Reflecting on the latest Iran war scare, New York Times columnist and über-hawk Bret Stephens worries that “we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the American era in the Middle East.” If so, then faster, please.
What is this “American era” to which Stephens refers? If the phrase implies some approximation of U.S. dominion or control, then no such era has ever existed. For several decades now, the United States has been engaged in attempting to establish some form of regional Pax Americana. That effort has failed irretrievably and at enormous cost to the United States and to others. What we have endured is an era of ineffectual American meddling.
Yet Stephens is by no means ready to throw in the towel. His confidence in the efficacy of U.S. military might remains undiminished. Disturbed by President Trump’s timid response to a series of recent provocations attributed to Iran, the most recent being a September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities, Stephens urges retaliation. While not spelling out the scale of the punitive action he favors, he expresses confidence that a “limited military reprisal” will almost certainly “re-establish deterrence with Tehran.”
He does not explain the basis for his confidence, which remains defiantly intact despite the myriad failures, disappointments, and never-saw-it-coming surprises that the United States has experienced in the Middle East going as far back as the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Yet Stephens and other proponents of attacking Iran (with regime change in Tehran the tacit goal) have conveniently short memories.
The “beginning of the end” for the would-be American Pax in the Middle East didn’t occur in mid-September when Trump once more went wobbly on Iran, but in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq. Of course, prominent among the journalistic cheerleaders for that disastrous war was Bret Stephens himself. Since then, U.S. forces have been more or less continuously engaged in what ought to be called Operation Damage Control, trying to clean up the mess created as a direct consequence of our own recklessness.
Now Stephens and others of his ilk are keen to open up a new front on this open-ended military campaign. Arguing with all the assurance that they showed when fingering Saddam Hussein as the source of all evil, they would have us believe that, once spanked, Iran will behave, with the “America era in the Middle East” magically restored.
This is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking, as President Trump himself appears to appreciate. Now our president is many things, but he is not a sophisticated thinker. His own grasp of history appears to be quite limited. He possesses few if any principles from which to formulate a coherent approach to policy. Convinced of his own genius, he doesn’t take advice. Yet at some gut level, Trump has a deep—and commendable—aversion to war. In contrast to Stephens, he appears to believe that engaging in long, drawn-out armed conflicts is inherently undesirable.
One imagines that from Trump’s perspective, it’s like a business venture that turns sour. You cut your losses and move on, ideally sticking some other sap with the bill.
No doubt reinforcing this inclination is Trump’s determination to win election to a second term. The fact is that this president has not delivered on his campaign promise to end our endless wars. Nor has he achieved any significant foreign policy successes, unless you count withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and instigating a trade war with China (which I don’t). The last thing Trump needs politically is to start another shooting war to go along with the several he inherited.
So the president has no wish to lurch into another morass in the Middle East. However pure or impure his motives, let us acknowledge that this qualifies as a rare and welcome bit of good sense emanating from the Oval Office.
Sadly, however, neither Trump nor anyone in his administration seems to have the capacity to devise an actual alternative to the fantasy of creating an “American era in the Middle East.” Thus far at least, the administration’s response to this crisis has amounted to a little more of the same—more sanctions, more U.S. troops deployed to the region—but not nearly enough to make any meaningful difference. As is so often the case, instead of a meaningful policy, Trump offers a gesture.
Devising a real alternative would require this admission: in the Middle East, the military power of the United States has played a large part in exacerbating problems rather than contributing to their solution. With few exceptions, members of the establishment, Bret Stephens among them, lack the gumption to make such an admission.
The beginning of wisdom lies in acknowledging that the overriding U.S. interest in the Middle East is to restore stability. Period. It is not to pick winners. Stability requires not more war but less, nudging rivals such as Iran and Saudi Arabia—neither qualifying as “friends” of the United States—to realize that they too will benefit from reducing the level of violence. No doubt this qualifies as an enormous challenge, requiring patience and diplomatic sophistication. But to quote an old adage, perhaps it’s time to give peace a chance. And should Tehran and Riyadh disregard such peacemaking efforts and opt for war, well, it is not incumbent upon the United States to underwrite their folly.
How likely is it that Trump will aggressively pursue peace in the Middle East? Not very. Yet should he do so, the era of American meddling in the Middle East just might yield to an actually existing era of mutual coexistence. Talk about a legacy.
Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.