Top Five Myths Guiding American Foreign Policy in the Broader Middle East & North Africa Region

January 2010 

Despite occasional calibrations reflecting changes in administration, America’s policy towards the Broader Middle East and North Africa region remains highly influenced by a set of misperceptions and ideological stances more related to America’s internal politics than regional realities. This situation has constantly undermined America’s efforts and, occasionally, desire at playing a positive role in the region, and served to transform her into a convenient scapegoat upon which ruling regimes heap blame for all regional woes.

To further complicate matters, the misperceptions involved have long become indigenous to both political parties, where persistent bickering serves to make officials and experts from all different ideological backgrounds impervious to serious criticism and, consequently, unable to conduct any serious course correction. Indeed, the various actors involved in the American foreign policy establishment, including ranking Senators and Congressmen, current and past officials and academic and think tank experts, have grown too addicted to scoring points in an ongoing ideological battle than in trying to keep up with the continuously shifting realities on the ground in the region. This tendency served to make American foreign policy highly reactive, episodic, disconnected, and subject to manipulation by external parties who often have interests and approaches that do not coincide with those of the United States. Through misinformation campaigns and intensive lobbying that plays and preys on the ideological differences between the different groups making and/or influencing policy in Washington, America’s friends and foes alike have, in effect, undermined America’s ability to chart a course of action in the region that is truly commensurate with her interests.

A kind of willful blindness that has become all too prevalent in certain quarters, as a convenient way of masking one’s inability to formulate a vision to help America manage its myriad challenges in the region, is making the situation even more desperate by shifting America’s regional focus repeatedly from the peace process, to the war on terror, to democracy promotion, to Iran’s nuclear challenge, to calls for open engagement and promises of development aid, to thoughts of gradual disengagement, at least on the micro-level, from the region. Each one of these approaches was hailed at the time of its introduction as the key to solving, if not the region’s problems per se, then, at least, America’s problems in the region.

This reductionism sharply contrasts with the approach favored by America’s friends and foes in the region, all of which tend to operate on a multi-track basis. The successive governments in Israel, for instance, have for the last two decades continuously affirmed their commitment to the peace process, while simultaneously engaging in activities that, in effect, undermine it, including expansion of settlements, collective punishment, targeted assassinations and cutting off humanitarian support to the Palestinians. The Syrian regime has also perfected this fine art of stonewalling with its talk about peace and security on the one hand, and its ongoing support for all sorts of terrorist groups that undermine the stability of Syria’s neighbors on the other. This behavior, that might appear contradictory at first, has, nonetheless, proven quite effective over the years in enabling the players involved in exacting concessions and creating new facts on the ground that better serve their perceived interests.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to pursue a singular path then another and another, before lapsing on whimsical and weary ideas of disengagement like a bumbling behemoth, her strength and logistical advantages effectively neutralized, if not downright pressed into the serving agendas that undermine her own security, and exhaust her own resources.

But America will not be able to maneuver its way out of this nightmarish situation by turning her back on a region that so actively engaged in exporting its turmoil to the world, and where she is already neck-deep in a variety of quagmires. Indeed, there is no exit for America from the region, and attempts at effectively macro-managing its transition cannot take place in the absence of a micro-understanding of its shifting realities. America’s real challenge in the region is to figure out a role for herself that is commensurate with her long-term strategic interests, and not a way out.

But success in this regard requires a serious reevaluation of America’s basic assumptions about the very issues behind her current involvement, especially:

1)     the war on terror, where America’s focus on military solutions and security alliances with authoritarian regimes played right into the hands of the terrorists and the corrupt regimes and officials that support them;

2)     the Arab-Israeli Conflict, that has recently evolved into a regional struggle for realignment involving Iran and Turkey, and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan, and where Arab movements and regimes are becoming more clients than serious decision-makers;

3)     the Iranian nuclear challenge, where every diplomatic maneuver and every threat of economic sanctions and military strikes seem to bring closer rather than delay or rule out the specter of a region-wide nuclear arms race;

4)     a developmental gap that affects even the supposedly rich and stable monarchies of the region, that is, when one is willing to look beyond the façade of fantastical projects; and finally, and most importantly perhaps,

5)     a freedom gap that has so far frustrated every attempt at peacemaking in the region, because the dividends of peace hold more promise for the peoples of the region than most of their ruling corrupt and authoritarian regimes.

Until America formulates a vision for her role in the region based on an objective assessment of realities on the ground, rather than the ideological ramblings of “experts” from the Left and Right, and until America develops a real multi-track strategy that seeks to simultaneously address each of challenges highlighted, America’s involvement in the region will continue to be disastrous, no matter who is in charge in the White House.

