The messages demand the world do something about the war. And because he won't listen to them, Kafranbel's protestors deeply, truly despise President Barack Obama. "Happy July 4, America!," one sign reads. "Who wants to protect the war criminal Assad and ignore his crimes against humanity? Do you, President Obama?" Another sign compares him unfavorably to Bush: "Obama's procrastination kills us: we miss Bush's audacity," it reads. "The world is better with America's Republicans." A third is simply a drawing of the White House covered in Syrian blood.
The theme, in case it isn't obvious, is that America could end the bloodshed in Syria. But, whether out of cowardice or indifference, it chooses to let Syrians die.
Once upon a time, the Kafranbel protestors were right. During the latter half of the 20th century, the United States was able to alter the course of events in the Middle East, to fundamentally reshape the region, for better and worse, along America's preferred lines. The US severely limited Soviet influence in the Middle East, brokered a historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and successfully contained Saddam Hussein's regional ambitions.
But today's America can't solve the region's still-huge problems. The United States can't stop the Syrian civil war any more than it can end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, halt the Egyptian military's brutal repression of political dissidents, or prevent Iraq from becoming a bloody sectarian nightmare. American policymakers will likely never admit this, but they've lost the Middle East.
The problem isn't that America has gotten weaker. It's that the Middle East has changed. When the Middle East's biggest problems were about conflict between formal governments, the United States had a lot more influence. But today, the Middle East is defined by a shifting, impossibly complicated web of ethno-religious tension, weak and failed states, and ascendant terrorist organizations. The collapse of central governments and rise of powerful non-state actors breed problems that foreign powers, even the world's only superpower, simply cannot address.
The United States can't arrest the region's transformation. The best America can hope to do is manage its consequences. And the sooner American policymakers realize that, the better the US's Middle East policy will be.
America's influence in the Middle East peaked before the 21st century
By October 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower was furious. That July, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had seized control of the Suez Canal, a critical trade passageway, from the British-French owned Suez Canal Company. In response, the two European powers, in a joint operation with Israel, took the canal by force. Eisenhower was blindsided by the European move. The Soviet Union leaped to the defense of its Egyptian client, even going so far as issue a thinly veiled threat to nuke Britain and France.
The American president forced Britain, France, and Israel to back down. The next year, he announced a new American strategy in the Middle East, now called the Eisenhower Doctrine. "If the Middle East is to continue its geographic role of uniting rather than separating East and West," Eisenhower said, "then the United States must make more evident its willingness to support the independence of the freedom-loving nations of the area." It was now officially America's job to police the Middle East.
The Suez crisis hardly marked America's first major move in the region. Just a few years earlier, Eisenhower had helped overthrow Iran's socialist, democratically elected President Mohammad Mossadegh. But the Eisenhower doctrine signaled a sea change in Middle Eastern politics. Out were the old colonial powers, Britain and France. In came the United States and, with it, Cold War power politics.
In the decades after Eisenhower, American involvement transformed the politics of the region. Richard Nixon's arms shipments and nuclear threats, according to renowned historian Stephen Ambrose, may well have saved Israel from destruction after a surprise Arab invasion in 1973. President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt later that decade, which ultimately led to the creation of a conservative, pro-American bloc aligning Israel with its traditional enemies — the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Saudi dictatorships. George H.W. Bush put an end to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s, a gambit for control of oil wealth and regional hegemony.
All of these examples share something in common: they're all about struggles between governments. Unlike the Syrian civil war, with its enormous number of factions and ever-shifting allegiances, conflicts like the many Egyptian-Israeli wars were fundamentally about enmity between governments. The United States has a much easier time applying its military might, economic power, and diplomatic influence to governments than to al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, or extremist Israeli settlers. Between the end of World War II and the Clinton administration, it applied that leverage to get what it wanted in a fairly significant list of Middle Eastern crises.
So it is is not an exaggeration to say that American influence has been a fundamental force in the past half-century of Middle Eastern politics. The Middle East may be better or worse for it, depending on your perspective. But there's no denying the fact that America has played a critical role in shaping the modern Middle East.
So much so, in fact, that the idea of an impotent America strikes Americans and Middle Easterners alike as absurd. It runs contrary to everything leaders and citizens around the region have seen for their adult lives. A massive decline in American influence marks nothing less than an epochal shift in the politics of the Middle East.
Yet it's increasingly hard to deny.
Disaster in Iraq: a symbol of the region as a whole
Sipping his coffee in a Capitol Hill bakery in late June, Douglas Ollivant seemed very far away from the turmoil in Iraq he was once tasked with taming. But the former National Security Council Director for Iraq from 2005 to 2009 is still preoccupied with Iraq's war, particularly after the extremist Islamic State's (ISIS) blitzkrieg in the north of Iraq.
A sense of America's limits seeps through Ollivant's reflections on the country. Ask him about the surge, the 2007 troop commitment that's often credited with ending Iraq's post-invasion civil war, and he's quick to say that America's contribution to the short-lived peace is overrated. "I take the somewhat modest position that the action of 6 million Iraqis may be more important than those of 30,000 American troops and one very talented general," he quipped, referring to the Sunni tribal uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq widely known as the Anbar Awakening.
Ollivant's grand theory of Iraq is that everything, everything, is about domestic politics. The gulf splitting Iraq's Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds are about sectarian mistrust, sure, but also about intra-Sunni and intra-Shia politics. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's utter failure to make some major concessions to the Sunni minority isn't because he hates Sunnis personally, according to Ollivant. It's because his Shia political allies won't let him because it will cost them their jobs.
There is nothing — absolutely nothing — the United States can do to address the fundamental dynamic driving the violence in Syria and Iraq
This is hardly the sort of problem that's amenable to American resolution, let alone large-scale military intervention. "If I have one thing to say, I think the problem with our narrative about Iraq is that 99.5 percent of the people we had in Iraq were uniform, and therefore we have a very military-centric lens," Ollivant said.
Post-American Iraq is an almost perfect synecdoche for the Middle East as a whole. After the 2003 invasion, the long-suppressed tension between Sunnis and Shias erupted. This escalated the struggle for power between two of the region's strongest states, Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies are fundamentally OK with the way the Middle East works today, while Iran wants to expand its influence at the expense of the United States, Israel, and the Gulf states. The Iranian-Saudi proxy war has been fought throughout the region, but it's been deadliest in Iraq and Syria. There, the key problem is that Sunnis and Shias disagree violently over who should have power. That's already a nearly impossible problem for the United States to solve. But Iranian and Saudi interference has empowered extremists on both sides and made the problems much worse.
Through measures like the ongoing bombing campaign against ISIS in Kurdistan, the United States can try to contain the fallout from these messes. But there is nothing — absolutely nothing — the United States can do to address the fundamental dynamic driving the violence in Syria and Iraq.
Why America can't stop the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq
In Syria, Iran provides massive amounts of military and financial support to president Bashar al-Assad's government, while the Saudis and other Gulf monarchies, including Qatar and Kuwait, have shipped heavy weapons to the anti-government rebels, including extreme jihadists. Iranian troops are leading Baghdad's fight against ISIS in Iraq. The Saudis helped the Bahraini government violently put down a Shia uprising, which Iran supported. All around the region, the competition between these two heavyweights had made conflicts worse.
The US invasion of Iraq "started this new round of competition" between Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It was "one hundred percent the Iraq war, and the Arab Spring." The power vacuum in Iraq created an opportunity for Iran to build a Shia client state, which terrified Saudi and Gulf strategists. The Saudis began opposing the Iranians wherever they could be fought, as both sides believe a world where the other dominates is a fundamental threat to their national security. Competition between the Gulf States themselves, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fueled even more escalation.
This power struggle played up sectarian divisions in a very bad way. "I don't think that the Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a sectarian war with each other," said F. Gregory Gause, a University of Vermont professor who studies the politics of the Middle East. "But they use sectarianism. This battle for influence is played out not in military conflicts between the two states, but in civil conflicts in weak Arab countries … the Saudis will back the Sunnis and Iranians will back the Shias because those are natural allies. And the Saudis and Iranians don't have to force themselves into these fights; the local players invite them in." That's exactly what happened in Syria and Iran. In both cases, Iranian-backed Shia central governments are fighting Sunni rebels that have received heavy Saudi support.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have slowed support of extremist groups recently, but there are no takebacks in wars. ISIS got its startup capital from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies.Their support for it and likeminded groups helped set the stage for the horrific ethno-religious polarization that now defines the wars in Iraq and Syria.
This has led to a vicious cycle of violence in Iraq and Syria. First, there's a breakdown in state authority — both the Iraqi and Syrian governments lose control of huge swaths of their country to rebel movements, breaking the seal on Sunni-Shia conflict imposed by authoritarian central governments. Second, the increase in sectarian violence creates opportunities for Saudi Arabia and Iran to intervene on their sectarian side, providing military aid to both sides that increases the casualty count. As the fighting gets bloodier, sectarian tensions get worse, making Sunnis and Shias even more mistrustful of their religious opponents and more convinced of the need to keep fighting them. The ongoing fighting further weakens the central government, inviting more external intervention on both sides, and the bloody beat goes on.
"I think that's the dynamic," Gause said. "Things are awful. And if my diagnosis about state weakness being the driver of sectarian tension is right, then there's no quick fixes."
Especially not from Washington. It's tempting to think, if the United States intervened in just the right way in either Syria or Iraq, that we could resolve this fundamental dynamic. Aid to the right rebel group there, a little airstrike here, and presto: deal done. But everything we know about conflicts like these suggest America is incapable of solving problems this large.
"I think [ethnic] civil wars are harder to end," said Alexander Downes, a professor of political science at George Washington University. He thinks this applies just as well to religiously defined struggles, like in Iraq and Syria, as ethnic ones. "Once identities are mobilized, you're judged based on your associational identity rather than anything you did. It becomes very hard to end these wars when the groups are intermingled."
The more the wars in Syria and Iraq become wars over which group controls the government, the harder it will be for any third party to stop the conflict. People stop having a choice about which side to support, because fighters on each side of the religio-ethnic divide target the other side's communities. The stakes are too high, and the fundamental divisions too entrenched, for the parties to listen to the United States or any other third party.
Downes cited a wealth of political science research to support his point. Take a recent, sophisticated paper from three European researchers. According to their findings, civil wars were more likely in countries where whole ethnic groups were discriminated against and denied access to political institutions as a group. A different 2008 paper found robust statistical evidence that, so long as warring ethnic groups were still packed near each other, ethnic civil wars were exceedingly more likely to start again after being stopped.
That points to a depressing truth about Iraq and Syria. If the root of Iraq and Syria's conflict is unwillingness to accept the other group's control of the state, it's hard for any third power to impose a political solution that could stop the violence in the long run. Now that these are Sunni-Shia conflicts — a development fueled by Iranian and Saudi meddling — the US has no feasible option for addressing the core cause of the continued crisis.
In other words: even if the US could temporarily staunch the bleeding with some kind of intervention, it's not clear how it could prevent the wars from quickly spiraling out of control again. The US governed Iraq for about a year after the invasion, and had hundreds of thousands of troops there for several years, and it still couldn't negotiate a permanent resolution to Iraq's civil conflict. At this point, there's no political solution to the deep Sunni-Shia divide that the United States can impose, especially given Saudi and Iranian interference.
Two University of Maryland professors compiled a dataset of 218 civil wars and found that ones where third parties contributed arms to rebels were longer and less likely to be resolved politically. Why? Because governments were less likely to make deals with rebels who are growing stronger from foreign aid. The rebels could always renege on the deal after they've benefitted from a cease fire. The more weapons Iraqi and Syrian proxies get from their sponsors, the less of an incentive each side has to pause the fighting. They both think the other will gain from it.
