U.S. strategy in the Middle East (unclassified)

On December 4, I spoke at a new forum devoted to articulating a “grand strategy” for Israel, led by former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. The day was devoted to understanding the strategies of other states, and I drew the assignment to characterize U.S. strategy. What follows is description, not prescription.

Let me begin with an observation which may seem paradoxical, given the amount of attention we lavish on the Middle East and the fact that I’m a Middle East expert. The Middle East is not a region of overriding U.S. interest. The value of what it produces, excluding oil, is small, and its militaries are largely weak and ineffectual. This limits both the promise and the danger inherent in the region, which traditionally figured somewhere in the middle or lower end of U.S. strategic concerns. The United States was prepared to expend much blood and treasure to put Europe and the Pacific rim on the track to peace and stability. It has never accorded the Middle East the same worth, and the usual approach has been to try to preserve U.S. interests in the region on the cheap.

The United States has four core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of oil, the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that would allow Middle Eastern pathologies to spill over and endanger the world. On occasion, some have tried to add the promotion of human rights or democracy to this short list of interests. When that has happened, under the impetus of a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, it’s lasted for a few years, and then dropped off. Democracy and human rights are nice-to-haves for the United States. They are not need-to-haves.

Some might imagine that it is (or should be) a U.S. objective to keep all other powers out of the Middle East. In fact, at no point has the United States believed that upholding the four core U.S. interests requires the exclusion of other powers. Europe, Russia, and China dish out aid, do business, sell arms, and support clients. The United States tolerates their presence, because its own presence is so dominant, and because considerable parts of the Middle East aren’t worth the costs of competing.

To preserve its four core interests, the United States has traditionally adhered to four basic strategies. I’ve given them names for the sake of convenience, but they are my names, and you won’t find them in any American document. They are: delegating, delinking, pairing, and flipping. I’ll explain each one in turn, but what they all have in common is that they are meant to achieve U.S. objectives at the lowest possible cost.

Delegating. Most great empires that have dominated the Middle East had to do so by putting boots on the ground—or, if you want to go all the way back to antiquity, sandals on the ground. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the British—to name a few—incorporated the region in their imperial systems by garrisoning it. The United States has traditionally preferred a different and more economical approach, seeking to dominate the region through allies, clients, friends, and proxies. The United States sells arms, conducts diplomacy, shares intelligence, runs some special ops, launches cruise missiles (and now drones)—everything short of landing the American soldier in full battle gear. When that soldier has been deployed, it has been in extraordinary circumstances, and has had the character of an aberration. The 1958 intervention in Lebanon, the 1982 dispatch of Marines to Beirut, the 1991 Gulf war—these were all short-lived interventions with narrow purposes.

The 2003 Iraq war, along with the Afghan war, were dramatic deviations from the norm—uncharacteristic attempts at nation-building. 9/11 broke the continuity of the American approach, culminating in George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” He openly acknowledged that it constituted a sharp departure from traditional U.S. policy, and we are now in the midst of a reversion to the norm. The usual American approach has been to back its friends from a distance, to provision them to fight battles on their own, and to use its technological advantages to deal with threats at a distance. What is the right distance? I commend to you the article in the current GQ entitled “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.” The ideal distance, it turns out, is a hangar somewhere in Nevada. That’s the American way, and it becomes ever more attractive as technology advances.

The bedrock of these U.S. ties is now cooperation in the “war on terror.” 9/11 demonstrated that mass-casualty terrorism against Americans could shift U.S. opinion, distorting cost-benefit analysis in decisions to use force. To avoid a slide back into the region, the United States does everything necessary to keep Al Qaeda wannabes on the run and on their heels. Whenever the United States puts this one boot in, it is precisely in order to keep the other boot out.

Delinking. This second strategy seeks to separate the two areas of endemic conflict, the Israel-centered system and the oil-centered system. After 1948, the Saudis would regularly threaten that U.S. support for Israel could damage U.S. relations with Arab oil producers. Despite this, the United States managed to keep both Israel and the Saudis in tow. But in 1973, in response to an Arab-Israeli war, the Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the United States, driving prices sky high, forcing the United States to ration gasoline, and prompting a recession.

