Despite all the appearance of activity, the Middle East has not changed during the past 15 years since 9/11. What has changed is our perceptions of what we expect the Middle East to be. Nevertheless, we are entering a disturbing period in foreign relations where orthodoxies as to what constitute the interests of America are about to be redefined. It doesn’t matter what we thought for the past 15 years because we are entering a new phase of history.
Those are my conclusions. Let’s work backward as to how they are reached. First ask, has anything happened the past 15 years that matters? To answer that, think of the things we thought would happen that didn’t. Oded Yinon, an Israeli analyst, told me in 1988 that nothing would happen regarding Israel and the Palestinians for 25 years except for expanded autonomy. He also said that in 25 years Egypt would become a fundamentalist country. His dour assessment has withstood the test of time more than anyone else I know as he was correct on both points, although Egypt bounced back to the status quo with a coup after a year of fundamentalist rule.
Those who thought elections and Western-educated leaders and a new generation would bring positive change were wrong. Elections brought Hamas to Gaza, and Bashar Assad is a U.K.-educated eye doctor overseeing the bombing of his country’s hospitals. The only head of state still in power in this region over 15 years is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and even that may be in doubt. Saudi Arabia has a young prince with an almost united elite around him praying for him to fail so they can restore the status quo, and there is no good alternative to the House of Saud that anyone can see. People did not get exhausted fighting civil wars as in Yemen and Iraq. For all its noise, Turkey has not really changed, and Syria and Libya have been taken out as state actors in the region.
The Arab Spring brought change to Tunisia but that’s about it. Egyptians probably wish it never happened because now they have it worse. A coup against Turkey’s autocrat this summer was not supported by the majority. Fundamentalists promising solutions discredited themselves, and people simply want stability at this point. Israelis and Palestinians have mainly hardened their attitudes over the years and do not believe that change will benefit them. Both sides talk past each other. America is discredited as a force in the region after multiple half-hearted actions that left things worse and Arab nations scared of a nuclear Iran. American taxpayers view this region as a cesspool for wasted resources and have no interest fighting wars or keeping the peace, especially since oil from this region is not as vital anymore.
Do we care that Russians fill the void in Syria, that refugees are fleeing to Europe and that ISIS holds territory in several countries? President Obama, ironically, wanted to put America First and wanted to avoid being sucked into bloody conflicts and a drain against resources. President Donald Trump goes further and seems not to care. After 70 years of automatically assuming that we are in a zero-sum game against the Russians, perhaps we don’t view Syria as a vital interest the same way they do. Neither Hillary Clinton nor the Republicans were prepared to make commitments in this region. ISIS was created by America’s Sunni allies in the region who did not appreciate America declaring victory in Iraq and essentially abandoning it over to the Shiite Iranians.
This “do we care?” issue is important because what constituted America’s interests was generally a bipartisan matter that did not fluctuate, depending on who was in the White House. Now, Trump gets to unilaterally declare what America’s interests are, and people fear what he might decide, especially with so few clues from his past.
The Mideast has not changed for hundreds of years, let alone the past 15. Tribal alliances still transcend national borders that were artificially drawn by colonial powers. Our military actions have not reshuffled the deck except temporarily, and nobody wants us there except to join with them against the other. Trying to turn back the clock and re-establish spheres of Western influence throughout the region would be a waste of resources and a fool’s errand.
After Brits with the most to lose voted for Brexit, and Americans with the most to lose voted for Donald Trump, why expect voters in the Middle East to vote their economic interests any better than we do? If we can’t even predict what we will do in our elections, how arrogant is it to declare what they will do?
Perhaps the new American interest is to realize our limits and recognize that significant change will not occur in this region. So stop the charade of pretending to create diplomatic momentum in the region when in fact we know that nobody in power wants to do anything substantive. Putting America First will not employ diplomats or lead to Nobel Prizes, but it will lead to more prosperity at home. Terrorism will continue but the past 15 years since 9/11 have been more of a nuisance than an existential threat worth the resources we have thrown at the problem.
The one thing that has changed in the Middle East for the better is Israel. The country is enjoying tremendous infrastructural upgrades and scientific and technological discoveries. Israel is the only stable state for 2,000 miles in any direction. It may not be perfect, but it is vibrant, and you need only visit Amman, Beirut, Cairo or Damascus next door to see the difference.
Ivan Ciment is a director of the Morningside Group of Companies in New York City.