Lost in the sinking sands of the Middle East
By : Ali Khedery
The Middle East is more unstable today than it has been in decades. Global energy supplies are at risk, and thus, so is the entire world economy. After more than a decade of war against Al-Qaeda, the United States has failed to stem the rising tide of transnational jihad, which is again threatening to rock the very foundations of global order as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seizes vast swaths of land, resources and arms, murders and terrorizes thousands, displaces millions, recruits countless new fighters (thousands with Western passports) and plots a second 9/11.
Many of your critics have accused your administration of lacking a coherent Middle East team to implement a coherent Middle East strategy. In the wake of recent developments, even Democratic loyalists like your former ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, are piling on, concluding: “there doesn’t seem to be a good team there; there doesn’t even seem to be a team of rivals; there just seems to be people who have a lot of different views on the issues. And I think the president does need to kind of pull it together and look at [issues] from a broader context.”
Even Hillary Clinton, who was an exceedingly loyal secretary of state, is distancing herself from you, telling the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
As a U.S. official, and now as an executive doing business in the Middle East, I have heard the same sentiment echoed privately by regional leaders for years. The reality is that your intended policy of benign neglect has actually proven to be one of malignant neglect and only strengthened our foes. But you still have 30 months left in office and there are vital American interests that need to be safeguarded – and not just on a remote mountaintop filled with desperate, fleeing Yazidi civilians. It is time to put the pivot to Asia on the backburner and to refocus on the unfinished business at hand. It is time to re-engage in the Middle East, lest its widening chaos destroy what is left of your presidential legacy.
America’s vital national security interests
Here are five things you can do to shore up America’s vital national security interests across the Middle East:
1. Recognize what has worked – and more importantly, what hasn’t. When you gave your speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, you enjoyed the support of virtually the entire world. Everyone was hopeful that you would move to correct George W. Bush’s overreach by placing America back on a balanced footing. You were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on that basis. Instead, you overcorrected, putting the United States in an isolationist posture, thereby leaving a vacuum for our strategic adversaries to fill. Whether it was due to the perceived abandonment of Hosni Mubarak and Omar Sulaiman in Egypt after decades of close cooperation with Washington, the near abandonment of the Al Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain, the red line that became pink and then invisible in Syria or the countless missteps in concluding the war in Iraq, strategic allies like Israel, Turkey, the Gulf Arab monarchies and the Kurds feel angry and abandoned while foes like Russia, Iran and al Qaeda feel emboldened.
As the Middle East melts down and allies quietly look toward Moscow or Beijing for strategic support, we should understand that they do so reluctantly
As the Middle East melts down and allies quietly look toward Moscow or Beijing for strategic support, we should understand that they do so reluctantly. Unlike some of their populations, most regional leaders are moderate, secular and are genuine fans of Western culture, and, like the United States, they have been served well by a strategic alliance with Washington that goes back decades. Motivated by preserving their dynasties through relatively good governance and influenced by Western educations, these leaders are an invaluable bulwark against radical extremism and thus are critical to preserving regional stability and a global economy that remains addicted to Middle Eastern oil.
So stop looking at and dealing with the Middle East as a game of tic-tac-toe and an amalgamation of dysfunctional individual countries that you’d prefer to not think about and start looking at it as a three-dimensional chess board where numerous interlinked dynamics are constantly shifting and endangering American interests.
2. Reshuffle your national security staff – and listen more to experts at State, CIA and the Pentagon. Most of your White House staff working on the Middle East don’t speak the languages of the region while some haven’t even served in the countries they are advising you on. “They’re academics and theorists,” not practitioners, one of your former White House staff confided to me recently.
Frankly, this is inexcusable, because the current crisis doesn’t allow for on-the-job training – the aides to the most powerful man in the world need to be able to open up an Arabic newspaper or turn on a Farsi TV channel and understand immediately what’s going on. They need to understand intuitively the tone, the mood and the inflections in voices. Instead, they wait for translations that lack invaluable nuances and in any case take hours or days to process, by which time that information is irrelevant.
Take Nouri al-Maliki, the (hopefully outgoing) Iraqi prime minister. For years, your advisers insisted to me that his government in Baghdad wasn’t sectarian – perhaps it was because they couldn’t turn on Iraqi state TV and listen to the overtly divisive, sectarian programming that has since helped reignite Iraq’s civil war and given rise to the “Islamic State.” How can we understand, and effectively intervene in, distant lands if we can’t even understand their news broadcasts, read their holy books or communicate with their peoples? Imagine advising a foreign leader on American politics, cultures and religions without having visited the United States or without ever having watched an American news broadcast in English. Yet that’s exactly what we do in the Middle East.
Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower began relying on the National Security Council, or NSC, to tee up options and facilitate interagency debate, officials at the White House have succumbed to the temptation to staff the body with campaign staffers and partisan loyalists. As Richard Nixon’s ever escalating Vietnam interventions and George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion proved, “loyalists” who tell you what you want to hear are usually going to end up harming your legacy and U.S. national security interests. For decades now, the national security apparatus has been hijacked by some smart, patriotic and well-meaning but grossly unqualified individuals. Only you have the power to reverse this destructive trend by beginning to dismantle the system of partisan patronage in national security affairs.
What you need instead is an NSC filled with the nation’s top subject-matter experts – not Beltway academics and theorists, but the very brightest civil servants who have spent their entire careers on the ground in the region and understand its cultures, its languages, its religions, its geography, its history and its neuroses. In short, you need a couple dozen junior Ryan Crockers helping you understand why the region is on the edge of a precipice, and giving you ideas for how to reverse that trend – and they need to be there much longer than the standard 12-month tour, which precludes institutional knowledge or strategic planning. And you should listen to them. One former aide from your White House team recently told me: It’s not just that they don’t understand. It’s that they don’t want to understand what’s happening in the Middle East. They just want it all to go away. But it’s only going to get worse.
Your former secretary of defense, a man with four decades of public service, Robert Gates, bluntly concluded: This “White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon,” while an American ambassador recently lamented: “This White House just doesn’t listen to the State Department, the Pentagon or the CIA. They want to control everything.” Having tried to control everything for six years now, and with a crushing midterm election looming, it’s time to delegate more to the regional experts and make a bold move by adopting a radical strategy to empower them to actually make decisions.
3 – Appoint a Middle East czar. This is an idea sure to cause an uproar, but it’s simply what’s needed to cut through what national security veterans like Secretary Gates have concluded is a slow and dysfunctional Washington bureaucracy that has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of moving nimbly enough to deal with the unprecedented events unfolding across the region.
You’ll have to rely a lot more heavily on the Pentagon than you do now – not on waging war but on keeping the peace. Only the Department of Defense has the funds, manpower and sheer ability to muster the scale of resources necessary to deal with the complex web of political, military, economic and intelligence challenges that we have to contend with across the Middle East.
Over the past decade, the foreign entity that has proven to be most successful at advancing its national security interests in the Middle East is Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force under the leadership of Gen. Qassim Soleimani. Reporting directly to the supreme leader, Soleimani has successfully overseen Iran’s campaign of waging a series of proxy wars as a means of weakening, infiltrating and co-opting its neighbors, thereby effectively reconstituting the Persian Empire from the Mediterranean to the Chinese border. From Gaza to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to the Gulf to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Soleimani has fought a decades-long campaign to subvert and gain influence over vast portions of the Middle East, and he has done so while killing and maiming thousands of Americans – perhaps nearly as many as Al-Qaeda.
To effectively deter and counter the Qods Force, and to protect American allies and our strategic interests, you need an effective counter to Soleimani and his proxies. You need a man who will report directly to you and to the NSC principals, who will oversee all American sovereign resources (military, intelligence, diplomatic and development aid) across the region and who will have the mandate to develop and execute a comprehensive regional strategy to build our allies’ capacities, counter our enemies, and stabilize the area – by eliminating the paralyzing stovepipes within the U.S. bureaucracy and executing a coherent regional strategy through daily engagement with our allies. Just as Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) transformed our extraordinarily capable but diffuse covert elements by fusing military, intelligence, diplomatic and law-enforcement resources under one roof, a Supreme Allied Command for the Middle East and North Africa would act as an all-of-government fusion cell. With a sunset of no more than a decade, it should not seek to displace diplomats or intelligence officers, nor militarize U.S. foreign policy. Rather, it should fuse all elements of the bureaucracy during this moment of grave danger.
In other words, you need a modern-day Gen. Dwight Eisenhower – circa 1938 – to help contain and quell separate conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq before they merge into an all-out regional conflagration and before jihadis orchestrate a second 9/11.
I advocate temporarily turning the post of the CENTCOM commander into a five-star billet and filling the job with a top-rate strategist who is already intimately familiar with the broad range of regional challenges, potential solutions and, critically, the leaders we will have to coordinate closely with to restore a balance of power through the reinvigoration of the regional security architecture. Ambassador Robert Ford should be appointed as a diplomatic deputy, given his singularly unique and intimate knowledge of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, his fluency in Arabic, and his excellent working relations with our regional allies after decades of service across the theater. A top CIA officer with a lifetime of service in the region should fill the role of another deputy, fusing our intelligence operations across the region as part of a broader campaign plan. Only with this whole-of-government approach do we stand a chance of defending and advancing our strategic interests at this time of great peril.
