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Resetting the Middle East

Let’s imagine a foreign policy based on promoting freedom, stability, and peace. Let’s assume that our drive to energy independence makes this not only possible, but desirable. Let’s assume that we no longer use our military to “protect vital resources” or some other euphemism for imperialism as we come to respect and develop a truly free market globally.

With these assumptions our view of the Middle East, in particular, changes dramatically. Like many situations in this rapidly integrating and evolving world, it demands attention to fundamentals – both our principles and an examination of the real powers which shape the world.

In the Middle East there are really only three permanent powers which have survived the test of millenia – Egypt, Turkey, and Persia (Iran). No matter who or what has swept through the region, these three have always been there. They are the best place to start when considering how we promote what matters most to free people around the world.

The US is already war-weary.  The last place we want to go into deeper is Israel.

The US is already war-weary. 

The first problem many will have with this analysis is that it appears to leave no place for Israel. There hasn’t been an Israel for nearly all of the last 2,000 years, after all, so is it merely an ephemeral state which can go away? The answer is that no, it’s a critical nation now for many reasons – but it cannot project power or influence outside of its own borders as it describes them. Regionally, it’s a hole in the map.

Furthermore, there is little doubt that Israel sees their region in the same terms. They are always reinforcing their peace with Egypt and have let out contracts for the Leviathan offshore gas find to Turkish companies as the define an undersea pipeline to Istanbul. Iran is their chief adversary, fighting a proxy war through Hamas. The rest of the region hardly hits Israel’s radar at all.

Saudi Arabia is the guardian of Mecca, which gives them a lot of power.

Saudi Arabia is the guardian of Mecca, which gives them a lot of power.

There are other nations with whom we have relationships in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But these were nothing forty years ago and will be greatly diminished if the price of oil remains low, as it is predicted to. They are truly ephemeral nations which are certainly primed for upheaval in the future.

What defines the three permanent powers more than anything is that they straddle the old ways of the region at the same time they have no choice but to look outward. Turkey is a member of NATO and Egypt has a close military relationship with the US. Iran is hardly a backward nation as well, with many western amenities and a desire to assert its power not just across the region but globally.

ISIL on the march.  Yes, these monsters must be stopped.

ISIL on the march. Yes, these monsters must be stopped.

In a region riddled with fault lines through the intersection of three continents, these permanent powers all find themselves with one foot on each side of shifting ground culturally, politically, and economically.

Yet each has taken its own path to deal with this problem. They should be examined separately as three distinct peoples, three distinct continents, three distinct perspectives that have shaped the region since they were the first to write down anything as they created civilization as we know it.

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran.  He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran. He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

Iran It is probably best to start with the only one of these permanent powers which is our enemy. While it should go without saying that the United States should never have permanent enemies, nearly forty years since the Iranian Revolution both sides are terribly bitter and distrustful. Iran’s support for terror groups is completely unacceptable to a free people, so the situation is largely intractable.

We must continue to engage Iran in dialogue and work to gain trust.  I believe a series of exercises where we chronologically lay out all the horrible things we have done to each other, in turns, with apologies would be fruitful.  Whether or not it will work is debatable, of course, but we are currently doing nothing at all.

Through it all, Iran has been one of the most stable nations in the region for one simple reason – they stopped playing by Western rules and went it alone. They are their own thing and that mostly works for them. As we work towards ending the constant animosity between us, and we must, we have to remember this. They are more than the protector of the Shia population, they are a de facto power. A useful outlet for this has to be found.

Recep Erdogan now has complete authority.  What will he do with it?  How will Turkey respond?

Recep Erdogan now has complete authority. What will he do with it? How will Turkey respond?

Turkey Erdogan’s response to the coup attempt has been brutal. In many ways, he is undoing the strong Westward tilt instituted by Kemil Attaturk in 1922. That always relied on a strong military role and little faith put in democracy. Erdogan has made it clear that he wants to re-create something like the Ottoman Empire, which should set off alarm bells. But it is the natural role of Turkey in the region, or at least has been for 600 years.

This outlook, combined with a renewed relationship with Putin’s Russia, is worrisome all around. But Putin’s main reason for courting Erdogan must be a continued block on a pipeline across Turkey to bring natural gas from Azerbaijan and/or Iran into Europe. They are fundamentally at odds with each other, which is something we need to remind Erdogan. In addition, the European Union has to come to terms with Turkey and start respecting them at least enough to stop playing games with their potential association beyond the Bosphorus.

Turkey is likely to turn towards Islam – a personal tendency of Erdogan as well as a lesson learned from Iran. The repression of former ally Fethullah Gülen, whose movement was essentially an Islamic Reformation, signals the end of their attempts to straddle two continents with a uniquely Turkish style. Space has to be made for them in the West. But Turkey’s continued repression of the Kurds, as well as what we can see coming for the whole population, is a serious problem for anyone other than an autocrat who wants a relationship with Erdogan.

Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt competing in Beach Volleyball at the 2016 Olympic Games.  A perfect symbol of a nation in two worlds at once.

Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt competing in Beach Volleyball at the 2016 Olympic Games. A perfect symbol of a nation in two worlds at once.

