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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.