Below is a closer a look at the top five myths guiding America’s foreign policy towards the region.

Part I: The Global War on Terror can be won by focusing on individual countries and cooperating with their security apparatuses, while targeting certain key figures among the terrorists.  

This is indeed the policy that led America into invading Afghanistan and Iraq and into undertaking military strikes against targets in states such as Pakistan and Somalia, among others. This policy also made America establish security cooperation with a number of states across the Broader Middle East and North Africa region, including ones that are not traditionally friendly to America, such as Syria. Still, this mixture of militancy and pragmatism notwithstanding, the situation regarding the Global War on Terror continues to worsen and Al-Qaeda continues to prosper and breed surrogates. Indeed, the terrorism jigsaw puzzle grows more complicated by the day, with new cells appearing across the region and the world, even on American soil.

Considering this, isn’t it time America acknowledged the obvious? Namely that in the Global War on Terror, regional partners are unreliable, either on account of their own structural problems and incompetence, or because their own interests may often fail to coincide with America’s own, and may at time even coincide more with those of the terrorists.

For terrorists often serve as pawns and cards on which ruling regimes in many parts of the region rely in their internecine conflicts, or as useful instruments of blackmail against America and the rest of the developed world. When worst comes to worst, most regional players seem quite willing to strike deals with the terrorists letting them use their countries as staging grounds for operations that take place elsewhere, in exchange for not conducting any operations on their soil.  There are even times when terrorists are allowed, if not encouraged, to operate internally, so long as they target enemies of the ruling regime, and/or certain detested ethnic groups. This confusing intermingling of internal and regional power struggles, ethnic politics, corruption and terrorism often creates a black-hole that sucks all and sundry in, including the Unites State. The current situation with the Huthi Rebellion in Yemen is a case in point.

The rebellion has been simmering for years without involvement or support from either Iran or Al-Qaeda, but, now, America’s two sworn regional enemies have “suddenly” decided to enter the fray, baiting America into another conflict where she will get easily bogged down. But, are Yemeni authorities completely blame-free here? Or are they, too, trying to lure America in, in a desperate attempt to hedge their bets against their internal enemies? This is indeed the kind of untenable situations in which America continuously finds herself in her regional adventures, on an account of her lack of up-to-date information and understanding of changing regional realities.

But as the Christmas Day bombing attempt, among other developments in 2009, demonstrates, America cannot just turn her back on these developments. Neither can she stumble blindly into the thick of them, as she has repeatedly done before.

Another problem in America’s approach to the war on terror is her over-investment of time and resources in the pyrrhic pursuit of certain key-individuals, such as Osama Bin Ladin and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, among others. Indeed, these individuals should be “smoked out” and captured, but never under the assumption that their capture or demise would prove much of a game-changing development. There is a plethora of holy-warriors-in-waiting who can easily step in to fill whatever gap these figures leave behind. For they are only the manifestation of the real problem, which remains, as many experts has repeatedly pointed out, the lack of empowerment that comes from living in underdeveloped states ruled by corrupt and authoritarian regimes. The very regimes, that is, whose help and support America seeks to enlist in her war against terror!

In order for America to avoid finding herself repeatedly in this untenable situation, she needs to build her own on the ground region-wide support and information gathering networks. For no matter how tempting it is to think that America must already have such networks in place, the simple truth is that she does not, and her haphazard attempts at recruitments have repeatedly failed. The reason: the task is being approached in the spirit of an ordinary job-recruitment drive! Indeed, at a time when America’s regional enemies relies on the power of youthful discontent, and the allure of certain images and ideas to recruit adherents, train them, network them and give them the financial and logistical wherewithal to mount their own operations, America seeks to recruit employees and build overarching bureaucracies that, through their rules and regulations, often stifle the growth of the very indigenous networks they are meant to support.

For all the ideological fervor of America’s political class, no tangible ideas have so far emerged that could be used to create the necessary institutional framework that can help America organize her legion supporters on the ground in the region and establish an indigenous presence that is logistically and ideationally linked to her. But the creation of such networks will in time serve to make certain vital interests of America part and parcel of the internal political discourse in the region. Just as Hezbollah continues to steadfastly and jealously represent and defend Syria’s and Iran’s interests in Lebanon long after the withdrawal of Syrian troops, American-supported networks can serve to ensure that an American perspective is present on the ground at all times.

