The Middle East is the place that introduced us to the idea of known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But even in a region that’s now swirling with more uncertainty, mystery, and doubt than ever before, there are nonetheless a few key known knowns. Examining them produces a picture of a deeply unsettling and dangerous tomorrow. It also reminds us that at a time of justifiable celebration in the White House over the Iran deal the president will likely leave behind a map of the region in which that victory is surrounded everywhere by defeats and setbacks whose negative consequences may only grow worse.
What are the known knowns? First, we know that the Iran deal will happen. It’s all over but for the shouting, and there will surely be plenty of that. But the president will prevail over Congress, and the deal will go into force. Next, as we look around the Middle East we know, the region is in worse turmoil than it has been at any time in modern history. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are in the midst of conflicts that could redefine the very nature of each of them as nations. The spillover from those conflicts is burdensome and threatening to neighboring states like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The Israel-Palestine conflict is at an ugly impasse. Egypt seems sure to struggle further. The Gulf States are being increasingly drawn into and threatened by the region’s conflicts. And Afghanistan, not part of the Middle East technically but bordering Iran, also seems heading for further crisis.
But I would argue another known known is that this grievous situation is not going to get better anytime soon. Do the exercise yourself. Project out five years from now: Is it likely Syria will have stabilized? Is it likely Iraq will have? Yemen? Will Libya? In recent weeks, I’ve posed these questions to various experts from the U.S. military and diplomatic community and from the countries within the region itself. Their response was always that in all these cases it’s more likely than not that turmoil will persist — not only for the next five years, but quite possibly for much, much longer than that.
These experts might all be wrong about one or two of these cases. But it seems unlikely they are wrong. But here’s the one known unknown you can take to the bank: The Middle East is in a period of protracted crisis and instability, and, as we have seen with each passing day, the collateral damage and knock-on effects grow worse. While Syria is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, having endured more than four years of war, with hundreds of thousands dead and more than 7 million internally displaced, many more months and years of war will clearly only exacerbate that. Some 6 million are at severe risk of famine in Yemen. Libyans crowd onto small rubber rafts and pack into boats in the often vain hope of making their way to Europe. Refugee camps are posing a potentially unsustainable burden in Jordan and Lebanon. Unrest is begetting more unrest. One U.S. military leader told me that the Islamic State was reducing its recruitment efforts because it did not need them — more would-be extremists were volunteering. Continuing in the same vein, try the thought experiment yourself: Do you consider it more or less likely that extremism will add to the number of countries in crisis in the next five years? In North Africa? Sinai? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? How will falling oil prices exacerbate this? The meddling of a reenergized Iran?
As bad as all this portends for the Middle East, the current trajectory of these crises now is starting to pose more material and significant threats to the United States, our allies, and other major powers worldwide. I am not just talking about the spread of so-called foreign fighters or extremists returning home to places like Europe and North Africa, real as that likely lingering problem may be.
For example, Europe’s current refugee crisis is only going to get worse in this scenario. The countries most seriously impacted will be those in Europe’s south, already economically weak and likely only to be weakened further by a coming global economic slowdown. As refugees pour in, what is the inevitable reaction? Nationalist and right-wing parties will gain as they play on the anxieties of local populations who fear the economic and social impact of the waves of new arrivals. One of the beneficiaries of this will be a current patron of those parties — Vladimir Putin. He would like to see a weakened European Union, and his friends in France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League and other such groups are his ticket to pushing back against the progress of EU integration and the strengthening of EU institutions. The Middle East refugee crisis in this respect is not only a potentially destabilizing burden for Europe, it is also, therefore, a threat to the Atlantic Alliance and a boon for a troublemaker like the Russian president.
Deteriorating conditions will help other potential bad actors, troublemakers, or rivals. Extremists looking to destabilize our allies in the Middle East will — and they will — seek new regions into which they can extend their influence, as they are already doing in Africa and Southeast Asia. Iran most certainly will. Not only will they get the vaunted windfall of sanctions relief. Better yet for them, they will get the ties the end of sanctions will bring. The tens of thousands of business people who will travel to that country in search of deals will return home to the EU, Asia, and the United States, press for more openness in the relationship, and advocate on Iran’s behalf. They will gain a whole new cadre of champions and with them greater status and leverage. Their sales of oil will also strengthen dependencies on them, notably with countries like China and India.
