The international goat grab this week in Tehran -- aka,
the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) -- is unlikely to have any lasting
impact on the struggle between Iran and the United States over the ultimate
disposition of the nuclear issue.
It's a fleeting, feel-good moment for the mullahs. Indeed, I
really hope America's diplomats didn't waste too much time trying to persuade U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to attend. Teenagers talk on the phone,
beavers build dams, and U.N. folks go to these kinds of things.
Still, the NAM conference made me think about a more
enduring and consequential issue -- the state of America's influence in a
region that remains vital to its national interests, but which it can neither
fix nor leave. What, if anything, does the NAM gathering tell us about
America's stake and stock in the Middle East?
everybody sees the world the way America does.
No shocker there, except maybe to Americans.
The fact that representatives of 120 countries, two permanent members of the U.N.
Security Council, and the U.N. secretary-general are milling around with the
mullahs is no small matter. This may not be the NATO A-Team. Rather, it's a
pretty strong testament to the limitations of America's containment strategy --
at least on the political side. The summit is proof that the United States isn't succeeding in
persuading vast swaths of the world that Tehran is a major threat to
international peace and must be contained, sanctioned, and isolated. Nor will it.
As if to put an exclamation point on
the matter, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is bringing Iran directly into the
latest plan to fix the Syrian crisis. He has launched
a regional initiative that calls for a committee of four powers -- Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Turkey, and the Islamic Republic -- to work together on the issue. So
much for America's influence.
or accept The Bomb?
That the United States hasn't succeeded in bringing the
mullahs down, or at least to their knees on the nuclear issue, is also pretty
Iran's search for a nuclear capacity is driven by a complex
mix of insecurity and grandiosity, two factors inextricably linked to Iran's
self-image and identity. These kinds of inchoate motivations are rarely, if
ever, susceptible to external pressures -- certainly not to sanctions, cyberattacks, and militaristic rhetoric. If Iran doesn't decide to jettison its
nuclear program on its own, we're rapidly moving to a situation in which
military action may well be the default position, however risky or
nonproductive it could turn out to be.
We've tried negotiations, kind of, and sanctions too.
However, the centrifuges continue to spin. And the most widely discussed default
position -- a "kaboom"
by Israel or the United States -- increasingly seems to be drawing inexorably
closer, like a moth to the flame. How such a military strike could do much more
than retard the nuclear program is unclear. Eliminating Iran's acquisitive
desire for a nuclear weapons capacity would require regime change -- and even
that might not do the job. Had the Shah of Iran not fallen to Ruhollah Khomeini and the crowds,
Iran would long ago have become a nuclear weapons state.
The Tehran gathering signals something else too: These days,
everyone seems to have the capacity to say no to the world's greatest power
without much cost or consequence.
The fraternal order of the "Just Say No Movement" includes a
checkered cast of close allies, neutrals, the so-called nonaligned, and
adversaries. Its ranks include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary-General Ban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iraqi strongman Nouri
al-Maliki, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad,
assorted Egyptian generals and Muslim Brothers, and, last but certainly not
least, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As I wrote some months back, the United States is fast
becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of the Middle East: America really doesn't get much
America has power, but…
Last time I looked, America was still the greatest power on Earth.
The country boasts vast armies equipped with sophisticated weaponry deployed all over the
Middle East and beyond. Its capacity to change regimes and bring down bad guys,
including some of the world's greatest evildoers -- Saddam Hussein, Osama bin
Laden, and Muammar al-Qaddafi (dispatched albeit by committee) -- is
indisputable. America even has a superstar secretary of state who traverses the
globe preaching a well-received global humanism.
Yet with all its power, why isn't America more admired and
respected? Exactly what's going on here?
I offer four possible explanations:
America never ruled the world.
Part of the problem is that the country is in love with a vision of U.S.
power that has always been something of an illusion. From 1945 through the 1980s,
the United States clearly had more successes in the
Middle East than it has experienced over the past couple of decades. I'd call them moments --
during the early 1970s in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and during the late 1980s
and early 1990s in war-making.
Why do I say "moments"? The thing is, America was never really a
consistently effective hegemon. It was a tall task to win hearts and minds,
conduct breakthrough diplomacy, project military power, and create some kind of
impermeable pro-American zone of influence in a region where folks didn't like
U.S. policies all that much. From Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to Indian
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, from the Bandung summit to the failed Baghdad
Pact, the region consistently rejected U.S. schemes, dreams,
and visions. America did pretty well in holding the Russians at bay, keeping the oil flowing,
and maintaining close ties with the region's royals and the Israelis. But those
same successes -- staunch anti-communism, support for Israel, and an obvious
preference for the oil producers -- generated opposition among Arab
nationalists who resented Western intrusion.