Since then, a basic principle of U.S. strategy has been to delink the Israel-centered and the oil-centered systems, in order to block any chain reaction across the Middle East. It achieved that, first, deliberately, by brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace that made another big Arab-Israeli war unlikely; and second, inadvertently, by standing by while Khomeini overthrew the Shah, leaving the Saudis and others no choice but to shelter in America’s bosom. Remember that delinking assumes linkage—that the link is real and so has to be broken. The average U.S. policymaker believes in linkage, and many of them think that the fastest way to delink the two systems is progress toward “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even a process that doesn’t produce a final agreement has the ongoing effect of lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the oil-centered system.

Pairing. This consists of finding two adversaries whose rivalry is destabilizing, and knocking their heads together or plying them with incentives to bring them under one American umbrella. Until the Iranian revolution, the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, perennial rivals, constituted the “two pillars” of U.S. influence in the Gulf, which Washington kept in careful balance. After 1979, Israel and Egypt constituted the stabilizing duo in the Eastern Mediterranean. By definition, pairing means creating an unnatural alliance of wary partners—creating a triangle in which the United States forms the long side. A well-constructed triangle will leave the outsider twisting in the wind. The Egypt-Israel pair did that to Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian pair once boxed in Iraq.

The Iranian revolution broke up the crucial pairing in the Gulf, and one of the endemic problems of U.S. strategy has been the difficulty of forging an alternative. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Iraq paired against Iran, but that ended disastrously when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s left the Saudis isolated. The removal of Saddam was supposed to make Iraq amenable once again to pairing with the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs. But a Shiite-dominated Iraq was destined to remain aloof from Saudi Arabia, and open to the influence of Iran. Absent a pairing for the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, the United States has had to play the role of the other half, in a costly way.

Flipping. Which brings me to the fourth strategy. Flipping involves engaging an adversary and turning him around. The classic instance was Egypt, which had been a militantly pan-Arab, stridently anti-American Soviet client state, and which the United States flipped into its own orbit. The idea is to focus on that state which is most disruptive of your interests, and slowly drive it to the conclusion that it can’t afford to remain outside the American tent. Why flipping? Containment is hard to preserve against erosion, and it tends to punish peoples more than their rulers. Regime change is risky and fraught with unintended consequences. Flipping isn’t easy, but when it works, it’s regarded as the most economical of all outcomes.

Much fog surrounds the Iran plan of the Obama administration, but the United States could be trying to solve its endemic problem in the Persian Gulf by flipping Iran. The nuclear deal could be an opening to a wider dialogue with Iran, which would bring Iran into some sort of strategic relationship with the United States, on terms no one can predict. In this scenario, the United States would seek to repeat the flipping of Egypt—this time, without a war to facilitate the last stage. Flipping presumes that for every Nasser there is a Sadat (read: Ahmedinejad, Rouhani), and that everyone has their price. It also presumes that the United States can drive down the price by a mix of incentives and threats. No one in the Obama administration dares hint today that this is the longer-term strategy, but it’s no doubt hiding in the back of many minds.

On the basis of what I’ve just outlined, it is useful to think of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East not as a retreat (or “appeasement”) but as an effort to get back to what worked for the United States in the past. It is a nostalgic project. And as we know from public opinion polling, that is just what Americans want. They wish to go back to the good old days, when a few clever people in pinstripe suits and a few well-placed intel assets could keep the Middle East on the back burner where it belongs.

There is much to be said for the argument that American obsessing about the Middle East has been a distraction from more important agendas. But preserving the four key interests I mentioned earlier requires an ongoing and determined effort to play a skilled game. The United States claims it intends to remain engaged in the Middle East. As it repositions itself, the credibility of that claim is sure to be tested.

Mearsheimer, Walt, and “cold feet”

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt appear at Princeton University tonight, to promote their book The Israel Lobby. I’ve held back while other critics have had their say, and many of them have done a splendid job. But I don’t think anyone has understood the neat sleight of hand the authors performed in moving from article to book. The innovation in The Israel Lobby is their “cold feet” thesis about the Israeli genesis of the Iraq war.

But first, remember why pinning the Iraq war on the “Israel lobby” is so important to Mearsheimer and Walt. Their main argument isn’t that the Palestinians are paying a terrible price for that support. In most quarters, that draws a simple shrug. Instead, the duo claim that Americans are paying the price for U.S. support for Israel. They paid it on 9/11, and they’re paying it now in Iraq. The killers of 9/11 set out on their mission because of their rage against unconditional U.S. backing for Israel; and the pro-Israel lobby got America into the Iraq war because it served Israel’s interests, not America’s. America is bleeding so that Israel can avoid doing what it should have done years ago: give the Palestinians their state. And it’s because Americans are dying that Israel shouldn’t be indulged anymore.

