In an important op-ed article published earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Henry Kissinger provided a fascinating window into the foreign policy mindset of American officialdom that he has so consistently mirrored for nearly half a century now. His important article, entitled “A Path out of the Middle East Collapse,” captures concisely two things that the world should grasp about American foreign policy—especially in the Middle East, where it has been actively engaged in warfare for over a quarter of a century, as its relations and interests frayed.
Rather than offering any path out of anywhere, Kissinger inadvertently clarifies the American role in the path that has brought the Middle East to this point of turbulence, violence, and occasional state contraction or collapse. I see several main problems in the text—and in the official American mindset in Washington that it reflects.
The first is the tendency to see Middle Easterners largely in terms of religious or ethnic groups, like Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites, Alawites, and Kurds, who wage existential battles for control of territory, resources, or power. The Middle East, in the Kissingerian worldview, is an urban wasteland defined by armed gangs.
Non-state actors and ethno-sectarian nationalisms have emerged as important actors of political contestation in the Middle East in the past 15 years, to be sure, but our region is defined by much more than feuding Houthis, Alawites, Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army, and other such groups. Even sovereign and powerful states like Saudi Arabia and Iran are defined in this mindset as Sunni or Shiite powers, rather than the sovereign and powerful states of Saudi Arabia and Iran with their varied populations that they are.
The second problem in that the Kissingerian view of the Middle East seems to have no place for—or it simply is blind to—the nearly half a billion individual men and women, mostly Muslims, who live here and shape these societies and states. They have done so for millennia, in fact, and these people all seek the same thing that Kissinger presumably seeks for Americans: a stable, decent society where citizens can live in peace and enjoy opportunities to develop their full human talents. In the eye of those who only see the Middle East defined by warring gangs, sects and ethnicities, no real human beings enter the picture. The Kissingerian Middle East lacks humans and their rights, because the Middle East he sees is somewhere between a professorial strategic analysis exercise for graduate students and a war game played on a board with dice.
My third problem is with the consistent American official view of Iran as a dangerous and untrustworthy brute that has, “jihadist and imperialist designs” across the region. Even after the United States negotiated with Iran an important agreement on nuclear capabilities and sanctions, this view still sees Iran using its allies Syria, Hezbollah, Iraq and the Houthis of Yemen to one day encircle the Sunni bloc of states comprising Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the smaller Gulf states. Kissinger sees these as two “rigid and apocalyptic blocs” that face off and threaten each other. This exaggerated and dramatized view cannot be taken seriously by anyone, other than those hundreds of policy-makers and policy-influencers in Washington who believe this intellectual wildness.
My fourth and biggest criticism of this way of seeing U.S. policy challenges in the Middle East is that it ascribes to the United States only noble and peace-loving motives, while totally—I mean totally—ignoring any of the consequences of U.S. military and political policies in the region in the past six decades, or since the U.S. CIA helped to overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran. It serves nobody any good to ignore how American and other foreign powers’ policies in our region contributed to the underlying problems that shattered the superficial calm—other than occasional Arab-Israeli wars—that had defined our region from World War Two to the Arab uprisings of 2010-11.
Such problems include how the United States, former USSR/now Russia, and assorted smaller powers long supported Arab authoritarian and brutal regimes, contributed to prolonging the Arab-Israeli conflict, waged wars that unsettled the entire region (2003 war on Iraq, for example), or set the example of ignoring international law and ethics but expecting others to respect those laws (drone assassinations, for example). The United States and other foreign powers, including Iran and Russia today and some major regional Arab powers that willfully and recklessly wage war or turn themselves into ugly police states, have all contributed their share to the “collapse” that Kissinger wants to help us escape. We did not become a landscape of gangs all by ourselves.
Kissinger’s several sensible observations are swamped by these gross political distortions and omissions, which are all the more dangerous and tragic because they are widely shared in policy-making circles in Washington. I fear that more wrong, fictitious, and incomplete analyses like this one will only exacerbate the violence and chaos we all suffer. What a terrible waste of a fine mind, and a great power.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global