No. America should not get entangled in any kind of proxy wars per se, not to mention causing or inventing them.  But in a region that is already going through upheavals and violent transformations that have dangerous fallouts even on American soil, America needs to have her supporters. The choice of methods should be commensurate with the message of peace, freedom and development that America needs to promote as a counterweight to the violent messages of the nationalist movements and jihadi elements. The Global War on Terror involves more than simple information gathering these days, it now calls for the active cultivation of indigenous constituencies for modernization, development and democracy. The good news in this regard is that believers in the American Idea are legion, and the challenge involved is more about organization and empowerment than conversion.

Part II: Resolution of Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to changing the region 

This has been America’s worst guiding illusion for more than two decades now, so much so that even President George W. Bush, who had for years been quite skeptical of the value of direct involvement in the peace process, ended up experimenting with it in the last couple of years of his presidency. But a closer examination of the various negotiations that took place since the early 1990s seem to argue that internal balances of power within each state, Israel included, have consistently trumped making the necessary concessions needed for reaching a lasting peace agreement and not simply a truce or a ceasefire. This indicates that internal power games and social dynamics are far more relevant to the peoples of the region, or at least, their ruling elites, than Arab-Israeli peace which often represents nothing more than a pressure card. Concluding a peace agreement means losing this card, but none of the current actors seems interested in doing this at this stage.

On the other hand, and though the Arab-Israeli Conflict is being used by radical Jihadi elements as a useful recruitment tool for conflicts near and far, Arab-Israeli peace could provide an even better environment for recruitment for Jihadi groups. The kind of compromises that has to be made to make peace possible will themselves provide new arguments and justification for further radicalization.

Thus, the peace process cannot be pursued as a cure-all for the region’s woes. And considering the bellicose nature of statements coming from Israel, Iran, and more recently Turkey, regarding the other side, and considering the increasing involvement of the latter two in regional affairs, the woes are multiplying. It’s time we admitted that the current struggle shaping he region does not pit Arabs against Israelis per se as it involves many more actors with far more complex agendas than the fate of the holy land.

The leadership of the Arab World is no longer concentrated in the hands of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the ongoing power-struggle taking place inside both these countries, highlighted by their increasingly haphazard diplomatic involvement in the region, has undermined their ability to keep pace with regional changes. This created a vacuum that allowed for the emergence of Qatar as a new regional power-broker, but, more importantly, it allowed for an increased involvement by Iran.

Indeed, by revamping its old alliance with the rulers of Syria, and showing off its ability to be a spoiler in the so-called Arab-Israeli peace process through the activities of Hezbollah, its ideological arm in Lebanon, and its new patronage of the extremist factions in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among other Palestinian groups, Iran has become an active player in any process shaping the Levant. Moreover, Iran is currently fighting a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni province of Sa’ada, a conflict that spelled into Saudi Arabia itself, and is promising the emergence of new order in the region under its leadership and in cooperation with its strategic allies in Syria, who have long perfected the politics of achieving relevance through repression, assassinations and blackmail. In some way, Qatar and Syria are playing similar roles in the region. But while the first relies on her enormous financial resources to entice people to her desired policies, the other uses terror as an inducement. As such, both Qatar and Syria benefit from the game itself, rather than its conclusion, to get what they want. Being part of a final settlement for regional conflicts may not, therefore, be something that they are willing to embrace, since final settlement means loss of relevance for them.

Finally, consider the rising role of Turkey where EU-arrogance coupled with Islamist sympathies of the new rulers facilitated a move away from the West and a rediscovery of the country’s Eastern frontiers and heritage. While the move seemed to have initially augured well for peace in the beginning, with Istanbul hosting direct negotiations between Syrian and Israeli negotiators, things began to change gradually after Israel’s War against Gaza and the ensuing blockade, a development that sparked a series of diplomatic rows between the two countries that continue to this day.

Taking all this under consideration, how can anyone in the United States justify a singular focus on one issue or one front, where everything is so clearly related and all players have their hands in each other’s pockets? Can priorities be established without having a clear and marketable endgame on the table? Can one argue for disengagement from this troublesome region at a time when the forces that are currently proving more effective in shaping realities on the grounds are all adopting anti-American rhetoric and stances? And can peace really be achieved in the absence of freedom? America cannot continue to ignore these questions? 

Part III: Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be moderated or downplayed whether through negotiations or military strikes.