3. Identify your friends – and support them. “Obama beats up his friends and appeases his enemies,” an enraged regional head of state told me during a recent private meeting. “We feel abandoned and betrayed, and that we can only rely on ourselves,” he lamented. I’ve heard that sentiment echoed countless times by regional royals, elites and other genuine friends of the United States. After decades of American efforts to maintain a regional balance of power and relative stability, your perceived disengagement in the face of the genocide in Syria, for example, has fueled poisonous sectarian hatred and outraged regional leaders, who, while at times maddeningly feckless, have proven to be critical long-term strategic partners. In short, we are the indispensable nation, and one that, for purely selfish reasons, cannot ignore the Middle East any longer.
Years of trying to fix the Middle East’s problems
After years of trying to fix the Middle East’s problems ourselves, it is imperative that we recognize that we can only play a supporting and unifying role instead. In turn, we should reassume the position that only we can uniquely fill – that of a sort of older and stronger brother to help guide and mediate between the squabbling younger siblings. This recommendation is grounded not in idealism nor a lust for imperialism but in the cold reality that we have strategic interests to defend in the Middle East that can only be advanced by uniting our local partners rather than by American boots on the ground or drone strikes. For decades, the United States played a critical role in cajoling feuding regional leaders into cooperating to advance our shared strategic interests, successfully concluding the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, combating transnational jihadi elements through intelligence cooperation with the Gulf monarchies and containing rogue states like Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Through a regional summit, it’s time we explicitly reaffirm our relations with our friends – Israel, Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf states, Egypt and Iraq’s Kurdistan Region – and do everything possible to support them in their existential fight for survival. From the continued sale of advanced American munitions to continued intelligence sharing to much more muscular international diplomatic engagement, our regional allies are yearning for a re-assertive America. And for our fellow Americans tired of underwriting adventures abroad, there is good news: The desire for meaningful U.S. leadership is so great that I’d be willing to bet that our regional allies would agree to reimburse us for our efforts, just as the Saudis did during the first Gulf War or when the Qataris built the CENTCOM Forward Headquarters.
4. Identify your enemies – and confront them. Thankfully, the list of America’s enemies in the Middle East is actually shorter than its list of friends. At the top of the list is Iran, or the “head of the snake,” as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia wisely called it in a meeting I attended. Our other foes, not accidentally, are Iran’s top proxies in the region: Iraq’s Shia Islamist militias (who have the blood of thousands of American troops on their hands, and who now constitute an alarming portion of the Iraqi military), Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, along with Al-Qaeda and ISIS, entities with which Iran has been rumored to clandestinely cooperate to target mutual foes like the United States and its regional allies.
The principal danger that the United States faces across the Middle East today is not these groups, however: It’s the perception that we are in retreat and that we will not forcefully move to defend ourselves nor our allies. U.S. foreign policy is the subject of ridicule by our allies and the butt of jokes by increasingly confident foes who, like Syria’s Assad, openly wage genocide with impunity, thereby shredding regional stability by fueling hatreds that are threatening to shatter every country in the area along ethno-sectarian lines.
This critically dangerous perception has been fueled by four American missteps: 1) imposing “red lines” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons and not following through with any meaningful response, essentially exposing our bark as worse than our bite; 2) launching the catastrophic war in Iraq only to prematurely “end” it while repeatedly declaring that Iraq is “peaceful, stable and self-reliant” and arming Maliki with advanced American munitions in the face of his blatantly sectarian, divisive and pro-Iranian stance; 3) intervening in Libya to topple Moammar Qaddafi without having learned the lessons of Saddam’s removal in 2003 – that what happens the day after is critical – eventually resulting in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens; and 4) not asserting forcefully enough that the United States will support its regional allies in every reasonable way to curtail Iran’s destabilizing regional hegemonic ambitions and its drive toward developing a nuclear weapon.
The Middle East today is on the precipice of the abyss of sectarianism and militant radicalism –phenomena that have already begun to erase the borders created a century ago with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. To contain these cancers, prevent a second 9/11 and salvage America’s strategic interests, comprehensive reorientation and bold reforms are needed immediately.
You can’t hide from the Middle East any longer, Mr. President. You may not be interested in its troubles, but they are certainly interested in you.
Ali Khedery is chairman and chief executive of Dragoman Partners, a strategic consultancy headquartered in Dubai. Previously he was an executive with Exxon Mobil Corporation, where he was the architect and chief political negotiator of the company’s entry into the Kurdistan Region. He also worked for the U.S. State and Defense departments, where he served as special assistant to five American ambassadors to Iraq and as senior adviser to three commanders of U.S. Central Command. He was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq.