The Logic of Equivocation in the Middle East
The US has big objectives in the Middle East these days. The Trump Administration wants to reverse Iran’s expansionism of the past decade and to end the Israeli-Palestinian struggle of the past 70-years.
For these objectives, the US demands a lot of its Arab counterparts - including, potentially, be with it in a serious confrontation with Iran, as well as bless the peace “deal of the century”.
Some Arabs, for example Saudi Arabia, have been very close to the forging of these objectives. Others, for example Iran’s allies, see them as disasters that must be stopped. For most Arabs, however, the calculus is not straightforward. Three questions dominate their thinking.
The first is whether the US is likely to succeed in achieving these objectives. America’s recent record in the Middle East makes many doubtful.
The US mobilised hundreds of thousands of its soldiers, put some of its best minds on, and spent hundreds of billions of Dollars in, Afghanistan and Iraq, for almost two decades. But Afghanistan remains chaotic, with large parts under the competing influences of militias, fanatics, and drug growing gangs. And today, in its efforts to find a way out of this quagmire, the US seems to be negotiating with Taliban, the same extremist militia that it entered Afghanistan to exterminate.
Iraq is no longer a quagmire, though non-state armed groups continue to wield strong influence. Crucially, it remains mired in acute sectarianism and tribalism. And, strategically, despite the colossal resources America has committed to its Iraq endeavour, the country today is much closer to Tehran than it has ever been in modern history.
The US’s record in Syria is not much better. Seven years into multi-faceted wars that have been shaping the largest, and arguably most strategically important, Arab country in the Levant, the US is a distant player with minimal influence. Russia and Iran, however, have established themselves as the key powers there. And with this, they have acquired a commanding location in the region.
In Lebanon, despite major American investments into relationships with different factions, the US has so far been unable to steer Lebanon towards its camp in the Middle East. Actually, one of the US’s ardent opponents in the region, Iran’s close ally: Hezbollah, is the most powerful political actor in the country.
Lebanon is significant. It is the Middle East’s most open social, cultural, and political theatre. It is an important place in the region for forging visions of the future. For decades, Lebanon’s dominant narrative was: to look to the West and be a bridge between the West and the Arab and Islamic worlds. And in so doing, it was strengthening the cultural arsenal of Arab liberalism. For the past two decades, that narrative has lurked in the background, leaving the ground to a fight between Saudi and Iran. The biggest loser is genuine liberalism in the Arab and Islamic worlds – which is America’s true ally in the entire region.
Apart from America’s recent record in the Middle East, many Arabs have another reason to be reluctant to embrace its current grandeur objectives. That’s: their time frame is different from America’s. Political lethargy in the Arab world has festered many ills. But from the perspective of most Arab regimes, America’s internal politics have become increasingly personalised, centred on the White House as opposed to its state institutions. (This is a trend that has long been in the making, much before Trump, and is likely to continue in the future). And so, America’s objectives in the Middle East might well be valid only up to the next presidential election. Plus, many fear that when the going gets tough, America’s objectives might change, or its focus might have turned to another place in the world.
The third problem is that all Arab regimes know that these American objectives have limited currency in their countries. Iran’s expansionism has been a concern in the Levant for years. But the route most Levantines strongly support is engaging Iran, and incentivising it to unclench its fist – not to push it towards a confrontation that would impose acute damages on the Levant itself.
The same problem exists with the “deal of the century”. Already, the vast majority of the key Palestinian forces in politics, business, and culture, have rejected the thinking behind it. And so, for the majority of Arab decision-makers, supporting that deal entails a heavy price for an objective they see dim prospects for.
These factors drive most Arab regimes to equivocation: cautious rhetoric in commenting on these objectives and half-measures that, in their view, would neither antagonise the US nor commit them to anything substantial or irreversible. In turn, these positions render the US’s objectives more unlikely to succeed.