Of the two arguments made by Walt and Mearsheimer, the 9/11 argument is the less effective. That’s because very early on, Americans decided that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi, and the 15 of the 19 hijackers who were Saudis, weren’t out to kill Americans over Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Al-Qaeda hates us for everything we do and represent they’re 200-proof hatred of America. Americans understood that instinctively, and it was confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report. The report’s narrative showed how the 9/11 plot developed precisely during the years when Bill Clinton fussed over Yasser Arafat. The report became a bestseller, and its impact has been profound.

So the Iraq argument is far more crucial to the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it’s also dearer to them. It’s generally believed that their anger over the Iraq war drove them to write the book in the first place. They both opposed the war before it started, and they signed a prominent letter against it. Much to their chagrin, no one took much notice of their ironclad, realist arguments against going into Iraq. To the two professors, the United States had become an anomaly, a place where the national interest (as they saw it) wasn’t driving foreign policy. They explained that anomaly by the distorting influence of the “powerful Israel lobby.”

In their original article, Walt and Mearsheimer had a straightforward chain of causation for the Iraq war: Israel pushed the “Israel Lobby” (with a capital L), which pushed the neocons, which pushed the Bush administration into war. I immediately came back with a large body of evidence, proving that Israel wasn’t much worried about Saddam, and instead wanted the United States to take care of Iran. Israeli cabinet ministers and officials went to Washington to stress Iran over Iraq, and these efforts even surfaced in prominent stories in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times articles that Mearsheimer and Walt had missed entirely.

In the book, Mearsheimer and Walt admit that Israel was pushing for Iran over Iraq. And yes, they say, Israel only joined the Iraq bandwagon when the Bush administration seemed set on Iraq. But they haven’t dismantled their thesis—far from it. Instead they’ve come up with the new and improved Mearsheimer-Walt thesis, and it goes like this: the Iraq war must still be blamed on Israel, because in the lead-up to the war, Israel and its lobby worked overtime to ensure that Bush didn’t get “cold feet.”

Believe it or not, this is the new Mearsheimer-Walt twist: the “cold feet” thesis of Israel’s responsibility for the Iraq war. For example, page 234: “Israeli leaders worried constantly in the months before the war that President Bush might decide not to go to war after all, and they did what they could to ensure Bush did not get cold feet.” And this, page 261: “Top Israeli officials were doing everything in their power to make sure that the United States went after Saddam and did not get cold feet at the last moment.”

Mearsheimer and Walt bring not a single footnote, in their copiously footnoted book, to substantiate this new and bizarre claim. You have to be pretty credulous to imagine that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would waver “at the last moment” when they had Saddam squarely in their sights. You can read Bob Woodward forward and backward and find no evidence of wobble. Nor is there any evidence of Israeli worries that the Bush administration would waver on Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt just made it up.

In doing so, they miss (or conceal) the real story. Israel did worry in the lead-up to the war—not about “cold feet,” but about the “long pause.” A year before the Iraq war, Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet minister, went on the record with this quote (missed by Mearsheimer and Walt): “We and the Americans have different priorities. For us, Iran comes first and then Iraq. The Americans see Iraq, then a long pause, and only then Iran.” It never occurred to Israelis that Bush would get “cold feet” on Iraq, but they fretted endlessly over just how long the “long pause” would last, and they had good reason.

For example, four months before the war, Ariel Sharon told the London Times (November 5, 2002) that Iran should be put under pressure “the day after” action against Iraq. Mearsheimer and Walt bring the quote. But they incredibly omit what followed on the very same day: British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw shot back at Sharon on the BBC. “I profoundly disagree with him,” Straw said, “and I think it would be the gravest possible error to think in that way.” The London Times reported the spat the next day (“Straw and Sharon ‘Deeply Disagree'”), adding that both British and U.S. senior diplomats were “dismissive of Sharon’s call.” The paper went on to quote “a senior American” who spoke these words: “The President understands the nuances. You can’t paint Iran as totally black in the same way as you do Iraq.… I would have a hard time buying the idea that after victory in Iraq, the U.S. is going to turn its sights on Iran.”

