A Work in Progress

American policy in the Middle East has taken a dramatic turn, but this shift can be traced back several years

William B. Quandt has been a prominent voice in American foreign policy in the Middle East for over 30 years. Serving in the National Security Council under the Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter administrations, he was front and center in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and he is an expert on Palestine, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt.

Today he is an author, professor and member of the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia and a regular participant in discussions of US policy in the Middle East.

To read the first installment of this interview, click here

To read the second installment of this interview, please click here

The Majalla: Does President Obama have a grand strategy for the Middle East?

It’s a good question, but it’s difficult to now imagine the US having a single grand strategy for the Middle East. The Middle East is far too volatile right now to have a single overarching theme. It didn’t work very well for the Bush administration, which was all about regime change and democratization. If that is what grand strategy consists of, some of us would say, let’s not aim for grand strategy; let’s focus on problems as they come along. This is not a time to be imagining that the US can remake the Middle East according to some overarching template, and it’s also not a period when we have huge spare capacity for dealing with foreign affairs problems. We are deeply preoccupied with our economic problems and election issues, so being a little bit on the modest side concerning grand strategy strikes me as understandable.

Nonetheless, I think we need to have a sense of what is important and what we can leave to take its course. Iran is important because it is a big strategic actor; Turkey is important because it is playing an outsized role in today’s Middle East. I think we have the relationship with Turkey in pretty good shape after the events in Iraq last year, and that’s deliberate. I think it is something that is not popular in the United States, there’s suspicion of the AK Party, some see Turkey drifting away, and so on. But if you say “What has this administration gotten right?” they have worked hard on their relationship with Turkey and it’s in pretty good shape right now. They have kept their eye on getting out of Iraq, which I think is the right thing to do, but there is a debate over it. They haven’t said, “What is going to happen in Iraq after we leave? And maybe we have to renegotiate everything.” There are a few benchmarks where they have been pretty clear minded.

[inset_left]If there is a new Obama doctrine, I think that it is: intervene, but don’t do it visibly.[/inset_left]They haven’t been very successful at thinking through the difficulties of dealing with an Iran that is feisty and constantly belligerent, but geo-strategically important and matters for what happens in Iraq. There are a lot of things at stake. Obama had an initial inclination to try to engage. It’s a nice word and sounds like it’s worth pursuing, but it hasn’t succeeded. You can say they haven’t really tried it, that they haven’t really made the commitment. Or that it’s not doable and that they will just have to wait out the internal recomposition of the Iranian political space until there is someone there who is more willing to be pragmatic. Meanwhile you just try to contain and not let things spin out of control. But I don’t think we have a sophisticated understanding of Iran; we tend to get caught up in the rhetorical excesses, not quite of the George W. Bush “axis of evil” stuff, but not very far from it.

Dr. William Quandt

I think Obama comes across as someone for whom foreign policy challenges are still a work in progress. He is a cautious decision-maker. He is not as impulsive as George W. Bush was. He is very suspicious of getting dragged into another Iraq-style endless war. He has some benchmarks that inform his approach. He’s not going to get stampeded into an intervention in Syria; I think his instinct is to urge the Israelis not to pre-empt against Iran; even on Libya, he was slow to commit to a secondary role. He’s been criticized for it, but I’m not so sure we will look back on Libya and say US policy was so misguided. It put NATO and the Europeans in a more prominent position, and although the US was not highly visible, it did quite a bit.

If there is a new Obama doctrine, I think that it is: intervene, but don’t do it visibly. It’s what the US is doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, it gives more and more scope, not to your overt diplomacy, but to your covert action and your military-to-military relations. So, the most interesting statements on foreign policy these days are being made by the Secretary of Defense. Odd, but true. That tells us something about where the weight of American engagement with issues in the Middle East is shifting. I think in so far as the State Department has a uniform view of the world, the people there would say the Middle East is last decade’s preoccupation. The future is with Asia, and the US needs to pivot towards more engagement in East Asia, less in the Middle East, wrap up Afghanistan, try to extricate ourselves from these over-extended commitments without it looking like we’re just rushing for the exits. So I think we’re in an odd transitional moment when we don’t know if Obama were to be re-elected he would all of a sudden have an Obama doctrine, but for right now a grand strategy is the last thing I would expect.

