For those who have served in the military, there is an expression that sums up the uncertainties of preparing for combat: No plan survives initial contact with the enemy. The enemy never obliges us with stasis; adversaries maneuver to achieve their objectives knowing full well that we seek to block and defeat them. While planning is essential — bringing together, as it does, objectives, strategy, will, and resources — it is not the end of anything. This is just as true in diplomacy as it is in war.
Those who would purport, therefore, to offer a new American administration a “plan” for the Middle East — often packaged or labeled a “strategy” — must bring to the table much more than a portfolio of creative ideas organized geographically or thematically. If the idea is to influence “decision makers” to take certain actions, then the advocate would do well to demonstrate some knowledge of what “action” would look like in a practical sense. Telling busy officials (as I was told constantly) to “take a firm stance” or “make it crystal clear” or “compel them to back off” is of no practical use. There is no harm in academics and think-tankers trying to impress one another. But if that’s all it is, let’s not pretend otherwise.
Indeed, in a lifetime of working (often futilely) on the Middle East, I have seen precisely one recommended approach to Middle East policy that was thoughtful and strove for operational relevance. And it was by no means coincidental that it reflected the modesty of the authors who had every right to claim unparalleled authority and insight.
Five years ago at the Atlantic Council there was a sustained effort to formulate an American approach to the Middle East that an incoming president — whoever won the 2016 election — might find attractive and implementable.
The Middle East Strategy Task Force, headed by Madeleine Albright and Stephen Hadley, would ultimately recommend that the United States place a major bet on the people of the Middle East, a youth-dominated demographic eager for education, willing to work hard, and entrepreneurial in outlook. Yes, there were policy recommendations about ending wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; yes, there were recommendations concerning Arab-Israeli peace; yes, there was plenty of pointed analysis about Islamist terrorism manifesting itself in the Islamic State, Iran, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah. But it was people — especially young people, and especially women — that formed the focus of a remarkable final report.
Albright and Hadley reached out to businesspeople, educators, political leaders, and young people in the region. They asked questions and listened carefully to what they were told. They concluded that although the region was not condemned to perpetual violence, extremism, and instability by “Sykes-Picot” or some other deus ex machina, political illegitimacy from one end of the Arab world to the other had rendered the entire region vulnerable to Islamist terror and chaos and that this terror and chaos constituted a grave security threat to the United States, to American citizens, and to citizens of American allies around the globe.
Albright and Hadley elected not to objectify the region or its individual states. Rather, they recommended a partnership between the U.S.-led Western and Arab leaders willing to undertake reforms — focusing on education, abolition of anti-entrepreneurial laws, and relaxation of political repression — aimed at unleashing the potential of Arab youth.
Again, there were specific country-related recommendations on not permitting Tunisia’s democratic experiment to fail, not permitting a Syrian regime and its ISIS partner in crime to slaughter civilians at will, and so on. But the central point was a search for partners in the Arab political elite, partners able to recognize that unlimited government jobs to purchase political obedience were going away; that excessive centralization and runaway corruption were gifts to aspiring extremists; and that the youth bulge affecting nearly all constituencies was an untapped asset of incalculable value that could, if not properly and effectively cultivated, become instead a reservoir for extremist alternatives to illegitimate, ineffective governance.
Alas, the Trump administration ignored a bipartisan report that had attracted surprising and positive reactions on Capitol Hill. In retrospect, however, it seems that the report’s central premise — that the United States and its allies and friends could partner with regional political leaders to promote internal reforms and unleash the enormous potential of youth — was faulty.
One question exposes the fault: Who among the region’s authoritarians — men who rule through violence on behalf of themselves, their families, and their entourages — would risk yielding control of anything for the sake of unleashing youth potential? Put differently, given the choice between ruling absolutely through state terror or ruling conditionally subject to the consent of the governed — even in the context of economic success — how many would risk the latter? In countries where the dregs of society dominate politics, what do those dregs calculate in terms of cost-benefit when told by Albright and Hadley that the old ruler-ruled dynamic to ensure obedience to the social contract is dead and the West stands ready to help with reform and liberalization?