Incidentally, that's why it's likely that American arm-and-train Syrian rebels plans couldn't end the conflict. The US never contemplated any policy options that would totally upend the balance of power in the rebels' favor; to do so would have involved a significant on-the-ground deployment.
Even Gause, who thinks that the US had a window to alter the course of the Syria war in 2011, believes there's not much to be done now in military terms. "It would have had to have been early," he said. After late 2011 and early 2012, "when it became clear that the Alawites are fighting for their lives, and the revolt becomes more and more sectarian Sunni-Salafi-jihadist — at that point, a few bombs here and there aren't going to do that much." The sectarian arc of the conflict, according to Gause, has escalated to the point where the US can't make either side back down.
So the US has basically no tool available to solve the two bloodiest, and potentially most important, crises in the Middle East today. Even if it were willing to deploy large number of ground troops, that might not make things better — as we saw in Iraq post-Saddam Hussein. The sectarian conflict and Iranian-Saudi competition have tied America's hands.
The death of the American-led peace process
"I know what America is," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2001. "America is a thing you can move very easily."
Netanyahu wasn't Prime Minister when he said that. Apparently, he didn't even know he was being recorded. But when the remarks surfaced in 2010, they embarrassed the conservative Prime Minister, who was already on tense terms with his American counterpart.
More than any other conflict in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is built around deep American involvement. "The parties need a third party," Hussein Ibish, a Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, said. "I think there is no other candidate than the United States. There's no other party that's capable, and no other party that's interested."
But even here, the United States has failed, consistently and dramatically, for the past 15 years. It's easy to forget now, but the 1990s were dominated by something a lot like optimism. In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel's right to exist for the first time. In 1995, Israel set up the Palestinian Authority and gave it legal power over parts of the Palestinian territories, giving Palestinians their first taste of real self-governance. These two milestones, the foundational achievements of the Oslo Peace Process, made it seem like peace was at hand. And the US was playing a huge role in peace process (though it didn't have much of a role in the Oslo negotiations proper), much as it had negotiated peace between Arab nations and Israel before.
But the hopeful edifice began collapsing in 2001. The Second Intifada, which stretched from 2000 to about 2005 and was the deadliest war between Israelis and Palestinians in modern history, shattered its foundations. At the same time, American influence over the two parties dwindled. Many, including Ibish, believe there's still time for the US to help broker a peace deal. But there's no doubt that Israeli and Palestinian politics have transformed in profound ways, ones that have given the US less sway with Israelis and Palestinians than it once had.
Start with Israel. During the Second Intifada, Israelis faced an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings. This was something different than the threat of invasion from Arab states, which had beset Israel since its founding; murder stalked Israeli cafes and school buses. Worse, it came after what Israelis saw as extraordinarily generous peace offers at Camp David in 2000 and January 2001. From the Israeli point of view, Palestinians had turned down their best offer in favor of war.
"The Second Intifada really was a traumatic event for Israeli society," Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said. "For a decade in the ‘90s, Israelis were coming to terms strongly with Palestinian aspirations...it was shattered in the Second Intifada, and the consequence was the pendulum swung in the entire opposite direction" — the direction of skepticism that Palestinians were willing to make peace.
There's hard evidence behind Sachs' claims. Esteban Klor, an economist at Hebrew University, has done extensive statistical analysis of the effect of Palestinian terrorism on Israeli voting. He has repeatedly found that Palestinian violence made Israelis significantly more likely to vote for right-wing parties. In Israel, these parties, like Netanyahu's Likud, are significantly less interested in an American-mediated peace agreement.
Now, Klor also found evidence that from 1988 to 2006, Israeli right-wing parties developed more accommodating stances towards the Palestinians. Klor and his coauthor attribute that to a concession effect; terrorism at low or medium levels convinced Israelis that they needed to compromise to stop the violence.