Egypt The closest partner with the United States is also the least stable. The biggest problem in Egypt is a stagnant economy that has more and more mouths to feed every day. Given that they import upwards of 60% of their food, this is a real problem. Loss of agricultural land, driven by climate change, bad irrigation practices, the restrictions of the Aswan High Dam, and a need to grow water hogging cotton to make foreign payments is simply killing them. The revolution that ousted Mubarak started as a bread riot – and there reasonably could be more of them in Egypt’s future.

Through it all, Egypt is straddling two worlds better than most nations. They have their own flair and their own sense of stability. They also have a 10% Coptic Christian minority which needs to be protected, although the threat to this group does not appear to have widespread support. It’s a very secular nation all around and a reliable ally for us. Supporting Egypt and helping them solve their problems must be a cornerstone of our Middle East policy.

Here's a guy we let twist in the wind.  Secretary John Kerry, the man that was trounced by GW Bush.  Yes, that Bush.

Here’s a guy we let twist in the wind. Secretary John Kerry, the man that was trounced by GW Bush. Yes, that Bush.

If you can imagine a foreign and military policy that is not driven by oil, the Middle East suddenly appears much more clear than before. Given the option of staying out of situations we cannot win gives us a lot more room to do what should be done.

It is a matter of returning to our most basic principles. Freedom, stability, and peace must be what the United States always stands for. We must never accept that we have permanent enemies. If we are to rely on a global free market, it’s time for us to act like it and implement it.

There is a balance to the Middle East, and it is described by the three Permanent Powers which have stood the test of time. Our principles have as well. They need to join forces to create a foreign policy for a new and better world.

11 thoughts on “Resetting the Middle East

  1. I find these posts well-intentioned but perhaps naive and self-righteous. Dependence on Mideast hydrocarbons was always a self-inflicted problem for the US, closely related to the political power of the oilers. I doubt this lesson has been learned, or we would not have seen Obama signing a bill to deregulate the export of LNG. Is there a possibility that the US will now start to leave the Mideast alone to work out its own problems? One can only hope, but nothing in the statements or track record of the oncoming Clinton suggest the needed levels of awareness, humility, or sense of proportion.

    • Let’s not forget Defense Contractors. There is a lot to be countered to get us to this point, absolutely, but there is no reason we cannot now.
      I am trying to flesh out what a foreign policy based on promoting peace and freedom would look like. I don’t think it’s gotten the attention it deserves. There are a lot of details here, and a lot depends on who is Secretary of State. But this is what it might look like. I want us to start thinking about it more than anything.

      • Of course I totally agree with the objective of a less evil and harmful stance towards the Middle East. But the present US policies have always been couched in self-righteous terms, which, of course, perceptive people understand to be bullshit. So I wonder how better policies could be presented in ways people could understand. And, the driver of increased domestic hydrocarbon production has been fracking, which is hugely destructive in many ways, especially to people living around it. Fracking is indefensible unless and until the oilers are made to clean up their act…..

      • Many points:
        1) If this is at least a starting point for a civilized, decent foreign policy in the region, how on earth do we get there? Does this mean we throw our “partners” in the Gulf under the bus? Any normalizing with Iran will sure feel like it to them – and to Israel, of course. It will be hard to steer this course – and Erdogan is not making it any easier.
        2) You could easily call what I’ve written “self righteous”, and I accept that. “Freedom” is a loaded term all around – does that mean completely Western? I don’t think so, but there are basic human rights we have to insist on. Doing so invariably becomes self righteous, at least when we’ve done it in the past. This point alone is worth a lot of soul-searching, IMHO.
        3) Fracking. Yuck. I am convinced it can be done cleanly – but it will take a LOT of regulation. Also, it’s important to note that the majority of wells in the US are done by “wildcatters” – small operators, often funded by junk bonds, who are throwing the dice really hard. If it all fails they walk away and declare bankruptcy, screwing everyone. “Big Oil” would actually be preferable in that it would be much harder for them to get away with what the small operators do – it would be much easier to regulate and police. I dunno. I am convinced that it can be done cleanly and safely, but we are very much not there yet. It will take a concerted effort to get there.

        I really appreciate your comments here. I wish we had discussions like this on CNN et cetera rather than the nonsense we have.

  2. It would be a good start but there have to be places other than the middle east where we have been needlessly interfering. Southeast Asia comes to mind right away. That’s not about oil but containing China but still we shouldn’t be there like we are.

    • I have been looking around and I don’t see any other place where we are as deeply engaged and mucking around with forces we don’t understand – getting ourselves in over our head and not able to swim our way out of. The world really is at peace, mostly, by comparison to past eras. We are much more responsible than we have been previously – we stayed out of Ukraine, we don’t screw around with South America, we’re not anywhere in Africa. We’re not doing anything too stupid by comparison – except in the Middle East.

  3. This is incredible. We do have a great opportunity in front of us. But we still have to defeat ISIS and get rid of the dictator in Syria before there can be peace. I’m not sure about Iran but I see your point that we have to deal with them no matter what.

    • This is what I think we need to be talking about. I’m not saying I have all the answers, I’m saying we do have a great opportunity. This is one vision of what it might develop into.
      We do have to deal with Iran – no matter what it means. But I’m not sure we have to get rid of al Assad, to be honest. Is that really our purvey? Should we be messing around with other nations in the middle of a civil war?

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