The Biden administration will face a wide range of specific Middle Eastern issues. Should it re-adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Should it continue to suppress the Islamic State militarily in Iraq and eastern Syria? Should it stand to the side as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — with the help of Russia and Iran — wages a war of state terror featuring mass homicide against millions of civilians? Should it make a serious effort to help Palestinians and Israelis find a mutually acceptable way to govern together the tiny strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River? Should it move decisively to end the unspeakable abomination of Yemen? Should it lead diplomatically in the search for peace in Libya? Should it make a good-faith effort to build a bilateral relationship based on trust and confidence with NATO ally Turkey, notwithstanding challenges presented by Turkey’s political elite? Should it seek a modus vivendi with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia notwithstanding the leader of the House of Saud? Should Tunisia’s democratic experiment be permitted to fail?
I have opinions and specific operational suggestions on all these matters and more. If anyone in the new administration were to seek my advice on anything, it would be rendered privately in a way devoid of self-interest and self-promotion. But presenting an unsolicited laundry list of policy recommendations, even via a prestigious media outlet, is a singularly ineffective way of influencing policy.
For this commentator, the human capital of the Middle East will prove either to be a treasure trove of incalculable value or a snake pit of unending, unimaginable danger.
If outside actors have anything at all of value to contribute, perhaps it is in the form of articulating guiding principles. For this commentator, the human capital of the Middle East will prove either to be a treasure trove of incalculable value or a snake pit of unending, unimaginable danger. Larcenous, violent political elites claiming to be anti-terrorism partners of the West are, in fact, digging that pit and feeding the serpents as they seek desperately to present the West with a binary choice: Support us or support al Qaeda because we will be relentless in detaining, torturing, and killing any opposition to us rooted in non-violence, civil society, or any other value we hold in deep contempt. Syria’s Assad made no attempt to disguise this political survival strategy as he helped to staff al Qaeda and the Islamic State by releasing Islamist extremists from prison. His emulators in the region are not as transparent.
The Biden administration would do well in the Middle East to know the enemy: those who rule illegitimately, stealing resources, breaking bodies, and suppressing their betters. The Trump administration did some things well in opposing those enemies affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a criminal conspiracy suppressing a talented, enterprising population base while extending its lawless corruption into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Yet Trump undermined American security interests by communicating hostility toward Islam — political and otherwise — by tolerating murder and mayhem by anti-Iranian leaders eager to purchase armaments and by making it immeasurably more difficult for young Arabs to benefit from American education and society.
If any Biden administration official were to read these words, rather than inundate them with recommendations of dubious operational relevance or practicality, I would instead offer some simple advice. I would earnestly recommend a strong policy emphasis on helping young Arabs achieve their potential so that productive, meaningful, and dignified lives can be lived in their countries of origin, a quality of life permitting nothing in the way of violent extremism to flourish politically. Yes, for some 150 years the United States has benefited from Arab immigrants leaving behind the thieving, violent dysfunction of “leaders” stealing everything within reach and punishing those resisting the larceny. Yes, we should welcome to America those with the drive and determination to leave dysfunction behind, and we should reach out to the young people of the Arab world with student and faculty exchanges and renewed investment in American education — formal and vocational — throughout the Arab world. And yes, we should welcome as refugees those who have fled the murderous rampages of their rulers.
A Middle East ruled illegitimately by the criminally violent will always produce security threats to Americans, especially if the U.S. government is seen in the region as consorting with the enemy. True, relationships must be maintained and self-serving public sermonizing avoided. But bilateral relationships of trust and confidence will be elusive in the absence of private frankness. An empowered Arab youth can help a troubled region graduate, at long last, from the legacy of Ottomanism and the threat of violent extremism. The West, led by the United States, should spare no effort to encourage that empowerment. An overall plan built on this broad premise can indeed survive contact with the enemy and, with patience and persistence, help young Arabs build lives of prosperity and dignity.