To put it bluntly: the way the Iranian nuclear challenge is being treated at this stage completely misses the point. The commitment of Iran’s ruling elite to developing nuclear weapons technology runs deep. The nuclear program has become both an instrument for projecting power and a mechanism to ensure survival vis-à-vis external threats. Furthermore, considering how the program touches upon issues of national pride, it long became a way of gaining internal legitimacy. Although, one can posit a serious argument that having nuclear weapons is no guarantor of internal stability or an iron-clad safeguard against external dabbling, as the situation in Pakistan clearly demonstrates, there are enough differences between the two countries to make Iranian elite oblivious to this argument. For all this, there is simply no amount of carrots that can be given to Iran’s rulers to make them forgo their nuclear ambitions. Even leaders of the Green Movement in Iran are advocates of the nuclear option, since they, too, are aware of its popularity in all social strata.

But if Iran will not voluntarily give up its nuclear designs, can it be stopped from pursuing them by force? Many military analysts have convincingly argued that the only thing air strikes can achieve, irrespective of who actually conduct them, be it Israel, the U.S. or some international coalition, is simply to delay the inevitable. Important vestiges of the program will surely survive any attack, and Iran’s reliance on internal expertise means that she will always be in a position to rebuild what has been destroyed.

Furthermore, the value of such delay has to be weighed against the immediate political fallout throughout the region and the world. Israeli analysts argue that there would be “cataclysmic” consequences for the region should Iran develop nuclear weapons capability, but will the consequences of a military strike prove any less cataclysmic? There is little doubt that Iran has enough tentacles and supporters in the region, and across the globe, to exact a terrible price for any strike. Is the region ready? Is America? Then again, if the specter of a strike can be so troubling, how about that of a full-blown invasion?

So, what options are we really left with when we are forced to acknowledge that neither diplomacy nor military action can work in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities? The option perhaps is to change the goal.

Perhaps the best that can be achieved at this stage is to try to delay the inevitable through diplomatic means rather than military strikes in order to avoid strengthening the hands of the hardliners and splitting the Green Movement. Meanwhile, the new goal that needs to be pursued in this connection is to seek the establishment of a region-wide policy aimed at preventing this development from becoming a flashpoint for a regional nuclear arms race in the hope that we are not too late in this regard as well. Surely, this will not be an easy undertaking, like everything else in the region, and the process in this regard will be further complicated by Israel’s unwillingness to put her own nuclear capabilities on the table. Be that as it may, and despite the current policies of denial in the United States and Europe, this is the real challenge facing regional and international policymakers, this is what America has to work with. We are past the point of no return in this regard, and the more America ignores this, the less prepared she will be for handling the consequences.

Part IV: Middle Eastern monarchies are stable, pragmatic and amenable to reform and modernization.

This is surely a gross over-simplification. Indeed, issues of succession may not be as problematic in monarchies as they are in authoritarian republics, but drama and uncertainty are never far from the scene, as the Saudi and Jordanian examples amply demonstrate. These two examples, among others, clearly show as well that stability is the result of an iron-fist rule that leaves little room for dissent, that corruption and nepotism are endemic and that modernization is skin-deep, and has had more impact on state infrastructure than on social and religious traditions. As a result, atavism and radicalism are endemic, free thought suppressed, and educational curricula and state-run media tend to reinforce and disseminate the most unenlightened traditions, while heaping all manner of praise on the country’s political and often religious leadership.

Each and every reform that has been made in most monarchies in the Middle East came in form of handouts from the top meant to reinforce the legitimacy of the ruling regimes, handouts that can easily be stopped according to the whims of the ruler involved. The role of grassroots pressure in the various processes labeled as reform in monarchies has been quite limited, with few exceptions. The much lauded Kuwaiti paradigm and the occasionally touted Bahraini and Moroccan ones have historically gone through too many ups and downs as to illustrate rather than refute the point, at least at this stage.

Parliaments, when they exist, are endowed with too few powers, free press and independent judiciaries are nonexistent for the most part, traditional religious establishments have great anti-modern influence and close ties to the official establishments, and most businesses tends to be run by traditional families with direct and indirect relations to the ruling elite with zero transparency as to the way they conduct their affairs. The result: corporate scandals galore a la Dubai World, with 80 billion dollars in debts at stake, and the Saudi Saad-Algosaibi Affair, where over 20 billion dollars of loans and numerous accusation of fraud and forgery are involved. The real problem here is not that these scandals have taken place, but that no one is likely to be held accountable in connection to them and very little change will likely take place in the future.

So yes, perhaps monarchies might be more stable than republics, at least for now and until the bubble burst, by accident or design. But this stability of theirs does not necessarily tell a good story, and is no less ominous than that of their republican neighbors. There is something lurking underneath the façade of stability in the region, and its name might just be Mayhem.

Part V: The Freedom Agenda is burdensome and would only complicate America’s policies in the region.

