by Dennis Ross*
The US election will be over soon. During every trip I have taken to the Middle East this year, I was asked not just about the election but also about whether the perceived hesitancy of the Obama administration to affect the balance of power in the region is likely to persist. Behind the question lurks the fear that American weariness with involvement in the Middle East is not unique to President Obama. That it, instead, reflects a deeper unease among the American public and whether it is simply inclined to retrench and avoid playing the continuing role of a superpower around the globe. After all, as I would be told by my Middle Eastern colleagues, candidates as different as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to be expressing what appeared to be isolationist themes. Indeed, the Trump slogan of “America First” harkened back to the 1930s.
My answer would be that there was public wariness about involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts. How, I would ask, could there not be? America has been involved with asymmetric wars in the Middle East since 9/11 and its aftermath. And, they have not come out well: the costs have been high and the results have been poor. So there should be questioning by the public—and America’s leaders should not be indifferent to those questions. On the contrary, they need to be able to address them, and where our interests require involvement explain why that is the case.
Moreover, the public mood is not so clear cut. There has been public support for going after ISIS, and one should not assume that the next American president will feel impelled to withdraw from the area. President Obama has not done so. The US retains a large military presence in the region, roughly 35,000 air, naval, and ground forces are in the Middle East. Our military presence dwarfs what the Russians have in the area both in quantity and quality. The difference is that the Russian forces have succeeded in shoring up the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war—bombing the Syrian opposition far more than it seeks to weaken ISIS. For its part, the US is only supporting the fight against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Ironically, in Iraq, we have more forces on the ground than the Russians have in Syria; we have been using air power, special forces, and logistical and intelligence units to help roll back ISIS in Anbar and Nineveh provinces, and to back Iraqi government and Pesh Merga forces now as they are acting to take back Mosul.
Our focus has been and remains ISIS. The Russian focus is different. Preserve the Assad regime; show it stands by its friends and in the process become an arbiter of Syria’s future. Because Syria is also a proxy conflict in which Iran is using Shia militias not just to support Assad but to extend its influence in the region against Arab governments, Russia is affecting the regional balance of power in this other conflict. And, the United States looks like it has opted out. It has very consciously chosen not to join the fight against the Assad regime. It has similarly chosen to do little in the face of the Russian onslaught against Aleppo and other cities where—with Assad—it seeks mostly to depopulate Sunni areas where there is a rebel presence by a siege, starve, and scorched earth approach.
The measure of the next administration is not whether it withdraws from the region, but whether it is prepared to compete in the area. Does it view Iranian adventurism in the region as a threat? Does it see the Iranian use of Shia militias as just as much of a threat to the state system in the Middle East as ISIS and al Qaeda represent? Does it believe that altering the balance of power against the interests of America’s traditional partners in the Middle East also threatens US interests? And, does it see the emergence of vacuums in the region as a danger for America as well? None of this means that the next administration must carry the sole burden of dealing with threats in the broader Middle East—nor should it.
But it does mean that it has to be prepared to contain Iran and seek to raise the costs to it of using Shia militias even as it counters radical Sunni Islamists—whether ISIS or al Qaeda. Here again there is an irony: the more willing the United States is to blunt what the Iranians are doing throughout the region, the more certain it will have regional partners not just for containing the Iranians but also for countering radical Salafis as well. Part of the Obama administration’s problem in gaining more responsiveness from different Arab leaderships has been the impression—fairly or not—that it sees Iran as part of the solution to the regional challenges and not part of the problem. When the US is not perceived to understand the nature of the threats that most worry the leaders in the region, those leaders are not so ready to be responsive to the American lead or what the US is seeking. Moreover, they are more inclined to go their own way.
America’s next president will be elected on November 8th, and while I don’t expect the next administration to see the use of force as its first option or to reflexively opt for the use of hard power, I do believe it will judge that we have a stake in affecting the balance of regional power. And, that restoring the confidence of America’s traditional friends in the Middle East will be important to protecting our interests in the region. So my answer to the question that I have so often been asked this past year is that the next administration’s policies won’t just be a continuation of what we have seen over the last few years. Time will tell whether I am right.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.