Will Biden introduce a Middle East doctrine?

MIDDLE ISRAEL: The Negev Summit underscored Washington’s urgent need to reboot its Middle Eastern policy after decades of contradictions and naiveté.

 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meet with the Bahraini and UAE foreign ministers at the Negev Summit on Monday. (photo credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/REUTERS)
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meet with the Bahraini and UAE foreign ministers at the Negev Summit on Monday.
(photo credit: JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/REUTERS)

Like Jonah in his flight from his mission, Uncle Sam resolved to flee the Middle East. 

Sparked by a spectacular dive into the region’s fray, the escapism with which it was followed produced an era of contradictions and incoherence that this week’s Negev Summit failed to undo. 

The gathering of the Israeli, American, and four Arab foreign ministers a short stroll from David Ben-Gurion’s grave was inspiring, but its real context, Washington’s loss of its Arab allies’ trust and respect, remained unchanged. 

Faced with soaring oil prices in the wake of the fighting in Ukraine, Washington decided to ask its Arab allies in the Gulf to sharply increase oil and gas production. It was refused. Saudi and Emirati leaders reportedly did not even return President Joe Biden’s phone calls. 

America thus learned, the hard way, it can’t escape the Middle East, and must display a clear Middle Eastern policy. However, the Middle East changed since America tried to flee its fray. How, then, did America lose the Arab world and what should it do to regain it? 

 Taliban soldiers walk in front of protesters during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 7, 2021. (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) Taliban soldiers walk in front of protesters during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 7, 2021. (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

AMERICA’S ORIGINAL treatment of the Middle East was guided by the Truman Doctrine, which asked one question: are you with America or against it? 

When Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Libya chose Soviet tutelage they became America’s enemies. When Egypt defected to the West, Washington did not demand that it become a democracy. What mattered was that Cairo now defied Moscow. 

True, American attitudes were not monolithic. Jimmy Carter demanded human rights from the shah of Iran, and Richard Nixon inspired the democratically elected Salvador Allende’s removal by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. 

The question that arose between these inversions – should America seek those who share its ideas or those who serve its interest – is the same one America now faces in the Middle East. Still, overall American policy back then was coherent and consistent, as all American presidents fought the East Bloc’s expansion, and none set out to forcibly change the anti-American world’s political design. 

The end of the Cold War did not change this consensus. On the contrary, conventional wisdom now went that American ideals’ journey to global acceptance is predestined.

That optimism ended in September 2001, when Middle Eastern terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans in Washington and New York. 

George W. Bush then parted with America’s historic attitude and set out to forcibly change the Middle East by conquering and redesigning Iraq. 

Why his effort failed is not the point right now. What matters in terms of this discussion is that Bush’s successor turned from his extremity of American dictate to the extremity of American flight.

BARACK OBAMA’S Middle Eastern escape came in four installments: 

First came the Cairo Speech of spring 2009, in which he preached Western values like freedom of speech and women’s rights while scolding Israel and presenting it as the Holocaust’s compensation, and, for good measure, apologizing for an American-backed coup in Iran more than half-a-century earlier. 

Lacking any practical promise other than a retreat from Iraq, the speech was interpreted across the Middle East as a show of weakness and naiveté. 

This impression was vindicated the following week, twice: first, when the ayatollahs stole Iran’s presidential election, ignoring Obama’s pontification in Cairo that governments should not steal from the people; and then, when Obama did nothing while Iran’s abused masses took to the streets. 

Escapism’s third phase came in the winter of 2011, when Obama suddenly raised democratic demands, but not against an American foe like Iran, but against America’s most veteran Arab ally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when he faced the demonstrators of Tahrir Square. Now the escapism, which was initially about weakness and ignorance, became about disloyalty as well. 

Two years later, escapism climbed several more rungs, when Obama violated his vow to respond should Bashar Assad wage another chemical attack on his people. Now America’s Middle Eastern escapism proceeded from disloyalty to credibility.

Donald Trump tilted America’s Mideast policy again, replacing escapism with impulsiveness. 

Instead of tolerating Assad’s atrocities, Trump attacked Syrian chemical weapons facilities. Instead of moralizing Arab leaders, he emerged in Saudi Arabia, promised it a massive arms deal, and also burst into a saber dance with the Saudi king. Instead of ingratiating Iran’s leaders, Trump canceled the nuclear deal with them, helped strike peace between their Arab enemies and Israel, and also killed Qasem Soleimani. 

Still, Trump offered no coherent vision, much less a long-term plan, and also fully accepted Russia’s takeover of Syria. Following his departure, Arab leaders saw Washington return to dialogue with Iran. Arab leaders thus concluded that Washington is inherently inconsistent and unreliable. 

THIS IS how America arrived at the Negev Summit, where it hoped to restore Arab confidence in America. It hasn’t. 

To restore Arab confidence, Washington must present a long-term Middle Eastern vision the way the Truman Doctrine shaped America’s attitude toward the Cold War. 

The Mideast Doctrine should therefore say: America’s Middle Eastern enemy is Islamism. Anyone spreading its violence and plotting its attacks is America’s enemy, and anyone fighting them is America’s friend. 

Yes, this means America will abandon the legacies of Bush and Obama, and no longer seek to forcibly change the way Middle Eastern countries are run. It will, however, confront those in the Middle East who threaten the outer world. 

No, this would not mean any offshore deployment of American troops. It would mean, however, that Tehran’s Islamists will not be contained or accommodated; not because they abuse their people, but because they inspire religious violence and foment multiple civil wars that threaten the outer world. 

This combination of diplomatic focus and moral sobriety is what undid last century’s East Bloc, and that is what will remake this century’s Middle East.     www.MiddleIsrael.net

The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.