‘Foreign policy in every country, is a reflection of how the society at home looks out at the world. As that society changes, so will its foreign policy. The historic relationship between a group of privileged Americans and the educated stratum of Arabs in Greater Syria was just not something that an increasingly ethnic and middle- class society in the United States was even aware of or to which it could easily relate.” – Robert Kaplan, The Arabists.
Kaplan’s book is a fascinating inside look at the “romance of an American elite,” that small group of “in the know” US policy makers who formed the US outlook on the Middle East for the greater part of the 20th century. Kaplan paints a picture of a narrow-minded elite who suffered mostly from what is known as “clientitis”: the tendency over time to end up serving the interests of those one works among more than the interests of one’s own country, in this case US. Kaplan shed light on an out of touch inner circle who cherished the Arab world like an Orientalist museum and were prone to supporting the local rulers’ own bigoted views, whether it was against Iran or against Israel. The Sunni Arab elites were the good guys.
Everyone else, such as local Christians, Yezidi minorities, Jews, and Shi’ites just rabble.
At the end of his erudite tome, Kaplan makes some predictions about the future. One of the prognosticators he quotes posits a coming post-Islamic phase for countries in the region. “Fundamentalism may eventually crest,” he writes. “I see a post-Islamic phase as Arab societies hold more and freer elections...already in Iran you see disillusionment with fundamentalism.”
Former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, writes Kaplan, saw a kingdom that may “rewrite their social contract without ever ripping up the old one.” Twenty years later, neither of those things have happened. One set of rose-colored glasses was merely replaced with another.
What is interesting is the speed with which the “Arabist” tradition transitioned.
Sohrab Ahmari pondered this in a piece in Commentary in May. “Who could have imagined, even two or three years earlier, the president of the United States in effect wishing the [Iranian] mullahs well in their quest for regional hegemony?” He calls the about-face a “36 year project to white-wash Iran.”
Has US policy been taken over by Persianists? What has happened is that America’s policy-making elites have been overtaken by anti-romanticists. These new, well educated wonks pretend to be mere pragmatists, schooled in mumbo-jumbo like “conflict studies” and experts in international relations. You can be sure anyone who is an expert in “conflict resolution” has never resolved a conflict, and anyone who claims to know a lot about “international relations” will be particularly bad at relating to anything international. That’s the fundamental difference between the Arabists and the “we must be evenhanded with Iran” approach. The Arabists lived in the Middle East, they spoke the languages, they had a fawning adoration for the local culture, which they often hoped to preserve, even at the expense of improving the lot of the region’s inhabitants.
Consider the example of two policy papers on Iran, one from 1967 and one from 2009.
In the 2009 paper, from Brookings, called “Which path to Persia,” the authors noted that the US policy on Iran was an “undistinguished record” because the US had been mean to Iran but “largely failed to convince Tehran to drop its support for terrorist groups.”
What follows is a lot of general niceties: “[T]he American people and their new president desperately need a clear-eyed explication of the various options available so that they can make an informed choice regarding which course to follow... a wider strategy of carrots and sticks aimed at encouraging Tehran to modify its behavior.”
The authors then claim that “the Iranian political system is one of the most complex, Byzantine, fragmented and opaque on earth.”
A 1967 National Policy Paper produced by the US State Department was more clear: “Iran is important to the United States because of its strategic location and the defense facilities and privileges extended to the United States...the US and the West have a stake in continuing modernization of the political and economic structure.
This is unrelated to our narrow interest deriving from the $225 million in commercial investment.” Simple, declarative, clear.
US policy in 2015 doesn’t even know what its interests are and is often entirely in the dark about what the opposing side wants. “Opaque” is the excuse for why Iran doesn’t “behave.” It doesn’t behave because it isn’t a child and it isn’t opaque; its opaqueness is entirely contrived to confound Americans.
Iranian regime elements bask in their element as “complex Persians,” playing to the stereotypes accorded them and smiling at the failure of the US to grapple with them.
The transition from one failure to another, namely from an adoration for Sunni dictatorships to a begrudging acceptance of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias who are conquering the Middle East, was a result of US policy being pressed through a kind of pasta-maker between 1993 and 2003. First came the theories of peacemaking and American hegemony. In the 1990s the theory was that all the world would find peace and harmony because the Soviet Union had collapsed. But these salad years gave way to al-Qaida and then the concept of “democracy promotion” and “pre-emption.”
Iraq ended up not as a democratic wonderland but a sectarian nightmare.
The fact is that the apparent failure of democracy in the Arab world is particularly seen as a Sunni failure, and hence the need to promote Shia empowerment.
Where was the “post-Islamic phase”? Democracy brought Islamization.
That was the case in basically every single election in the region after 2003. Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Ennahda in Tunisia in 2011 and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in 2012. In other countries like Morocco or Jordan the Islamists have done well, even though they are curtailed by the monarchies. In several cases these Sunni Islamists have been rolled back, such as in the West Bank by Fatah, in Egypt by General Abdel Fatah Sisi or in Algeria in the wake of the 1992 elections.
In the three countries where the Sunnis have been pushed aside, the repercussions have been tremendous.
Consider the fact that the old Arabists, in the Kaplan narrative, were caught up in the “Greater Syria” story of Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. And what has become of those three states wherein the Arab Sunni elites once had such romantic allure? They have all fallen to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite octopus and the Sunnis have fallen prey to the self-immolation of the Jihadists.
AMERICAN POLICY-MAKERS tend to have an inflated sense of their own influence on the region, one that is fed by the region’s own tendency to scapegoat the US for all its problems. There is a myth of “if only” and “blow-back.”
When the US supported the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, it then was accused of “blow-back” because chaos spread in Libya. The murder of the US ambassador Christopher Stevens is supposedly caused by some obscure movie made in a basement in California, and not a well-planned killing.
The Persianist agenda is convinced that the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh in a “CIA-backed coup” in 1953 is the wellspring for Iran’s current state. There is a fundamental paternalistic view that every local actor in the region can somehow be changed if only America were to take action. The total arrogance embodied by the concept that “we need to fix this mess we created,” plays itself out in the blindness that both the Arabists and Persianists have had to the fact that they were being used by local forces.
Unfortunately for the locals, who thrived under the concept for so many decades that they were “tricking” the “dumb Americans,” the overall tragedy has played itself out in the region.
The narrative that American meddling in the Middle East brought it “blowback” in the form of Sunni Islamist terrorism like al-Qaida is only interesting insofar as al-Qaida was neutered by more extreme versions of itself. A few days ago dozens of al-Nusra Front members, the local al-Qaida branch in Syria, were blown up by a suicide bomber likely from Islamic State. In the Middle East for years it was common to blame the US for “creating al-Qaida” by supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Then when IS appeared the conspiracy was “the CIA created IS.” The Americans have the strange reputation for being behind basically every group in the Middle East.
In this sense the US policy has been a success. While it has been completely unsuccessful at advancing US interests, it has been successful at convincing the entire Middle East that it is all-powerful and that, if not but for the Americans, the Middle East would be some sort of utopian paradise. The irony might not be lost on those who read Kaplan’s original work. The first American Arabists were all missionaries who sought to change the Middle East through spreading the gospel. In the end they did convert the Middle East. Just not in the way they intended.
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