Say what you will about the countries of the Middle East, they have good antennas for sensing a shift in power relations. None has failed to adjust to the downward direction of American intentions toward their region.
When former president Barack Obama came to office in 2009, he pursued a “pivot to Asia.” This was, above all, “a pivot away from the Middle East,” a region that was then, like now, regarded as having absorbed too many American lives and too much money, for limited returns. Donald Trump, despite his persistent efforts to distinguish himself from his predecessor, has largely followed suit, seeking a drawdown in America’s military presence in the region, often against the preferences of his own officials.
That a conservative publicist who dislikes Obama should approvingly echo his mood toward the Middle East is a good indication that there is a consensus on the matter in America. “[W]e’ve clearly done enough damage fighting our own wars of choice in the Middle East—to the region, to young American soldiers, and to our society. It’s time for America to come home,” wrote Lee Smith in Tablet last April, in a phrase that would have appealed to both Obama and Trump supporters.
Yet there is something remarkable in such an impulse. Countries don’t usually decide to walk away from regions where their power is paramount. A convincing explanation may have to be sought in psychology as much as in politics, suggesting an equal measure of disappointment and resentment that the Middle East’s people failed to respond to the magnitude of America’s sacrifice. “It’s a troubled place,” Trump said wistfully in describing the region last April, after affirming, “No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East.”
Yet this raises a more pertinent question about how the United States exercises power, and what the guidelines are for this. When Obama came to office, he portrayed himself as a political realist, though in his interactions in the Middle East he seemed to be everything but one. Trump, in turn, in as much as he has put any thought into foreign policy, has sought to underline that he is a transactional president, a man who can make deals away from moral or value-based constraints. Both men share a view that the United States, even if it favors democracy and human rights, can no longer afford to base its policies primarily on advancing such objectives.
Political scientist Hans Morgenthau explained foreign policy realism in just ten words in his classic Politics Among Nations, writing, “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.” If Morgenthau is correct, then since 2009 the two presidents who expressed a commitment to enhancing American power in the world have also been ones who have surrendered the most power in the Middle East, to America’s detriment.
Not surprisingly, it is genuinely “realistic” countries that have gained. One of them, Russia, has shown none of the hesitancy of the United States, expanding its regional network of relations and placing itself at the very center of numerous Middle Eastern concerns—the Syrian war, America’s nuclear dispute with Iran, Israeli-Iranian tensions, Turkey’s interactions with Damascus, and more. When Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed his forces to Syria in 2015, Washington opposed the move, with Barack Obama publicly stating, “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.”
Well, unfortunately, it did work, and not only did Russia sidestep a quagmire, it used Syria as a springboard to regional relevance, while America faded further. Washington’s allies have certainly caught on, with the Saudis and Egyptians opening friendly channels to Moscow; with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting regularly with Putin over southern Syria; and with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking frequently to the Russians about developments in northern Syria.
Most Americans may be indifferent to this. If the Russians want the Middle East, they can have it, one imagines them harrumphing. But Putin, for all the sinister brutality of his armed forces in Syria, has had a much more imaginative sense of how to leverage his regional involvement into genuine political power. Perhaps that’s because the Russians always had a clearer sense of what they wanted to achieve in the country and beyond than the Americans, and shied away from giving free, unwanted advice to others. In essence, the Russians may simply have understood power better.
In his American Diplomacy 1900–1950, George Kennan, the intellectual godfather of containment of the Soviet Union after World War II, wrote how American officials have tended in their remarks on foreign affairs to make grand statements, usually in line with American principles, which have little prospect of being implemented, on matters about which they often care little. This reflected what he called “smugness in American thinking about foreign affairs.” Syria produced one long catalogue of smug American statements on the inevitability of Assad’s downfall and the certain failure of Russian efforts, in a conflict most Americans didn’t seem greatly concerned with. All the while this only underlined the growing futility and lack of direction of America’s position in the Middle East.
Today, there may be relief in the United States that the country is getting rid of its Middle Eastern burden. But the odd thing about power is that it is not a matter of choice: its pursuit is an unavoidable byproduct of inter-state relations, hence the term “realism.” When American officials ignore this, they ignore an essential part of what it means to be a state. They don’t see that what they lose in the Middle East may also be something that their adversaries gain. Even troubled places can be worth fighting for.