This is a very popular argument in Washingtonian circles today where experts tend to blame the previous administration for coming up with the Freedom Agenda and using it to justify its invasion of Iraq, an invasion that set America on a disastrous course shifting her attention away from the essential requirement of pacifying Afghanistan, and from the pursuit of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The main problem with this argument is that while the previous administration spoke indeed of a freedom agenda and dedicated some miniscule resources to democracy promotion, there was never really an agenda per se. There was only the simplistic notion that toppling Saddam’s Hussein’s regime in Iraq and establishing a democratic alternative would somehow have a domino effect throughout the region. But someone in the planning committee must have forgotten that in order to have a domino effect, you need to set the pieces first. That is, the ground needed to be prepared for democratic transition to begin with, something that seems to have come as an afterthought to the people involved and was handled pretty much as one. Furthermore, when the developments in Iraq took on a life of their own, and despite the recurrence of references to the freedom agenda, democracy promotion and human rights in a variety of official statements, and despite the launching of the Middle East Partnership Initiative Program, any attempt at fleshing out a freedom agenda was aborted.

Consequently, to say that the Freedom Agenda has complicated America’s foreign policy towards the Middle East is nonsensical. What complicated America’s policies in the region is a failure to understand the continuingly shifting local realities, all talk about the sterility and rigidity of the region notwithstanding, coupled with a failure to agree on objectives. This dual failure plagued the previous administration as much as it plagues the current one, the change in tone of the discourse notwithstanding. The substance of the Obama administration’s discourse on Iran, Afghanistan and terrorism, is in essence no different than that of the Bush administration. The oft-employed talk about engagement these days can hardly mask the hollowness of the policies proposed, if any can be identified. The arrogant promise of carrots might be highlighted more, but this comes at a time when regional players have clearly seen that America is no longer able to wield the stick. As such, the emphasis on carrot, no matter how slight, is interpreted as a sign of weakness, while occasional attempt at sounding threatening are no longer credible.

In its abandonment of the agenda that never existed and its replacement with promises of development aid, the administration shows how little it understands the region. If the ruling regimes are truly interested in development, if they were serious about the national interest of their countries, then curbing official corruption would free much more resources and funds than development aid can provide. Water, freedom and justice might indeed be scarce in our region, but not financial resources, at least, not as far as the official establishment in the region is concerned.

If the current administration wants to ignore the little annoying fact about linkage between corruption and authoritarianism, not to mention tyranny and terror, then their approach to foreign policy will be no less disastrous than that charted by their ideological antagonists of the Bush era.

Some in the region believe that an element of willful blindness is at play here. They believe that the potential abuse of development aid, not to mention security aid, is not something that worries current officials, because the aid is ultimately intended as a bribe meant to illicit certain immediate policy modifications and allow the current administration to claim progress, even if the long term effects of this is to encourage the very behavior that requires modification. But, in truth, and whether through willful blindness, sheer ignorance, or a combination of both, America has been doing that for decades now, irrespective of who happens to be in White House.

The inability to even agree on a name for the region, not to mention an approach, the  inability to see that developing special relations with certain countries does not mean that you have to turn a blind eye on some troubling aspects in their behavior, whether domestic or regional, and the inability to fathom why ruling corrupt and authoritarian regimes often fail to truly represent the national interests of their countries and peoples, these failures have plagued Republicans and Democrats from all different ideological backgrounds.

Furthermore, both parties have also had the nasty habit of failing those people in the region that actually believe in the American Idea. Indeed, their willingness to submit to blackmail and the fait accomplits with which they are presented by ruling regimes under the guise of pragmatism and political expediency have served to legitimize violence and power grabs, and have undermined all efforts at reform and all grassroots demands for change. It is this tendency that continues to complicate America’s policies in the region, and not the Freedom Agenda.

If Islamist and nationalist ideologies continue to thrive in the Middle East, it is because they always had their backers, and they continue to do so, advocate of liberal democratic values, on the other hand, continue to go without. America’s inability to see the benefit that could be derived from filling this gap through a systematic long-term approach is a failure that will reduce her policies to a series of reactions and overreactions and will continue to expose her to manipulations from a variety of regional and international actors whose interests are not necessarily commensurate with hers. It’s time America woke up, for her military might, as impressive as it is, will not shield her for long from the combined effects of her continuing policy mishaps in the region.


Ammar Abdulhamid, Founder and Director of the Tharwa Foundation, is a Syrian author turned human rights and democracy activist currently based in Washington, D.C. He enjoys a global reputation as an outspoken advocate for social and political change in the Broader Middle East and North Africa region.

The following two articles which appeared in the Daily Star are based primarily on this paper:

For America there is no way out
The errors in America’s ‘war on terror’