March 12, 2018

U.S. Policy in the Middle East: A Wise Reset or Tragic Abdication?

Rex Tillerson
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens during a meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Bilateral Coordination Council with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

These remarks were delivered on March 5, 2018 as part of AGSIW Board Member Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm, Jr.’s 2018 Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

The picture I intend to paint for you tonight is not unique to the Middle East. The United States’ withdrawal from a position of global leadership, begun under the Obama administration and continued by the current one, subverts the international system that we have built since the end of World War II. America is walking away from leadership across the world and its decision to do so is drastically shifting power dynamics and threatening our ability to protect our interests abroad. It is no more true than in the Middle East – my focus this evening. The United States is not an unalloyed force for good, but the Middle East needs more and smarter American involvement just as it is getting less.

In the Middle East there is continuity in American goals and even some continuity in means between the Obama and Trump Administrations, rhetoric notwithstanding. But the progressive lessening of American engagement has meant that regional conflicts that the United States could have helped manage, if not resolve, are now growing worse.

It is important first to look at regional developments in 2017 as they create the landscape on which U.S. policy must operate in 2018. I will then look at America’s core interests in the Middle East and how the administration is addressing those interests. Finally, I will note how regional states, particularly our friends, view the current American engagement in the region.

2017 was another dramatic year for the Middle East. Foremost was the end of the Islamic State – at least its physical manifestation. In Syria, regime forces further consolidated control over major portions of the country. Yet, fighting continues including looming clashes between Syrian Kurdish groups supported by U.S. and Turkish forces now invading Syrian border regions all of which belies any near-term solution to Syria’s civil war. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran both strengthened their positions in Syria significantly.

In Iraq, the defeat of the Islamic State structure, as significant as that was, has not ended the terrorist violence perpetrated by Islamic State remnants. The country remains riven by ethnic and religious divisions. Overt Iranian intervention in Iraq’s domestic affairs remains significant – especially with its ongoing support for Shia Iraqi militia groups.

The war in Yemen continues unabated. Outside forces, notably Saudi and Emirati, continue devastating bombings and in-country deployments. Fighting between Houthis and forces backing the “legitimate” government of Yemen intensified, if that is possible. The death toll now exceeds 10,000; but that does not touch the more horrible humanitarian crisis – malnutrition, lack of water and medical support, and a rampant cholera epidemic that has spread to over one million Yemenis! There appears no end in sight.

And dramatically, the Gulf Cooperation Council, composed of six Gulf Arab states, fragmented – shattering an important alliance that has served the security of these states for the last 37 years. The decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain to break relations with Qatar surfaced divisions that have existed for several years but were traditionally discussed “within the family.” This breach in unity not only has political, economic, and humanitarian consequences but serves well the interest of Iran and its desire to dominate the region.

2017 was no partner for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Setback – not progress – seemed the mantel of the year. Everything from Israeli politics and ongoing violence in the West Bank to heightened Israeli security concerns over Hizballah in southern Lebanon (and Syria) and an expanding Iranian influence in Syria, created an environment unconducive to progress toward any peace agreement. The U.S. decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem simply added to the field of negatives.

2017 was not kind to Egypt either. Ongoing violence and especially the ability of radical elements to challenge Egyptian authority are of great concern as are many human rights issues. Its economic situation remains dire.

It is on this landscape that the United States must act to preserve its interests. It is worth recalling the interests that the United States has consistently articulated in the region: fighting terrorism, maintaining the flow of oil (and gas) to global markets, protecting Israel, and (intermittently) promoting democracy and human rights.

These core interests have been at the forefront of U.S. policy decisions for decades, and do not in and of themselves represent a novel shift on the part of the new administration – despite the rhetoric. However, the strategies and approaches to protecting these interests, as well as the value placed on them, arguably have shifted. Let’s examine these four interests from the perspective of continuity and change.


The U.S. fight against terrorism and very specifically the Islamic State was a high priority for both the Obama and Trump administrations. It was the Obama administration that made the decision to expand our military presence in Syria and authorize our forces to be closer to the action. The current administration ramped up that presence further (now 2,000 troops) and issued more aggressive rules of engagement. An example of this more assertive policy was Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to regime use of chemical weapons –ironically, enforcing the red line that Obama drew and then ignored.