Speaking of China, as a big consumer of Middle East oil, the country will also gain leverage in the region (becoming a major obstacle to putting further pressure on Iran). Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy is already strengthening ties not only across Southeast Asia but also with key countries bordering the Middle East, like strategically important and mercurial Pakistan, and is bringing China more influence in Afghanistan.
Many of the factors that have led the world to this point are endemic to the countries in crisis — including failed regimes, bad governance, economic mismanagement, greed, corruption, historical trends, new technologies, and the cultivation of extremist views. But it cannot be denied that a contributing factor has been the policies of the Obama administration. President Barack Obama and those around him have, for reasons understandable in the context of the failures and missteps of George W. Bush’s administration, sought to disengage from the Middle East. They have argued that the United States should leave these problems for others to resolve. They have suggested that if there were no clear paths to victory against potential threats, we should not undertake containing them. They suggested the problems would burn themselves out or that unnamed others would, despite decades of history to the contrary, resolve them. In the name of prudence and caution and a desire to avoid past errors, they have embraced a less-is-more foreign policy that was predicated on the idea that the world and America would be better off if the planet’s sole superpower were more reticent, less engaged, and more hesitant not just to use force but to leave it unclear whether we would use force or not. In fact, I am not sure I blame anyone so much as I blame the ideas underlying this policy, ideas that crop up periodically in America that we can leave the business of the world to others and not pay a price.
Syria was the great test case of this approach. When it was clear that the use of chemical weapons “red line” had been crossed (repeatedly), Obama considered action and then thought better of it. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad murdered his people and then other extremist groups compounded the problem with their own brand of mayhem, we contemplated action, but we focused more on finding excuses not to act than we did on finding effective measures we and others could take that might actually improve the situation. There were no easy paths forward, no clear good guys among the warring factions, and no ways we could be assured of satisfactory outcomes. Perhaps most important was the calculation that if we took no action or very little action, it would not be a problem that impacted us or our allies in any material way. Of course, this last calculation has proven to be profoundly wrong. That the humanitarian costs of our inaction have been so grievous only compounds how wrong this thinking was and makes it all the more poignant. Now, however, virtually any future we can reasonably imagine for Syria makes the extravagant tragedies of today and the recent past seem small by comparison to the suffering and upheaval likely to come.
I recall once talking to Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, former top aide to Dwight Eisenhower both in World War II and when Ike was president. We were talking about the debate over the dubious intelligence that led to the Iraq War. He scoffed and said Eisenhower would have had little patience for the discussion, because as an experienced leader he knew intelligence could often be wrong or hazy. He cited an instance when in 1944 Eisenhower was told to ignore German activity near the Ardennes Forest. Two weeks later, the Battle of the Bulge began. He spoke to me about the doubts that leaders had to deal with and work through, reminding me that Eisenhower had drafted the letter apologizing for the failure of D-Day before that giant risk was undertaken. He noted that great leaders often took action because they had to, even when their options were poor and the outcomes were in doubt, because only through action could they forestall worse outcomes and create the possibilities that might ultimately bring them to victory.
Cautious and unimaginative leaders never create such chances. And while they may avoid catastrophes like the Iraq invasion, they also open the door to unintended consequences that actually make their situations materially worse. (Even if they were not the authors of the problems they created, even if they could not solve them single-handedly, and even if it would be better, more just, or reasonable that someone else took the lead.) Further, and sometimes through repeated application of the same brand of caution, they compound their errors. Getting out of Iraq too quickly helped foster the conditions that led to the creation of the Islamic State, as did the failure of the United States to act — or to effectively lead a collation in acting — in Syria. Coming to the fight against the Islamic State too late and half-heartedly when we did has not helped. The chaos in Syria and Iraq has now profoundly impacted Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and indeed everywhere that the Islamic State has sewed its poisonous seeds. And it has empowered Iran greatly.
As a result, even a well-intentioned, potentially positive step like the Iran deal — when placed in the context of a region in turmoil — can have profoundly negative consequences if it upsets the regional balance of power. It further makes already apprehensive neighbors more apprehensive and can trigger actions among those states predicated on growing anxiety (that we played a role in exacerbating), among other things.
History, the war in Iraq, and countless other factors have brought the Middle East to where it is today. But what is also quite clear is that, in conjunction with those things, the abrogation by the world’s leading power of its leadership responsibilities has contributed to the contemporary tragedy we are witnessing. Moreover — and more importantly — it is setting the stage for a future in which future U.S. leaders may be asked to take risks far greater than those Obama sidestepped in order to contain the cascading consequences of his inaction, inexperience, and his overabundance of caution.