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The Middle East Doesn’t Matter

Neither ISIS nor any of America's fair-weather allies are worth the price of the U.S.'s deepening regional commitments.
kerry saudi

The ISIS rampage through Iraq and much of Syria, roiling Washington and other world capitals, gives rise to an interesting question: Who would win a contest to be named America’s most worthless Mideast ally? Competition is fierce, but three countries are clear frontrunners.

There is Saudi Arabia, whose princely emissaries to Washington have been confidants of presidents and fixtures on the Georgetown party circuit, a country whose rulers and princes possess seemingly unlimited amounts of discretionary income. They have used this wealth to subsidize worldwide the teaching of the most extremist and intolerant variants of Islam, but also to prop up the US defense industry by buying at every opportunity the most elaborate weapons systems we would sell them. It isn’t yet known whether Saudi pilots can actually effectively fly these advanced fighter aircraft under combat conditions. (There is sufficient evidence however that even relatively untrained Saudis can learn to steer a fully loaded 747 into a fixed ground target.)

What do the Saudis do with their shiny F-16’s and spanking new tanks? One might have hoped to see Saudi forces in action against ISIS—which really hasn’t had any success against a military formation that has been systematically trained and adequately armed. But this isn’t happening, probably because Saudi leaders realize that a great many Saudis (a majority?) actually agree with the ISIS ideology, and there is no guarantee they wouldn’t defect to ISIS if called upon to battle it. Among the best few sentences written since the onset of the crisis comes from veteran observer William Pfaff, who pointed to the stakes:

Moreover, is it fully appreciated in Washington that the “New Caliphate” has every intention of taking over the existing role in Islamic society of Saudi Arabia? It wants to conquer and occupy Mecca. If it succeeds, the Saudis themselves will be submitted to the ferocious discipline the ISIS practices. The Saudi ladies who now complain that they are not allowed to drive cars will find themselves in a new world indeed!

Then there is Turkey, an actual NATO member, a Muslim majority country which bridges Asia and Europe, a country with a considerable middle class and millions of educated and highly trained citizens. There are smart people in Washington and beyond who have held great hopes for Turkey: that it might solve the seemingly intractable riddle of how to combine Islam with modern democracy; that it might provide meaningful diplomatic support to the Palestinians; that it could both restrain America from disastrous blunders (as it tried to do in Iraq) and exert its growing influence on behalf of social and scientific progress in the region as a whole.

I shared those hopes, but have to admit they now seem pretty naive. Faced with an aggressive extremist Sunni movement beheading people on its borders, Turkey’s leaders choose to focus on the alleged dangers posed by its own long-restive Kurdish minority, while remaining obsessed with the Alawite (i.e. not Sunni Muslim) regime in neighboring Syria. Turkey has allowed ISIS to be replenished by allowing its own territory to be used as a transit zone for jihadist volunteers. If, as seems plausible at this writing, the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani falls while Turkey’s powerful NATO-armed military observes placidly from just over the border, it will be a long time before anyone in Washington will be able to say “our ally Turkey” with a straight face again.

Then there is Israel, usually touted as the best of American friends in the Mideast, if not the best ally any nation has been blessed to have, ever. Recipient of nearly as much American foreign and military aid as the rest of the world combined, Israel, with its crack air force and large stockpile of nuclear weapons, stands unchallenged as the region’s dominant military power. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu shows up on American news talk shows more than leaders of the rest of the world combined; were it not for John McCain, he would surely log more “Face the Nation” time than any American politician.

Once again, events illustrate what utility Israel has as a regional ally when the crunch comes. Faced with a unforeseen, rapidly moving, and dramatic crisis, Americans watch as Israel does absolutely nothing except antagonize the Muslim world further by announcing new land seizures so more illegal settlements can be built in Jerusalem. Of course this isn’t without precedent; Israel was of no help in the first Iraq crisis, and of course no help in the second—beyond providing a parade of prime-time cheerleaders to encourage George W. Bush in his lurch into war. Indeed, almost by definition Israel is no help in any regional crisis. The Israeli military may well remain formidable, though it is hard to be sure, as its most recent campaigns have been conducted against essentially undefended civilian populations.

What distinguishes Israel from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, is that no one is particularly surprised that it gives no help; it is not expected to do so. Congress will respond anyway with new resolutions demonstrating to major campaign donors its absolute submissiveness to Tel Aviv; perhaps Israelis will be permitted to travel to the U.S. without visas while Israel doesn’t reciprocate the favor, or the Pentagon’s replenishment of Israeli military stocks, exhausted by Gaza bombardment, will be prioritized.

Might there be a silver lining in all this? As we witness the emergence of a violent new force, simple realism forces upon us the fact that the friends we’ve been wooing for decades just don’t see it that way. They may not like ISIS, but for various reasons they have other fish to fry. That should tell us something about the strategic vision underlying our policies for the past two or three decades. (I would give a passing grade to the American Mideast policies pursued during the heat of the Cold War, when strategists considered keeping oil flowing and the region out of the communist orbit to be a pressing national priority, superseding all other considerations. In this they succeeded.)

What silver lining? It’s rooted in the fact that the Mideast may now actually matter much less than we think it does. We do have the option of pretty much ignoring it, if we choose. Its contribution to the world economy is negligible. Its oil will reach the market one way or another. The security and well-being of the American people is not linked to the survival of a Shi’ite regime in Baghdad, a medieval monarch in Riyadh, or, for that matter, a Jewish state in Jerusalem. Recognition of this fact is only beginning to seep into the discourse: Justin Logan argues persuasively here that virtually nothing that goes on in the Middle East can threaten us very much, that no country in the region is worth starting a war over, and that the amount of money we’ve spent combatting terrorism in the region is wildly disproportionate to the actual threat. (It goes without saying that American bombing, with its inevitable “collateral damage,” will create a growing class of Muslims who have concrete reason to want to harm Americans.) In an recent interview, Francis Fukuyama elaborates on this view. 9/11 didn’t “change everything” as many claimed, or shouldn’t have; it was essentially a lucky shot.

“These are really marginal people who survive in countries where you don’t have strong states … Their ability to take over and run a serious country that can master technology and stay at the forefront of great-power politics is almost zero,” he says. Elsewhere he notes that the crisis over ISIS is really a subset of the Sunni-Shia civil war, and America’s ability to have any lasting impact on that is also almost zero.

This perspective—that the Mideast isn’t actually all that important to American security and we should pay much less attention to it—should now become a critical part of the American conversation. The thinkers cited here—Logan and Fukuyama, and one should add the popular blogger Andrew Sullivan, also writing along these lines—are far from knee-jerk “isolationists.” Fukuyama posits particularly that we should use military offshore balancing to ensure that no single power controls the oil fields; and obviously Iran would not want or allow ISIS to shut off its ability to export oil. But beyond that, we can afford to take the region much less seriously.

Unfortunately, there are no major American politicians now ready to make this argument. Rand Paul, regrettably, seems to have folded into a “me too” ISIS hawk after the first atrocity appeared on television, and the entire debate in Washington is now between neocons who want to send American ground troops now, and Obama establishment figures who hope, against much persuasive evidence, that some combination of bombing and special forces and our “coalition partners” will halt the ISIS advance. This narrowing of our true choices is madness.

There is a third, quite realistic, option: ISIS doesn’t matter all that much, and in any case if our “allies” don’t want to fight it, there’s very little we can do about it. If it one day rules Mecca, more the pity for the Saudi women and their driving aspirations. But the impact on American life will be minimal.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.



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