But 2006 is a really unfortunate year to cut off. Since 2006, the Islamist group Hamas has won the Palestinian elections, taken over the Gaza Strip, and fired rockets that Israel has fought three wars to try to stop. These developments further reinforced Israelis' sense that peace with Palestinians was impossible. Statistical evidence confirms that Israelis in areas hit by rockets vote for right-wing parties at noticeably higher levels.
The newer, younger Israeli right is the most vital part of Israeli politics today. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the popular Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been one of the fiercest supporters of Israeli settlements in the West Bank — a principal barrier to peace. Interior Minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett thinks the two-state solution has "reached a dead end." Lieberman and Bennett lead two of the four most popular parties in the Israeli government. They've both risen to power in the past five years, and Bennett is particularly popular among young Israelis. Both exert a great deal of pressure on Netanyahu to reject any major concessions to Palestinians in the name of peace.
If the United States were willing to totally sacrifice its relationship with Israel by threatening foreign aid and diplomatic assistance, it could probably wring concessions out of even hardline governments. But for both political and strategic reasons, that's not a price any modern American president has been willing to pay.
Instead, Israel's rightward shift limits the more subtle ways of influencing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. American influence depends, critically, on its ability to serve as a mediator: taking one side's proposals to the other side, asking what the other one could give in return, and trying to push Israelis in the Palestinians' direction and vice versa. The more right-wing Israelis get, the harder this give-and-take becomes: Israeli governments are less willing to make real concessions in the name of peace, which makes Palestinians less likely to reciprocate.
Not that Israel and Palestine are in a great position to make peace in their own right. The newest problem on the Palestinian side really began with the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections — pushed for by the George W. Bush administration over Israeli objections — that Hamas won. The international community wouldn't support any Palestinian government that refused to recognize Israel or abide by past agreements with it. Hamas, whose formal ideology is violently anti-Semitic, wasn't all that interested. After months of deadlock, Hamas launched a bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip — allegedly to preempt a coup launched by the other major Palestinian party, Fatah, that the US helped plan. Israel's strangling blockade of the Gaza Strip since has failed to seriously weaken Hamas' control over the territory.
"It is safe to say that if we the US are the only party that has a sense of urgency, these negotiations will not succeed"
The Palestinians have yet to recover from this schism. True, Hamas and Fatah announced a plan for shared government in April 2014, but they haven't really implemented it. During the Gaza war, Hamas conducted its war with Israel entirely independently of Fatah, which opposed every escalatory step both Hamas and Israel took.
And even if the unity agreement recovers, there's little evidence that Hamas would ever sign on to a permanent peace agreement on terms Israel would accept. (Hamas leaders have signalled support for a decades-long truce, which isn't the same.) There's certainly no reason to think Israel would negotiate with any Hamas-backed government, at least in the short term.
So, on the Palestinian side, any American-led peace process is stuck between the unity frying pan and the Hamas-in-Gaza fire. "The split between Fatah and Hamas is the most important thing [limiting negotiations]," University of Vermont's Gause said, because "it means no one speaks for the Palestinians." But on the other hand, the unity deal — which according to the International Crisis Group's Nathan Thrall, was obtained on terms maximally favorable to Fatah — creates a government that Israel won't work with. There's just no way to arrange the Palestinian government that would lead to a peace agreement right now.
Growing Israeli skepticism about peace and Palestinian division explains why Secretary of State John Kerry's attempt to broker a framework for a final peace deal (not even a final peace deal in its own right!) failed so dramatically in April 2014. "He had this idea that, with enough application of diplomatic and personal energy he could shift things," Ibish said, but "I don't think Secretary Kerry was dealing with parties who were capable of going through with an agreement on final status issues or anything like that."
After the talks, an Obama official who was directly involved basically admitted as much. "One problem that revealed itself in these past nine months is that the parties, although both showing flexibility in the negotiations, do not feel the pressing need to make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace," Martin Indyk, the US Ambassador to Israel during the talks, said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It is safe to say that if we the US are the only party that has a sense of urgency, these negotiations will not succeed."
