By Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Not so long ago, Americans thought we understood the Middle East, that region where the African, Asian, and European worlds collide. When the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in World War I, the area became a European sphere of influence with imperial British, French, and Italian subdivisions. The Cold War split it into American and Soviet client states. Americans categorized countries as with us or against us, democratic or authoritarian, and endowed with oil and gas or not. We acted accordingly.
In 1991, the Soviet Union defaulted on the Cold War and left the United States the only superpower still standing. With the disappearance of Soviet power, the Middle East became an exclusively American sphere of influence. But a series of U.S. policy blunders and regional reactions to them have since helped thrust the region into chaos, while progressively erasing American dominance
In the new world disorder, there are many regional sub-orders. The Middle East is one of them. It is entering the final stages of a process of post-imperial, national self-determination that began with Kemal Atatürk’s formation of modern Turkey from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. This process is entrenching the originally Western concept of the nation state in the region. It led to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s repudiation of British overlordship and overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952, Ayatollah Khomeini’s rejection of American tutelage and replacement of the Shah with the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, and the misnamed “Arab Spring” in 2011. Its latest iteration is unfolding in Saudi Arabia.
In the Middle East, as elsewhere, regional rather than global politics now drives events. The world is reentering a diplomatic environment that would have been familiar to Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who served nineteenth century Britain as secretary of war, foreign affairs, and prime minister. In his time, the core skill of statecraft was manipulation of regional balances of power to protect national interests and exercise influence through measures short of war.
Palmerston famously observed that in international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. In the new world disorder, with its narcissistic nationalism, shifting alignments, and wobbling partnerships, this sounds right, even if national interests are also visibly evolving to reflect fundamental shifts in their international context. Palmerston’s aphorism is a reminder that the flexibility and agility implicit in the hedged obligations of entente – limited commitments for limited contingencies – impart advantages that the inertia of alliance – broad obligations of mutual aid – does not. One way or another, it is in our interest to aggregate the power of others to our own while minimizing the risks to us of doing so.
To cope with the world after the Pax Americana and to put “America first,” we Americans are going to have relearn the classic vocabulary of diplomacy or some new, equally reality-based version of it. If we do, we will discover that, in the classic sense of the word, we now have no “allies” in the Middle East. The only country with which we had a de jure alliance based on mutual obligations, Turkey, has de facto departed it.
Today, Ankara and Washington are seriously estranged. Turkey is no longer aligned with the United States on any of our major diplomatic objectives in the region, which have been: securing Israel, excluding Russian influence; opposing Iran; and sustaining strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Americans can no longer count on Turkey to support or acquiesce in our policies toward the Israel-Palestine issue; Syria; Iraq; Iran; Russia; the Caucasus; the Balkans; Greece; Cyprus; Egypt, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries; the members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; NATO; or the EU.
Having been rebuffed by Europe, Turkey has abandoned its two-century-long drive to redefine its identify as European. It is pursuing an independent, if erratic, course in the former Ottoman space and with Russia and China. The deterioration in EU and US-Turkish relations represents a very significant weakening of Western influence in the Middle East and adjacent regions. As the list of countries Turkey affects suggests, this has potentially far-reaching consequences.
Meanwhile, U.S. relations with Iran remain antagonistic. American policy blunders like the destabilization of Iraq and Syria have facilitated Iran’s establishment of a sphere of influence in the Fertile Crescent. Our lack of a working relationship with Tehran leaves the United States unable to bring our influence to bear in the region by measures short of war. U.S. policy is thus all military, all the time. The White House echoes decisions made in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. It no longer sets its own objectives and marshals others behind them.
For our own reasons, which differ from country to country, Americans have unilaterally taken under our wing a variety of client states, some of which are each other’s historic antagonists. Our commitments have not changed despite the fact that the regional context of our relationships with our client states and their orientations and activities are all in rapid evolution. Other than Turkey, the United States has never had a Middle Eastern partner that has seen itself as obliged to come to our aid or, indeed, to do anything at all for us except what might serve its own immediate, selfish interests. The obligations all run the other way – from us to them.