Five Enduring Myths About U.S. Middle East Policy

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Mourners at a funeral of an Iraqi soldier killed during clashes in Ramadi, in Najaf, January 10, 2014. Aaron David Miller writes that we trivialize just how broken the Middle East region is by assuming that somehow Washington can and must be involved as the indispensable power in fixing everything. Alaa Al-Marjani/reuters

The Middle East has become a veritable graveyard where U.S. illusions and myths come to die.

Here are five of the most enduring and pernicious that need to be permanently retired.

Whoever is lucky enough to advise the next president ought to make that task the subject of briefing memo No. 1.

1. There are comprehensive solutions to the region's problems.

No there aren’t. And I challenge anyone to identify a single one in the entire issue that has any kind of meaningful or sustainable end state. From the Syrian civil war to the political situation in Iraq; the war against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, we are dealing with problems that require careful and extended management because there are  no quick or easy resolutions.

Think outcomes not end games. Even the Obama’s administration’s signal but highly flawed achievement—the P5 plus 1 Iranian nuclear agreement—is an arms control accord limited in time and scope with no guarantees or assurances that Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations have been laid to rest.

Indeed, we need to stop thinking about fixing things in what I call administration time—four to eight years—and start thinking about a decade or two which is more realistic.

2. America has the answers.

No we don’t. The Middle East is a broken, angry and dysfunctional region where an absence of leadership; effective institutions; coherent, let alone good governance and presence of sectarian, regional and religious rivalries have combined to guarantee continued instability and in some cases fragmentation and chaos.

And we trivialize just how broken the region is and infantilize the peoples who live there by assuming that somehow Washington can and must be involved as the indispensable power in fixing all of this.

Hillary Clinton is more inclined to see the region in this way. But even Mr. Trump has talked about solving the ISIS problem once and for all.  

Nor are the region’s leaders just waiting to embrace American fixes. The fact is, most positive outcomes in this region emanate first from circumstances that force the locals  to change their calculations and accept ownership for solving their own problems.  Only then does the U.S. have the capacity to play a consequential role.

Clearly, this has been the case in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. And it applies double when it comes to trying to promote coherent functional governance in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Without Arab leaders willing and able stand up and take the lead role in stabilizing and reforming their own countries, Washington cannot succeed.

3. There must be real consistency in U.S. policy.  

Absolutely not. Great powers behave in anomalous, contradictory and even hypocritical fashion. It’s built into their job descriptions; and doctrines or cookie-cutter approaches straightjacket U.S. policy and deny it flexibility to fix  problems are a recipe for disaster.  

This is particularly the case when human rights issues surface. It’s very hard in most areas of the world to somehow harmoniously reconcile U.S. values and interests.

Take the Middle East, for example. We encouraged an Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia. Are we obligated to encourage one in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain too, if the chaos wrought by the events of 2011 would threaten their  stability?

What do we do with the current government of Egypt if it refuses to reform and to stop repressing the media and it continues to arrest thousands, when we need Egyptian cooperation on any number of regional issues?

We invaded and occupied Iraq to remove an evil dictator, with disastrous consequences. Are we obligated to do the same to remove Bashar al-Assad? Or, in the case of Libya—after helping NATO undermine Muammar el-Qaddafi—to occupy that country too?

4.  Israeli-Palestinian peace should be a top priority for the next administration.

No it shouldn’t. Not only is the conflict impossible to resolve right now without Israeli and Palestinian leaders doing more themselves, the issue is not the most pressing priority for the U.S. in the region.

Dealing with ISIS, the meltdown in both Syria; dysfunction in Iraq and Libya; managing relations with traditional partners such as Saudi Arabia; Israel and Egypt—all suggest a threatening and fragmenting region that will not be substantially ameliorated or repaired by a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which just isn’t possible now.

Nor are the Arab states, now far more preoccupied with their own internal problems—the challenge from Iran and the Sunnis jihadis—all that focused on the Palestinian issue.

Next year at this time Israel will have occupied much of the West Bank for half a century. And there’s little indication that either Israelis or Palestinians are willing or able to exchange that reality for something better.

5. The U.S. can just disengage.

No we can’t. America has allies, enemies and vital interests in the Middle East that guarantee there will be no major pivot, rebalance or exit out. Washington’s conundrum is that it’s stuck in a region it can’t transform, fix,or leave.

In the face of that challenge, it must focus on protecting and managing as best it can. That means drilling down on what’s really vital: fighting transnational terror to protect the homeland and U.S. allies; maintaining access to Middle East oil; countering the emergence of any regional hegemon (such as Iran) that seeks nuclear weapons; and to find a way to work with Middle East partners that may not share U.S. values or even all of  its interests.

It’s neither a pretty nor heroic picture. But it's a far smarter and realistic approach for an angry, broken and dysfunctional region that will suck America dry if it’s not careful.

Aaron David Miller is vice president for New Initiatives and Distinguished Fellow, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.