America's unreliable allies in the Middle East
By Brian Whitaker
"There is no place in the world today where chaos is more prevalent and the reestablishment of order more critical than the Middle East." This is the troubling first sentence of a two-part article by Martin Indyk, a veteran of Middle East diplomacy, about America's future strategy in the region.
Indyk is a former assistant secretary of state and a former US ambassador to Israel. Beside spending many fruitless years on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process he was also, in the 1990s, architect of America's "dual containment" policy in relation to Iraq and Iran. Today, he is director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In his article (Part One here, Part Two here), Indyk proposes two choices for the United States. One of them he confusingly describes as "joint condominium" with Iran, and the other as "Back to the Future" – a return to dependence on "traditional allies in the region: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey".
Needless to say, the latter is what Indyk prefers. With his desire to "rebuild an American-led order in the Middle East in partnership with traditional allies" and restore "order out of this chaos", he clearly hankers for the good old days of the Clinton era when everyone knew, more or less, where they stood. He does, however, caution against getting "too nostalgic for the old order" and acknowledges in passing that its stability was "purchased at the price of repression".
The trouble with Indyk's argument, along with much current analysis, is that it sees outbreaks of disorder and assumes traditional remedies can be applied to restore stability but does not recognise the disorder as part of a general upheaval which is gradually reshaping the entire region. This is a long-term historical process with deep-seated causes and it's pointless to try stopping it; the most that anyone can hope to do is guide it towards a benign outcome.
Of course, no one likes chaos but in these circumstances attempts to "restore order" without considering on what terms it would be restored are counter-productive. As I have argued before, the current disorder in the Middle East is partly a result of having maintained stability artificially over many years.
Indyk's view has not gone unchallenged inside Brookings itself. Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of Brookings' Center for Middle East Policy, has now posted a response arguing that while the Iran option is obviously flawed, Indyk's alternative of an alliance with the Sunni Arab states and Israel is equally unworkable.
As the headline of her article rightly points out, America’s allies in the Middle East create as many problems as they solve. Wittes writes:
"The regional dysfunctions that produced today’s chaotic violence have the governments of many US allies so off-balance that they are, for now, creating problems just as much as they might help solve them. Unless and until the region’s most influential governments can address the underlying causes of disorder – those that lie within their societies – a tighter US alliance with their governments will only make the situation worse."
Wittes argues that "the only logical American strategy" for the current moment is a hedging strategy:
"Selectively engage on key issues that threaten US security, work in partnership with effective local actors on specific issues of common importance, and avoid efforts by regional actors to draw the United States into their internecine arguments."Over the longer term, the United States needs to at least try to bolster the beleaguered few within Arab societies who are still working for a future of tolerance, coexistence, and pluralism. They are the ones who can ultimately address the root causes of regional disorder and nudge America’s partners and adversaries alike toward more effective and accountable forms of governance."This is not an easy task under any circumstances, but an uncritical alliance with the unhappy family of Sunni states would push in precisely the opposite direction."
This is certainly a better approach than what Indyk advocates but supporting "the beleaguered few within Arab societies who are still working for a future of tolerance, coexistence, and pluralism" sounds rather feeble and defeatist unless Arab governments are also robustly challenged about their behaviour in this area.
The religious policies of the Gulf states in particular are an obvious problem since they foster sectarianism and – through their punishment of religious "crimes" – help to legitimise the actions of groups like ISIS. The fact that these states are also foes of ISIS should not become an excuse for silence.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 5 March 2015