Q: Do you think this is the end of the American moment in the Middle East? Is the region turning away from the United States?

Yes. But I think it came earlier. The American moment was always a bit of an illusion. We were never able to shape the politics of the whole region, nor should we have ever imagined we could. But I think the Bush 43 administration, coming out of the end of the Cold War and the sense that we were the only power that matters anymore, did have a very ambitious view after 9/11 that they were going to use this unique moment of American hegemony to change the Middle East in fundamental ways. The argument was over whether Iraq was the first project of many, or if we get Iraq right would it replicate itself all over and these dictators would all come tumbling down once we set the train in motion. I think by about 2005/6 it was clear this wasn’t going to happen.

[inset_left]In all honesty, the Americans don’t make very good imperial overlords.[/inset_left]So, if there was an American moment, it was a very brief moment and a largely illusory one. But when the Bush administration went into Iraq, they did so as part of a larger desire to remake the Middle East, and in that sense they thought there was an American moment. What I think we all need to learn from history is that outsiders who think they can come in and remake the Middle East always get it wrong. The British, who were much better equipped in 1920 to remake the Middle East had a pretty good run at it, about twenty years-worth. But the resistance started almost immediately. By the end, you almost get the impression of “My god, when can we get out of here,” without spending more treasure and getting into more trouble. So it didn’t work well for the British who were much more committed to the whole project and much better prepared for it.

In all honesty, the Americans don’t make very good imperial overlords. We’re impatient, we want quick results, we don’t train people up to be colonial servants and spend their entire careers in the Middle East, to learn the languages and go native, and so on. We send soldiers in for eight-month tours, and by the time they leave, they never want to go back. You don’t build empires that way; I don’t think you build empires in the twenty-first century in any case. But had we taken the whole Iraq project seriously we would not have done it the way we did it. The mistakes made after the overthrow of the Saddam regime were just embarrassingly frequent and they spoke to a real fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Iraqi society. By the end of 2003/04, I thought “They’re not going to pull it off, they have already made too many mistakes, this is going to turn out badly”—there was already an insurgency in the making.

I would say the American moment is over, and the American interest in the Middle East is waning. There is a sense that the Middle East is no longer the fulcrum of world power. We have treated it as if it was, because of oil, because of 9/11, because of Israel. And yet, if you look around, what is happening in Europe is more important in terms of the world economy; China obviously is also more important because of the world economy and geostrategic concerns. Maybe the Arab Spring captures a bit of attention because it is new and kind of exciting. But if it turns out badly, let’s say Egypt has a difficult transition, the glue will disappear from that, US-Egyptian relations might become more strained.

The whole Salafi phenomenon in Egypt worries people; 25 percent of the vote is a fairly large number for a political movement that a year ago nobody really talked about. So there are a lot of reasons to think that we may be at one of those moments when attention is going to shift elsewhere. Where the Americans see the greatest danger right now is not in the Middle East; it is in the Pakistan-Afghan-Indian border areas. Not so much because of Al-Qaeda, but because of nuclear weapons and Pakistan and the end game in Afghanistan. You can say that is somehow connected to the Middle East, but it is not the core of the Middle East problem. If the Americans have a crisis to be dealt with in the world, that’s where they’re going to focus their attention, that’s where they’re going to spend their dollars.

Where they want to be for the future is more Asia focused. Not because China is an enemy today, but because they don’t want it to become one. I think their concern is that keeping some kind of balance in Asia will reassure our friends in Asia—who are a little nervous about China’s growing power—and allow us to manage the relationship with China in a fairly reasonable way. I think the one relationship we cannot afford to mishandle in the future is the one with China. It’s just too big and too important. So we should be spending a lot of time and effort thinking that one through, and making sure that these two big powers do not collide and get into real competition in ways that could be quite destructive. In international relations theory, people say, “Well, you’ve never had a rising power that easily claims its preeminent position without challenges, and that usually causes conflicts.” We cannot afford to let it happen this time.

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