What would the Middle East be without a bogeyman? The United States has approached the Middle East with a cartoonish simplicity – crediting the instability of the region to the bogeyman of the era.
Despite this distorted view of reality, or perhaps because of it, this notion has enjoyed baffling longevity in Washington. But it has not served the U.S.—or the region—well, because it is as inaccurate as it is simplistic.
In the below for The American Prospect, Matt Petti and I write about how the United States is missing opportunities to stabilize the region because it focuses on the false idea that the key to ending the region’s misery lies in the containment of a single bogeyman.
Your thoughts are welcome!
The Truth About Intervening Powers in the Middle East
And the title ‘biggest meddler’ goes to … the UAE, not Iran.
The American Prospect
What would the Middle East be without a bogeyman? For decades, U.S. foreign policy has centered on the idea that the lion’s share of the region’s ailments is caused by a single rogue actor who invariably is aligned against the U.S.
Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi played the role of the “mad dog of the Middle East” in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein was the bogeyman of the 1990s. For the last two decades, the Iranian theocracy has been bestowed the title “the region’s foremost malign actor.”
According to the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Iran’s alleged “pursuit of regional hegemony [is] … the greatest source of instability across the Middle East.”
Despite its cartoonish simplicity, or perhaps because of it, this notion has enjoyed baffling longevity in Washington. But it has not served the U.S.—or the region—well, because it is as inaccurate as it is simplistic.
Reviewing all of the region’s military interventions between 2010 and 2020, our research shows that several powerful states in the region intervene militarily in the affairs of their neighbors to roughly the same degree, defying the idea that the region’s instability can be blamed on a single pariah state.
Among these states—Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—there is no outlier. While Washington has fixated on Tehran’s interventions, the data shows that the UAE and Turkey have of late outdone Iran in terms of military meddling in the affairs of their neighbors.
Iran’s support for militias in Iraq and Lebanon has grabbed headlines in the American media, but the UAE has quietly been building its own international mercenary army with the help of contractors like Erik Prince, and Turkey has shuttled fighters from Syria to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is not just the extent of interventions that are roughly equal, but also their nature and form. All of them employ local proxies, with Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey building transnational mercenary armies. Meanwhile, Israel and Turkey have both resettled territories conquered through war, and by that engaged in the forcible redrawing of borders otherwise highly uncommon in this century.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable finding is the destructive role of the United States itself. Five of the six most interventionist powers in the Middle East are armed and politically supported by Washington. And a full one-third of U.S. arms exports this past decade went to these powers.
Without absolving these states of their own responsibility, it is important to note that the Arab Spring and the collapse of several Arab states significantly increased regional interventionism. All these states became more interventionist as a result of the region’s revolutions, as the greatest spikes in intervention occurred during periods of state collapse.
Where there are weak states, the advantage is with the offensive. In the Middle East, geography and weak conventional armies would otherwise limit the potential for military conquest. But the collapse of Syria, Libya, and Yemen created vacuums that quickly transformed into arenas for regional competition between a variety of states—and not just one single malign actor.
This suggests that instability was a cause as much as an effect of regional powers’ interventions. State collapse created vacuums that sucked in these powers, yet their interventions and jockeying for power exacerbated the situation and deepened instability.
This finding, perhaps more than anything, invalidates Washington’s obsession with pinning the region’s ailments on a single (anti-American) actor. In fact, regional instability often seems to be the spark that kicks off cycles of intervention and not vice versa.
Any policy designed to stabilize the region and prevent meddling and interventions must address the problem at a systems level. Countering Iranian meddling while arming and enabling Saudi, Emirati, or Turkish interventions will do little to advance U.S. interest in the region.
This point is even more apparent when studying the effect of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA). Critics of the accord have argued that the economic windfall following the limited sanctions relief Iran enjoyed fueled Iran’s aggression throughout the region. The data does not support this assertion. The agreement had no discernable impact on Iran’s interventions. Nor did President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from it.
Instead, the agreement, which created a perception among some U.S. partners that the United States was abandoning the region or even pivoting toward Iran, may have incentivized those powers to act more aggressively in pursuit of their perceived interests.
As such, it wasn’t the JCPOA that caused greater interventionism, but rather the reaction of U.S. partners to Washington ending the four-decade-old policy of containing Iran. And even then, much of the increase in these powers’ interventionism after 2015 took place in arenas entirely unrelated to Iran.
Where does this leave the United States?
First of all, it reinforces the notion that the U.S. national interest in the Middle East must be more narrowly defined than the current, expansive definition that centers U.S. interest on “defending allies.” This rather deferential approach is a major reason why the United States has wrongly focused on a single malign actor while ignoring the interventions of its own partners as these states often have been the main advocates of exclusively focusing on the interventions of their own rivals.
Second, if the U.S. shifts its strategy from controlling the Middle East to denying any other state the ability to dominate the region and its resources, the value of stability to U.S. interests will increase.
In such a scenario, the United States should firstly center its Middle East policy on the principle of not doing any harm and avoiding policies that fuel state collapse, as instability and the breakup of state authority presents an enticing opportunity for regional actors to expand their power.
This would include avoiding new wars and policies that prolong ongoing civil wars, as well as measures such as broad-based sanctions that push states toward collapse and make them ungovernable.
Finally, the United States should recognize the significant contribution it can make to regional stability—and its own security—by mediating and facilitating the end of proxy warfare between its partners and allies. The United States has invested heavily in building up regional partners’ military capabilities while failing to use its political leverage to prevent those partners from fighting one another.
For instance, when the UAE and Qatar launched a proxy war against each other in Libya, President Barack Obama offered only “mild scolding” of Gulf leaders. President Donald Trump directly contributed to regional instability by encouraging the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar as well as the failed Saudi-Israeli pressure campaign against King Abdullah in Jordan, one of the most stable countries in the region.
These are the low hanging fruit in the region that won’t resolve all of the region’s problems but whose resolution would significantly enhance stability in the Middle East. But Washington currently does not even see these opportunities because it singularly focuses on the false idea that the key to ending the region’s misery lies in the containment of a single bogeyman.
Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.” Matthew Petti is a researcher at Quincy Institute.