cold War there evolved what I call a Middle East Paradigm (MEP) that guided U.S. administrations beginning in the late 1940s. Central to this MEP was the belief that competition with the Soviet Union made American involvement in the Middle East a costly but necessary way to protect American interests as the leader of the Western alliance.” (p. 5)

Three factors provided the rationale for ongoing U.S. involvement in the region. The first was what were perceived as the necessities dictated by geo-strategy. The assumption was that the Soviet Union sought dominance in the region and had to be contained. Consequently,

“[T]he United States replaced Great Britain and France – militarily and economically weakened in the aftermath of World War II – in the role of protecting the interests of the Western alliance in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was an aggressive global power with a huge economic and military force and a crusading ideological disposition that was perceived to be as threatening to America and the West in the Cold War as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been in World War II.” (p. 5)

The U.S. simply had to be there as a counter to Soviet ambitions.

The second reason had to do with geo-economics. Given the larger context of the need to counter Soviet moves, the U.S. figured it was worth the cost to be involved in the Middle East not only to protect its own access to Middle East oil, but to protect “the free access of the Western economies, including those of North America, Western Europe, and Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea) to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf through a costly partnership with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other oil-producing states in the region.” (p. 5) It seemed to make strategic sense during the Cold War to let those allies or putative allies “free-ride” on American military power.

Third, with the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, “the United States has underscored its historic and moral commitment to ensure the survival of a democratic Jewish commonwealth in the Middle East by helping Israel to maintain its margin of security as it coped with hostile Arab neighbors.” (p. 5) During the Cold War, during which the Soviet Union worked to establish a beachhead in certain Arab states, this commitment evolved, at least in the minds of U.S. policymakers, from an essentially moral commitment into a geo-strategic one, with Israel seen as the one reliable democratic partner in the region.

Leon Hadar argues that this essential paradigm has been accepted not only by U.S. neoconservatives, who have come to dominate policy in the wake of 9/11, but by liberal internationalists and conservative and liberal realists as well. There may be disagreements about tactics and emphasis among these elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, but all agreed that U.S. activity to dominate policy in the region, or at least to serve as balancer of last resort when conflicts arose, was essential.

Contradictions Within

Even during the Cold War, this MEP led to contradictions that required delicate balancing by U.S. policymakers. Most of the oil-producing states, especially Saudi Arabia, seemed reliably anti-Soviet most of the time, but they were hardly pro-Israel, and from time to time faced internal opposition that could upset their relationship with the United States and the West. So the U.S. had to seem to be always “doing something” to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace to keep the Arab oil-producing states on board.

At the same time, the U.S. seemed to see no alternative but to tolerate the militant version of Islam known as Wahhabism that was the state religion of Saudi Arabia. The Saud family considered it important, to maintain its power at home, not simply to tolerate Wahhabism, sometimes in a fairly extreme form, but to promote and subsidize its spread overseas, especially in the form of madrassas, or religious schools, that increased the influence of this strain of Islam worldwide.

Of course, Osama bin Laden was a product of or at least heavily influenced by this brand of Islam. Both the United States and Saudi Arabia believed it was in their interest to encourage and subsidize the essentially Wahhabist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Thus thousands of guerrilla fighters were trained and “blooded” in that conflict, and at least implicitly encouraged to believe that once Soviet power in Afghanistan had been neutralized it was legitimate to look to a wider mission, which led eventually to blowback in the form of 9/11.

Within the Middle East, the U.S. under the old MEP not only had to safeguard Israel, but to placate Arab states by pressuring Israel to come to some kind of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and other neighboring Arab entities. Thus various American administrations – Bush I and Clinton – applied pressure delicately on Israel to make concessions, all the while proclaiming their underlying loyalty to the idea of Israel as an independent Jewish state.

Not only has this proven to be a difficult job – despite various Camp David meetings and the Oslo process, a peaceful resolution seems, if anything, further away than before – it “produces disincentives for the players involved to do what they need to do in their own self-interests.”

“The Israelis and the Palestinians assume that they should be rewarded by Washington for making concessions that are perceived as ‘favors’ for the Americans. At the same time, the Arab and European governments refrain from assuming responsibility for trying to help resolve the conflict.” (p. 155)

During the Cold War, all these costs seemed to be justifiable because of the need to counter or neutralize Soviet influence. With the end of the Cold War, however, that factor receded in importance. Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers did not reconsider not only the overall strategy of seeking U.S. dominance in the world, but specifically the MEP for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Consequently, when 9/11 occurred, the MEP was the framework within which the U.S. response was fashioned.

A New Paradigm

Leon Hadar argues that it is time to develop a new paradigm for relations with the Middle East. He notes that “the American economy is not dependent on Middle Eastern oil – 70 percent of American energy supplies do not originate in the Middle East.”

“The United States is actually more dependent on Latin American oil than it is on Saudi and other Persian Gulf oil. And the notion that American policy in the Middle East helps to provide Americans access to ‘cheap and affordable oil’ makes little sense if one takes into consideration the military and other costs – including two Gulf Wars and the current Pax Americana in the Middle East – that are added to the price that the American consumer pays for driving his or her car.” (p. 154)

He does not say so directly, but implies that U.S. military force is quite likely not necessary to maintain access to Persian Gulf oil, either for the U.S. or for Western Europe and Japan. The oil-producing states have few resources other than oil, and if they don’t sell oil to somebody they will have little wealth with which to maintain their power and curb domestic challenges. So they need to sell oil more than the United States needs to buy it. If political and military influence is required to keep the oil flowing to Western Europe and Japan (and increasingly to China) – which I rather doubt – the countries that are truly dependent should be the ones to bear the cost.

The book includes insightful discussion of U.S.-European relationships, though the rejection of the EU constitution by French and Dutch voters, which took place after it was completed, could alter a few details. In light of all his analysis, Hadar proposes “to bid farewell to the old MEP and try to draw the outlines of a new American policy in the Middle East. There is a need for a long-term policy of American ‘constructive disengagement’ from the Middle East that will encourage the Europeans to take upon themselves the responsibility of securing their interests in the region and while the regional actors solve the problems they have created.” (p. 158)

With the demise of the Soviet threat, continued American intervention in the region serves mainly to promote anti-Americanism and terrorism. If a “balancer of last resort” is needed, let the Europeans do it. Likewise, “The main threat to its [Israel’s] survival as a democratic Jewish state is not the lack of U.S. assistance, but Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians.” (p. 158) U.S. support for Israel now creates disincentives for a settlement rather than hastening the day. So “the prospects for American disengagement from the Middle East and for a lower diplomatic profile in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute should produce incentives for both sides, as well as for the Arab states and the EU, to deal with it.”

Destructive Disengagement

Of course, the necessary condition for constructive disengagement from the Middle East is a larger U.S. reconsideration of the idea that the U.S. should be the final arbiter, if not the actual ruler, in disputes throughout the world, which would mean not only tolerating but welcoming European activity in regions the U.S. viewed as essential during the Cold War. Abandoning what might be viewed as the imperial attitude that every problem in the world is automatically an American problem that requires American action will not be easy.

Consequently, it is more likely that the U.S. will eventually pull back from its dominant role in the Middle East not through a responsible rethinking of U.S. engagement, but through a series of mounting costs and disasters that eventually lead to a “destructive disengagement” from the region that will look like (and to a great extent will be) a U.S. defeat and retreat.

If Americans are interested in a more gradual, rational and constructive approach to the Middle East, however, Leon Hadar has provided many of the arguments and much of the information that will be needed to justify a more sensible approach.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).