Even the victories America won came at a time when
protecting U.S. interests was far easier than it is now. To expect the U.S.
government to walk on water and perform miracles -- even in a part of the world known for
that sort of thing -- is absurd. You could invite Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus
back down to Earth to help out with the Iranian nuclear issue and the
Arab-Israeli conflict, and they'd be struggling too.
When pundits and commentators decry the absence of an
American strategy for this region, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Strategy
isn't something a bunch of smart folks hermetically sealed in the Situation Room
at the White House or State Department map out in a memo to the president. It's
a dynamic process that usually depends on factors beyond U.S. control, on Lady
Luck, and on some opportunity that those same smart folks can exploit if they have
the will and the skill. The key to successful strategy is more often found in exploiting
opportunities, not creating them. See: Henry Kissinger and the 1973 October War,
President Ronald Reagan and the collapsing Soviet Union, and President George
H.W. Bush and the Gulf War.
In fact, America gets into trouble when it adheres blindly to a
strategy but hasn't read reality right or has failed to analyze the relationship
between U.S. goals and the means at the country's disposal to achieve them. Things get
even more out of hand when the country thinks big and imagines it can save the world or
re-create the world in America's image with some overarching plan to "support freedom," "make
peace," or "build nations."
President George W. Bush had big ideas in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Do you want to pretend that what the United States has achieved in these countries
is still worth the price it paid, and is still paying?
It's not that America necessarily needs to think small, but
there are a few basic rules of the road that must be observed before embarking on
foreign adventures. The country needs to (a) think before it acts, and when possible act
with others, (b) try to calculate whether it has the means and the will to
stay the course in any policy undertaken, and (c) ensure that the small
tribes that inhabit these lands -- and on whom U.S. success sadly depends --
have a sense of ownership and obligation too. To take the most prominent
example: If you want a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, they
need to want it more than you do.
Too few successes.
The world's most compelling ideology isn't nationalism,
democracy, or capitalism -- it's success. Why? Because success generates
constituents, prestige, and power. Failure produces the opposite. Success
creates street cred -- very important currency in the rough-and-tumble
neighborhood where small powers have a history of manipulating and frustrating
I'd argue that over the past 20 years, the United States hasn't been
succeeding in matters of war-making or peacemaking, or in the battle for hearts
and minds. Unlike the first Gulf War, which positioned the United States to
take advantage of peacemaking and boosted America's street cred, the second Iraq war
left America's image and credibility in tatters. The same proved true in U.S. efforts
on Arab-Israeli peacemaking: America has fooled itself that there really was
a chance to make peace (Bill Clinton), tried to fool others when there really
wasn't (George W. Bush), and sometimes just acted without thinking clearly
(Barack Obama). These failures have created a truly unique situation where the United States isn't respected by anybody.
Obama, after a year or so of rosy-eyed idealism, finally got
the message that discretion was the better part of valor. He hasn't achieved
any spectacular successes -- save killing Osama -- but he also hasn't triggered
any catastrophic failures, at least not yet. America could use a significant success
to boost its street cred, but all I see now for the White House is more Middle
East migraines and root canals.
The locals really don't like U.S. policies.
It should be self-evident by now that U.S. interests and
values are out of sync with one another. At times, they are diametrically
For the great power with many different interests to protect
both at home and abroad, a certain amount of discordance is inevitable. Indeed,
it's part of the job description of the great power to behave in often
contradictory or even hypocritical fashion. Is the United States going to support Arab Springs
everywhere, setting loose political upheaval in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that
could undermine U.S. energy interests and attempt to isolate Iran? Is America going
to reduce or cut its aid to the Egyptian military because the generals aren't
democrats -- or to Israel because of settlement expansion in the West Bank? If
the freedom of Arab peoples is so important, why didn't the United States intervene in Syria
the way it did in Libya? And why does America hammer Iran over its nuclear program, but give the Indians, Pakistanis, and the Israelis a free pass?
I could give you logical answers to all these questions,
but they just don't play well out East. The conspiracy theories and lapses in
logic regarding Western perfidy that pervade this region run deep. The sources
of anger at the United States -- support for Israel, backing of regional
despots, expansive military deployments, and, yes, for some, the country's promiscuous lifestyle
-- are not going away.
Even though America isn't the regional hegemon it's cracked
up to be, it'll manage. The Middle East was never a land of opportunity. The United States can
probably live without spectacular successes if it can avoid spectacular
failures. The current administration has been much more careful and cautious
than its predecessor in these matters, and that's a good thing. It may also have
learned a thing or two from its own failures.
But sooner or later, some new crisis is bound to shatter this newfound caution. Even now, the Middle East is burning. As John Buchan wrote in
his classic novel Greenmantle,
"There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait
I'm betting it's the Iranian nuclear issue that blows things
up -- by year's end or probably early next. When it comes, the only
question will be how America responds and whether its stock of influence in the
Middle East will have swelled or shrunk when the smoke has cleared.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images