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Ending Our ‘Shell Game’ Foreign Policy in the Middle East

No U.S. strategy can be a panacea, but a strategy of restraint offers the best way forward for both the U.S. and the region.

Almost two years since the president declared that U.S. forces would be leaving Syria, American troops are still in that country illegally on a mission that has nothing to do with U.S. security. According to outgoing Syria envoy James Jeffrey, U.S. officials have been playing a “shell game” with troops numbers to conceal how many American forces remained there, and he said that there are a “lot more” than 200 troops operating in Syria now.

The conduct Jeffrey describes isn’t all that surprising when we remember how desperate Syria hawks and the military have been to keep U.S. forces in Syria no matter what, but it is remarkable that he would admit this deception publicly. The “shell game” in Syria is a good example of the two-faced nature of Trump administration policies in the Middle East: the phony “withdrawals” that mask increasing troop numbers in the region, the “peace” deals that are just excuses for selling more weapons, and the subordination of U.S. interests to the preferences of clients in the name of putting America first. If we compare this approach with what real foreign policy restraint would look like, it is clear that the gap between them is as wide as can be.

The former envoy also claims that the original order to withdraw from Syria in December 2018 was “the most controversial thing in my fifty years in government.” Many other U.S. actions have been far more controversial than that decision, so Jeffrey’s description suggests that he either has no clue what he’s talking about or he is such a hardened ideologue that he actually believes such a preposterous claim. It is all the more bizarre when Jeffrey himself admits that the decision led nowhere: “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal.” While U.S. forces were not withdrawing from Syria, their numbers were increasing in Saudi Arabia, where they sit as potential targets in the event of a conflict with Iran.

Jeffrey defends the administration’s record as one of successful realpolitik, but his spin doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. He boasts that many of the governments in the region are pleased with the U.S., but why wouldn’t they be when the U.S. has spent the last four years catering to their whims and giving them blank checks at our expense? It is not a mark in Trump’s favor that Israeli annexationists and Saudi war criminals will be sorry to see him go. There is no question that many of the administration’s maneuvers were cynical, but there is no evidence that they advanced U.S. interests anywhere. The U.S. remains ensnared in the region’s conflicts with no end in sight, and it is implicated more deeply than ever in the abuses of its clients.

Jeffrey pretends that this approach has resulted in greater stability, but that requires ignoring everything that has happened since 2017. In just the last few years, the aggressively anti-Iranian policy of the Trump administration has seen a ratcheting up of regional tensions to levels not seen since the late 2000s. Not only were U.S. forces directly attacked by Iranian missiles from Iran for the first time earlier this year, but Saudi territory came under attack the year before. U.S. forces repeatedly clashed with Russia and Syrian troops in recent years as they continue with their unauthorized mission in Syria. The U.S. has gone to the brink of war at least twice in just the last two years, and there is still a possibility that the U.S. or Israel will take advantage of the waning days of Trump’s presidency to launch new attacks on Iranian targets. The U.S. continues to help Saudi Arabia bleed and starve Yemen, and both the war and the humanitarian crisis there will have destructive effects on the population and the surrounding region for years to come.

The much-hyped normalization deals between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain have served as little more than a prelude to increased settlement expansion at the expense of Palestinians and additional weapons sales to all of these governments. These deals reinforce and entrench everything that is wrong with U.S. policies in the Middle East, and they pave the way for further abuses and war crimes that will be committed with U.S.-made weapons and equipment. Needless to say, this will not lead to peace, but it will lead to deepening repression of Palestinians and more reckless military adventurism by the UAE. One looks in vain for how this will make the U.S. more secure, because it has nothing to do with our security.

It does not have to stay this way. A foreign policy that prioritized U.S. interests would not take sides in regional rivalries, and it would not back regional states in their aggressive designs on their neighbors. Because the U.S. has no vital interests in the region, the U.S. can afford to pull its military forces out, and it does not need to indulge client states with uncritical support. A genuine foreign policy of peace and restraint would end decades of militarized interference, and it would instead seek constructive relations with as many states as possible.

If the U.S. were not so deeply enmeshed in the conflicts of the region, our diplomats might then be able to serve as effective mediators to help resolve those conflicts and prevent others. If the U.S. weren’t actively stoking instability by flooding the region with weapons, perhaps there would be fewer conflicts overall. Rather than strangling nations with economic warfare and driving people into penury and starvation by the millions, the U.S. could be providing assistance and advice in economic development. The Middle East has been one of the regions where the U.S. pursuit of dominance has been the most brazen and heavy-handed, and it is no accident that this is the region that has been wracked by conflict for the last several decades.

To be specific, this would mean no more arms sales to despotic governments such as Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and it would mean an end to military aid for Israel. The U.S. wouldn’t turn a blind eye to horrific human rights abuses committed by its clients because it would no longer have to pretend that it needed them. Our government would shelve its forty year-old grudge against Iran and move towards normalization of relations, and it would do this primarily to better safeguard American interests and citizens. It would abandon policies of regime change, and it would stop imposing sweeping sanctions on entire national economies. Most important, it would no longer claim the right to interfere in the internal affairs of any of these states, but would cultivate cordial relations with as many as wanted them.

The U.S. has wasted vast resources in its attempt to “shape” the Middle East to its liking over the last thirty years, and it was all for nothing. It would be much wiser and cheaper to give up on the need to “lead” in a part of the world where our “leadership” has never done much good. It would free our government to see our former clients for what they are and not what we wish they were, and it would relieve the U.S. of significant expenses that could be better used here at home. Instead of being the weapons supplier and protector of oppressive rulers, the U.S. could end its complicity in the many crimes that its clients perpetrate against their own people and their neighbors.

No U.S. strategy can be a panacea, but a strategy of restraint offers the best way forward for both the U.S. and the region. It would be a radical change in how the U.S. interacts with the countries in this part of the world, but it is one that needs to be made for the sake of all concerned.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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