To outsiders, that last observation seems almost comically banal. Yet, coming from a US official as important as Indyk, it's an extraordinary admission of America's limits. For the past two decades and three presidential administrations, the United States has thrown a tremendous amount of effort into pushing the parties to make concessions for peace. Indyk is admitting, at least tacitly, that Israelis and Palestinians have placed this situation outside America's power. American influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, today, a dried-out husk of what it used to be.
The Arab Spring destroyed what influence the US had left
While Syria, Iraq, and Israel might be the most prominent crises in the Middle East today, they are hardly the only ones.
Libya is a mess of competing militias; by late July, the fighting had gotten so intense that the official Libyan parliament was forced to relocate. The Yemeni government still hasn't put down al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in southern and eastern Yemen — and only recent negotiated a ceasefire with Houthi rebels in the north. The Egyptian military usurped the country's democratic revolution; hundreds of Egyptians died during the government's crackdown on the also-authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood opposition. The Lebanese army has fought pitched battles with Islamist insurgents who have been pushed across the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been slowly, but surely, cracking down on basic political freedoms in the region's oldest Muslim democracy — and mercilessly breaking up the protests that have risen to challenge him.
This is not an exhaustive list.
"Things are awful," Gause said. "We're in for a long-term mess in the region." And once again, it's a mess the United States is largely powerless to avoid. The three biggest drivers of the chaos — weak or failed states, Islamist extremism, and authoritarianism — are problems America is in an especially terrible position to solve.
Perhaps the most depressing part of this already-depressing diagnosis is its origins. The 2011 wave of protests around the Arab World called the Arab Spring were the first ray of hope in the Middle East in years. The Middle East is the least democratic major geographic region on Earth. The massive demonstrations in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Homs, Manama, and other major cities gave a lot of observers hope that one of the major sources of misery in the Middle East — the overwhelming prevalence of dictatorships — might finally be on its way out.
But three years later, the Arab Spring's legacy has been at best a wash, and even then only if you set aside the chaos in Syria. At worst, it's a disaster. It's not for nothing that "the Arab Winter" has become a tiresome cliche of Middle East punditry.
Every major Arab Spring state except Tunisia has, to varying degrees, fallen prey to anarchy or authoritarianism. Both problems are widespread and very, very difficult for the United States to solve.
The only real solution to anarchy, of course, is building some kind of political order. Realistically, that means big military deployments designed to put an end to fighting and somehow negotiate a political settlement.
Good luck with that. It's not just that the United States, after Iraq, has zero interest in nation-building in the Middle East. "More importantly," Gause said, we're terrible at it. "We broke the state in Iraq," he notes. "We're good at breaking things. But we're not particularly good at putting them together."
Downes, the GWU political scientist who studies regime change, agrees. Together with the University of Oklahoma's Jonathan Monten, he studied 70 cases where democracies intervened in a foreign country to install another democracy. They found that these interventions almost exclusively succeeded in countries that were either wealthy and well-developed (Germany and Japan in 1945) or ones with real experience with democracy prior to the foreign invasion (Haiti in 1994-1995). These are countries completely unlike Libya, Iraq, Yemen, or Syria.
As long as states around the Middle East remain weak, the US willl have very little influence over the countries where anarchy reigns. "The state-to-state thing we have leverage, lots of leverage," Gause said. But "in these broken-down states, we don't have a lot of resources, and we don't have many ideas."
To make matters worse, anarchy in today's Middle East is breeding extremism. Though virtually everyone predicted the Arab Spring would be a catastrophe for al-Qaeda and likeminded groups, the opposite has turned out to be true. Al-Qaeda franchises have revitalized, particularly in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. And ISIS, now split from al-Qaeda, rivals its predecessor in global influence.
"The big difference in the region is not Sunni-Shia, and it's not pro-American or anti-American. The big difference in the region is between states that basically work and states that don't."
