Responding to an interview with author Andrew Bacevich that he finds overly negative, The New York Times' Ross Douthat lays out his case for why American policy in the Middle East over the past 30-plus years has not been so bad. This is the crux of his argument:
The United States had four obvious, inter-related interests in the Middle East: Preventing Soviet domination, preventing the Arab-Israeli conflict from consuming the region, keeping the region’s oil resources in the hands of relatively friendly governments, and avoiding a wave of fundamentalist coups against those same regimes. None of these were made-up anxieties, all of them touched on clear national interests, and we had the examples of three major Arab-Israeli wars in a quarter century, the oil embargo and oil shocks of the 1970s and the Iranian Revolution of the 1979 as illustrations of precisely the kind of outcomes that we wanted to avoid.
And over the next two decades, as American military involvement in the Levant and the Persian Gulf deepened, none of those outcomes were repeated.
Let's take these one at a time. Soviet domination did not occur because within slightly more than a decade from Douthat's starting point, the Soviet Union collapsed. It did so, moreover, for reasons that had nothing to do with our Middle East policy.
On point #2, the Arab-Israeli conflict, I do not at all understand Douthat's argument. (He adds: "Our relationships with Israel and Egypt clearly helped cool Arab-Israeli tensions, and our involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations eventually brought the two sides tantalizingly close to an actual deal.") The last three-plus decades have seen a disastrous war in Lebanon, another bad war in Lebanon, increasing Israeli settlements, Palestinian rejectionism, Intifadas, and Hamas rule in Gaza. (Not to mention another war in Gaza.) That seems easily as bad as the era of three Arab-Israeli wars that Douthat laments, the first of which, the Suez crisis of 1956, the Eisenhower administration very wisely short-circuited by making serious economic threats against Israel's British allies. Not only was this one of the smarter American foreign policy decisions of the Cold War era, but it also occurred at a time when Douthat seems to think we didn't have enough influence.
I suppose he is right about #3, and oil could have ended up in the hands of less friendly regimes. But even putting global warming to one side—which one really can't—does he really think we would be worse off today if we had been forced to go look elsewhere for energy in the late 1970s?
It's true that if you discount Iran, he is right on point #4: There were not a string of fundamentalist coups. However, there was the increasing power of a government in Saudi Arabia that sold us oil but also did a lot of what the worst kind of fundamentalist regimes do. The Saudis spent endless amounts of money on extremist schools that extend all the way to Pakistan, they propped up some very bad regimes in the region, and they helped sustain an extreme version of Islam that has caused America, Europe, and especially the Muslim world no amount of hardship and pain. (They still do all these things.) And the country itself, of course, practices a very theocratic form of authoritarianism.
The points that Douthat makes later in the piece are equally questionable:
Our policy toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq — supplying covert assistance to his regime during the Iran-Iraq War when Iran had gained the upper hand, and then turning against Hussein less than a decade later when he tried to annex Kuwait — did not exactly leave us with clean hands, but in balance-of-power terms it was fairly effective at preventing the emergence of a hostile regional hegemon in first Tehran and then in Baghdad.
I suppose we prevented a regional "hegemon" in some sense, but even if you ignore the catastrophic humanitarian costs of our Iran-Iraq war policy (which included the use of chemical weapons), you still end up facing the fact that Iraq went on to absorb Kuwait, and then to act as a pariah state for the next 12 years. Iran, thanks in part to the stupidity of policies going back to the Carter administration, and continuing on through the second American war with Iraq, has gotten increasingly powerful, and has had a calamitous effect, through its aid to terrorist groups and Syria, on the region as a whole. This is a very poor record.
I do agree with Douthat that it's too glib to say that our support for autocrats in the region "caused" 9/11, although the results of such short-term bargaining don't seem so great. And he is right that unforseen consequences cannot be blamed on policymakers who weren't able to look into the future. But American policy in the Middle East over the past six administrations has, on the whole, left plenty to be desired.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.