So the Israelis had good cause to worry. Walt and Mearsheimer write (p. 261) that the Israelis “were convinced that Bush would deal with Iran after he finished with Iraq.” No they weren’t, because they knew Britain would oppose it, along with plenty of “senior Americans.” Precisely because they weren’t convinced, they kept coming back to it. And they were right to worry, because in the end, the United States accommodated the Brits. There would be no Iran follow-up. Why? Because Tony Blair did Bush an immense favor in Europe, and the British sent thousands of troops to Iraq. Bush’s feet were snug and warm—nailing Saddam had 80 percent public support in America—but Blair felt the chill at home. To keep him on board, Bush gave him to understand that there wouldn’t be an Iran sequel, at least not on Blair’s watch.

Not only wasn’t the Iraq war Israel’s first choice; the war’s aftermath was a defeat for Israel’s own openly declared priorities. Israel is now living with the consequences of that defeat. Here we are in the last days of 2007, and the United States is still in the midst of the “long pause.” Maybe it should be renamed: the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has put a lame-duck administration into menopause. So much for the manipulative power of the “Israel lobby.” The Iraq war and its aftermath prove exactly the opposite of what Mearsheimer and Walt claim they prove. They’re evidence not of Israel’s influence, but of the limits of Israel’s leverage when it comes up against other major U.S. interests and alliances.

In sum, the Iraq war thesis of Mearsheimer and Walt is make-believe, and it doesn’t get better from the article to the book—in fact, it’s worse. Almost every reviewer has questioned it on some grounds, although not one has identified the “cold feet” thesis. But that’s what I propose to call it, and it deserves to be known for what it is: a conspiracy theory, pure and simple.

Frankly I’m astonished when even skeptical reviewers of the book preface their criticisms by saying that the authors have done us some sort of service by opening the discussion. Can you imagine them saying the same thing about a book on intelligent design? That the details are preposterous, but the basic proposition deserves to be discussed seriously by serious people? Yet here we have a thesis, insisting that U.S. foreign policy is run by Zionist intelligent design, and Mearsheimer and Walt have made it a perfectly legitimate subject for academic discussion and tony dinner party conversation. If you say otherwise, you’re accused of “stifling debate.”

In the real world, Mearsheimer and Walt, far from being stifled, have become media staples, and tonight they’ll have yet another podium, at Princeton. The respondent will be Princeton professor Robert O. Keohane, another much-ballyhooed theory-maker who’s already hailed the bravery of the duo. “It is bad for political science if some important forces and pressures are systematically concealed,” he’s said. I think it’s a lot worse for political science if some big-name theorists systematically ignore evidence and make it up. If I were a Princeton student thinking of entering a field led by this crowd, it might give me… well, cold feet.

Update, December 12: The Daily Princetonian gives an account of the evening’s proceedings. Robert Keohane, counted among the allies of Mearsheimer and Walt by the Chronicle of Higher Education, turned out to be something less than that. He called The Israel Lobby “a flawed work of political science,” marred by numerous “inconsistencies with realities,” and he particularly went after the book’s claims about the Iraq war. The Daily Prince:

A major point of contention during the discussion was the role of neoconservative policymakers in the Bush administration and their links with pro-Israel lobbyists. Mearsheimer and Walt said that neocons played a significant role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a move the two argued was also seen at the time as being in Israel’s best interest.

“There’s no question that the neoconservatives were the main driving forces behind the war, supported by key organizations in the lobby like AIPAC,” Mearsheimer said.

Keohane disputed the link between AIPAC and the decision to go to war in Iraq. He cited nine other reasons for the invasion, including concerns over weapons of mass destruction and a desire to promote democracy.

The mention of AIPAC’s role in the lead up to the Iraq war set off a spirited exchange.

“It’s hard to find other organizations or institutions that were pushing the war,” Mearsheimer said. “If it wasn’t the neoconservatives, and it wasn’t the leaders of the lobby, and it wasn’t Israel, then who was it?”

“Two people: One is the president, and the other is the vice president,” Keohane said to applause.

Walt jumped in. “The problem,” he said, “is that neither the president nor the vice president was pushing for the war in the first eight months of the term.” More people applauded.

Keohane added that Sept. 11, 2001, changed the situation amid supportive shouts from the audience.

Mearsheimer responded that “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”