Gartenstein-Ross, the FDD scholar, was one of the few to predict early on that extremists would come out ahead after the Arab Spring. After the rise of ISIS, that's looking increasingly prescient. Syria "will prove to have a far more long-reaching impact than the Afghan-Soviet war did," Gartenstein-Ross said. The Afghan-Soviet war, of course, gave birth to al-Qaeda.
It gets even worse. One of the perverse consequences of the Arab Spring is that it's seriously reduced American leverage with the authoritarian Arab states that the US does brisk business with — particularly on issues of democracy and rights. That's because when regimes have a choice between crossing the US and doing whatever they need to stave off a revolution, they'll choose the latter every time.
Egypt is the perfect example here. Despite giving $1.5 billion in annual aid, the US has had virtually no influence over the Egyptian military's coup against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. "The US has little power to influence matters that are of life-or-death importance to the generals," Eric Trager, the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes. "The fact that Egypt's generals responded to mass protests by removing President Mohammed Morsi from power means that the current fight between the military and Muslim Brotherhood is existential." So the US can't stop it.
"The big difference in the region is not Sunni-Shia, and it's not pro-American or anti-American," Gause said. "The big difference in the region is between states that basically work and states that don't." And right now, the United States has very little leverage with either group.
The future: solutionism vs. managerialism
Two more things need to be said before this gloomy diatribe ends.
First, noting that American influence is waning is not a prediction that the Middle East is doomed. It's true that most of the trends that explain America's shrinking sway are also dangerous, harmful trends in Middle Eastern politics. The mere fact that they're trends doesn't mean they're permanent trends.
It is conceivable, for example, that there could be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the next ten years. But the impetus for that change would have to be local, on both the Israeli and Palestinian side. The United States can't force this change on its own anymore than it can destroy ISIS or build a stable Libyan government. But one day, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Libyans may yet develop answers for these problems.
Which leads to the second clarification: just because the United States can't solve problems doesn't mean America can wash its hands of the Middle East. Rather, it means the United States needs to drastically rethink its approach to the region.
Since the Cold War, America has been used to addressing big, overarching regional issues: Soviet influence over regional powers, Saddam Hussein's aggressive expansionism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today's big problems in the Middle East aren't amenable to this kind of solution. Instead of thinking about solving the causes of Middle Eastern crises in one fell swoop, the United States needs to start trying to manage their worst consequences. If you can't fix a problem, at least make sure it hurts as few people as possible until an opportunity for real progress presents itself.
A managerial approach means giving up on solving the Syrian civil war, but doing your damnedest to help its victims wherever you can. It means admitting that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is impossible today, but figuring out how to make modest improvements in the situation that might make things better down the line. And it means trying to limit the growing threat from resurgent extremist groups in countries where the US might actually be able to help.
Managerial policies are much less ambitious than America's previous attempts to provide grand solutions to regional problems. But they have a much better chance of making people's lives better without blowing up in America's face.
Instead of new efforts to win Syria's civil war, the United States should focus on solving the growing Syrian refugee crisis. Three million Syrians are refugees, scattered around the Middle East. There's another 6.5 million internally displaced; together, that's a little under half of Syria's entire population. This is both a humanitarian catastrophe and a serious security concern: historically, refugee camps are fertile recruiting grounds for extremists. The huge camps are also causing major economic and political problems for Syria's already-unstable neighbors.
By April 2014, UN refugee relief efforts had only received $1.1 billion out of a promised $2.3 billion. The UN was forced to cut food rations by a fifth just to keep operating. Unlike the broader Syrian war, this is a problem the United States really can throw money at.
There are similarly managerial things to do for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Along with his push for peace negotiations, John Kerry proposed a $4 billion investment in the Palestinian private sector. Kerry believed this could knock the Palestinian unemployment rate down to 8 percent from 21 percent, and increase the Palestinian GDP by half. But according to ATFP's Ibish, this "second half of [John Kerry's] approach got dropped along with [the peace negotiations]." The huge economic gains Kerry claimed he could deliver would would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, helping build the foundations for a viable future state.
