The death throes of the Mubarak regime in Egypt signal a new level of crisis for a U.S. Middle East strategy that has shown itself over and over again in recent years to be based on nothing more than the illusion of power. The incipient loss of the U.S. client regime in Egypt is an obvious moment for a fundamental adjustment in that strategy.
But those moments have been coming with increasing regularity in recent years, and the U.S. national security bureaucracy has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to giving it up. The troubled history of that strategy suggests that it is an expression of some powerful political forces at work in this society, as former NSC official Gary Sick hinted in a commentary on the crisis.
Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, every U.S. administration has operated on the assumption that the United States, with Israel and Egypt as key client states, occupies a power position in the Middle East that allows it to pursue an aggressive strategy of unrelenting pressure on all those “rogue” regimes and parties in the region that have resisted dominance by the U.S.-Israeli tandem: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq was only the most extreme expression of that broader strategic concept. It assumed that the United States and Israel could establish a pro-Western regime in Iraq as the base from which it would press for the elimination of resistance from any of their remaining adversaries in the region.
But since that more aggressive version of the strategy was launched, the illusory nature of the regional dominance strategy has been laid bare in one country after another:
- The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq merely empowered Shi’a forces to form a regime whose geostrategic interests are far closer to Iran’s than to the United States’.
- The U.S.-encouraged Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 only strengthened the position of Hezbollah as the largest, most popular, and most disciplined political-military force in the country, leading ultimately to the Hezbollah-backed government now being formed.
- Israeli and U.S. threats to attack Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria since 2006 brought an even more massive influx of rockets and missiles into Lebanon and Syria, which now appears to deter Israeli aggressiveness toward its adversaries for the first time.
- U.S.-Israeli efforts to create a client Palestinian entity and crush Hamas through the siege of Gaza has backfired, strengthening the Hamas claim to be the only viable Palestinian entity.
- The U.S. insistence on demonstrating the effectiveness of its military power in Afghanistan has only revealed the inability of the U.S. military to master the Afghan insurgency.
And now the Mubarak regime is in its final days. As one talking head after another has pointed out in recent days, it has been the linchpin of the U.S. strategy. The main function of the U.S. client state relationship with Egypt was to allow Israel to avoid coming to terms with Palestinian demands.
The costs of the illusory quest for dominance in the Middle East have been incalculable. By continuing to support Israeli extremist refusal to seek a peaceful settlement, trying to prop up Arab authoritarian regimes that are friendly with Israel and seeking to project military power in the region through both airbases in the Gulf States and semi-permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strategy has assiduously built up long-term antagonism toward the United States and pushed many throughout the Islamic world to sympathize with al-Qaeda-style jihadism. It has also fed Sunni-Shi’a tensions in the region and created a crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
Although this is clearly the time to scrap that Middle East strategy, the nature of U.S. national security policymaking poses formidable obstacles to such an adjustment. Bureaucrats and bureaucracies always want to hold on to policies and programs that have given them power and prestige, even if those policies and programs have been costly failures. Above all, in fact, they want to avoid having to admit the failure and the costs involved. So they go on defending and pursuing strategies long after the costs and failure have become clear.
A historical parallel to the present strategy in the Middle East is the Cold War strategy in East Asia, including the policy of surrounding, isolating, and pressuring the Communist Chinese regime. As documented in my own history of the U.S. path to war in Vietnam, Perils of Dominance, the national security bureaucracy was so committed to that strategy that it resisted any alternative to war in South Vietnam in 1964-65, because it believed the loss of South Vietnam would mean the end of Cold War strategy, with its military alliances, client regimes, and network of military bases surrounding China. It was only during the Nixon administration that the White House wrested control of national security policy from the bureaucracy sufficiently to scrap that Cold War strategy in East Asia and reach an historic accommodation with China.
The present strategic crisis can only be resolved by a similar political decision to reach another historical accommodation – this time with the “resistance bloc” in the Middle East. Despite the demonization of Iran and the rest of the “resistance bloc,” their interests on the primary issue of al-Qaeda-like global terrorism have long been more aligned with the objective security interests of the United States than those of some regimes with which the United States has been allied (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan).
Scrapping the failed strategy in favor of a historic accommodation in the region would:
- reduce the Sunni-Shi’a geopolitical tensions in the region by supporting a new Iran-Egypt relationship;
- force Israel to reconsider its refusal to enter into real negotiations on a Palestinian settlement;
- reduce the level of antagonism toward the United States in the Islamic world; and
- create a new opportunity for agreement between the United States and Iran that could resolve the nuclear issue.
It will be far more difficult, however, for the United States to make this strategic adjustment than it was for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to secretly set in motion their accommodation with China. Unconditional support for Israel, the search for client states, and the determination to project military power into the Middle East, which are central to the failed strategy, have long reflected the interests of the two most powerful domestic U.S. political power blocs bearing on national security policy: the pro-Israel bloc and the militarist bloc. Whereas Nixon and Kissinger were not immobilized by fealty to any such power bloc, both the pro-Israel and militarist power blocs now dominate both parties in the White House as well as in Congress.
One looks in vain for a political force in this country that is free to press for fundamental change in Middle East strategy. And without a push for such a change from outside, we face the distinct possibility of a national security bureaucracy and White House continuing to deny the strategy’s utter failure and disastrous consequences.