The disappearing $4 billion Palestinian fund illustrates one of the signal problems with a big-picture approach to Middle East problems. Policies get made around the big idea, pulling critically important but smaller initiatives into their rickety orbit. As Ibish puts it, "Just because you find that you can't make big-picture progress doesn't mean that the daily realities on the ground don't have to be tended to. They do, urgently. Everyone pays a price when they're not."
To combat post-Arab Spring chaos, the US can bolster nominally democratic Arab states against chaos and authoritarianism as best they can. Take Libya. Gartenstein-Ross said "there are reasonable policy options [to] bolster the central government [and] the rule of the law." But even if we employ them, "it's just a bad situation even if we use our best options."
Tunisia is a more hopeful case. Tunisia is easily the most successful of the Arab Spring states, boasting a fledgling, albeit insecure, democracy. The Tunisian government faces a serious threat from Ansar al-Sharia, a potentially al-Qaeda linked extremist group. Gartenstein-Ross suggests the US can help train Tunisian police "to ensure that their counterterrorism policies operate under the rule of law, so you don't have the arbitrariness that you had under [deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali." Basically, train the police to respect basic rights during their operations so that they don't end up pushing people onto Ansar's side. Together with increased intelligence cooperation and tactical training, Gartenstein-Ross suggests the US's options for Tunisia are "pretty good."
Abandoning solutionism for managerialism doesn't absolve the US of tough choices in the Middle East — including military ones. Take the new US bombing campaign against ISIS in northern Iraq. The goals — pushing ISIS out of Kurdistan and freeing members of the Yazidi minority trapped on a mountain without food or water — are limited and managerial. Obama's objective here is to stop a military advance and a humanitarian catastrophe, not to destroy ISIS or end the war. But the mere fact that the goals are properly limited doesn't necessarily mean the bombing campaign is a good idea.
And the Libyan intervention is an even harder case. Was the US intervention in Libya solutionist, because it attempted to both stop a massacre and end a civil war? Or was it managerial, because it refused to take responsibility for wholly reconstructing Libyan politics?
Ultimately, not a lot hangs on that kind of fine conceptual distinction. But the Libya intervention, like the Iraq bombing campaign, shows that abandoning the broader goal of remaking the Middle East doesn't mean that American foreign policy in the Middle East somehow becomes simple or easy.
And then there's the Iranian nuclear program. The Obama administration has made real diplomatic progress in its negotiations with Tehran. However, the program is far from dismantled, and the skeptical case that Iran is simply buying time to finish remains reasonably plausible.
Moreover, the degree to which a nuclear bomb really matters for the region is contested. Ironically, the people who think talks might actually work, typically progressives, think that a nuclear Iran wouldn't be the end of the world (unless Israel or the United States bombed it). And negotiation skeptics, often conservatives who think the problem is basically insoluble short of war, think an Iranian bomb would a catastrophe.
The administration is probably right to see the Iranian problem as one worth trying to deal with through negotiations. But if this quote given by Obama to the New Yorker's David Remnick really encapsulates the president's thinking on Iran, then he's thinking about his approach to the country all wrong:
If we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion-not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon-you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there's competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
This is thoroughly solutionist, and thoroughly delusional. The idea that Obama could convince Iran to give up its competition with Saudi Arabia or support for anti-Israel militant groups — two of the Islamic Republic's core foreign policy priorities — is a fantasy. But the nuclear program looks less like a basic goal of the regime and more like a tool it uses to accomplish them. Maybe, just maybe, the US could negotiate a narrow deal on that issue alone.
If that answer feels unsatisfying, it probably should be. World politics is hard and unsatisfying, especially in a neighborhood as tumultuous as the Middle East. But better unsatisfied than deceived. Pretty much everyone in the American Middle East establishment wants to pretend that they have the answers. If the United States follows my three-step approach, which coincidentally focuses on the country I work on, the Middle East will be saved.
Or so the normal line goes. But that's ridiculous. The United States is no longer in the driver's seat in the Middle East, and pretending that it is will only make things worse. It's time to recognize that even superpowers have limits.