Yet, despite the territorial and political decline of the Islamic State, the terrorist threat in 2018 remains stark and decidedly threatening. Defeat of a territorial state is not a defeat of the ideology that spawned that state. That ideology is real and remains potent. Since the fall of Raqqa (the Islamic State’s de facto capital) we see an ongoing capacity of groups committed to the Islamic State ideology to perpetrate deadly attacks – very specifically in Iraq and Syria but further afield in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya not to mention in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The ability of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to destabilize countries and thus thwart reconstruction and political progress is a threat to our interests as well as to the states in the region.

So how does the present administration assess the continued threat from terrorism in the region? The Pentagon just issued a new National Defense Strategy in which it concludes “interstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” In stark contradiction the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s recent worldwide threat report to the Senate noted: “ISIS has started–and probably will maintain–a robust insurgency in Iraq and Syria,” and it sees the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda) as a continued significant threat to U.S. interests not only in the Middle East, but globally. Such a divergent assessment is not a good foundation for sound policy or for developing a plan of action.

That being said, the administration has stated that it will continue to maintain a military presence in northeast Syria in support of the forces that we have worked with in the past. It appears intent to continue its aggressive military actions given the recent engagement with Syrian forces resulting in the deaths of a considerable number of Russian mercenaries. The administration has indicated it will continue to train and assist Iraqi government forces though there has also been talk of reducing our presence in Iraq. Yet, maintaining a military force in the region does not deal with the underlying cause of the troubles in both Syria and Iraq – the failure of both governments to address the reasonable concerns of their Sunni populations. Military force itself will not undermine the potent jihadist ideology that remains and the administration has not, up until now, articulated a clear policy to deal with the ideological threat.

Oil and Gas

A second interest – maintaining the unobstructed flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to world markets – remains high priority for the United States. Notwithstanding America’s ability to produce oil in quantities unthought of 10 years ago, the United States remains a major importer of oil and the global oil market is interdependent – meaning that the global price of oil is dependent on supply against demand. With approximately 50 percent of global oil reserves and 40 percent of the world’s proven gas reserves located in the Persian Gulf, it remains critical to the global economy – and, derivatively, the U.S. economy – that production from the Gulf flow unimpeded to the global market.

For this reason, the United States has consistently opposed the domination of the Gulf by a hostile power – be it Iraq under Saddam Hussein or Iran as an Islamic state. The United States has and continues to maintain a significant military presence in the Gulf. We have military agreements with most of the GCC states that include U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar, an Army and Air Force presence in Kuwait, the 5th Fleet naval headquarters in Bahrain, and regular naval visits and deployments in the UAE. Our military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Oman is strong.

The GCC states are our military partners in the Gulf – hence the rift within the GCC is a major concern. Sadly, it does not appear to be headed toward a resolution in the near term. While the GCC division has not impacted the U.S. military presence and capability in the region specifically, the disagreement between U.S. Gulf allies has undermined the ability of the United States to coordinate and work with the GCC as a group. A good example was the cancellation of a joint exercise last year as some states refused to participate with others. Similarly, normal efforts to plan and discuss common threats have had to be cancelled essentially for the same reasons.

A resolution of the GCC controversy is, therefore, important for the United States. The only country that benefits from this division is Iran. It is critical, therefore, that the United States work to reconcile the parties. Hence, it is crucial that the United States avoid actions or statements that might compromise our ability to work with all parties to the extent that we can. The president’s remarks last June, when this crisis first emerged, attacking Qatar for supporting terrorism placed us squarely with one party to the rift. Subsequently, other administration officials, who know the region and the parties, made more balanced statements. The president’s recent actions including a phone call to the emir of Qatar and the recent Strategic Security Review with Qatar here in Washington appear to have effectively reset the U.S. position. Just this past week the president initiated phone calls to the three primary parties in efforts to nudge them toward reconciliation. Nevertheless, such erratic shifts and a lack of a clear and coherent policy undermine our position in the region. It not only makes our allies uneasy; it weakens our credibility and influence, which in turn renders the United States an unpredictable and even unreliable actor.


The security of Israel and a peaceful, lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are core U.S. interests in the Middle East. Our commitment to Israel has never been in doubt. This administration, as administrations before it, has emphasized the centrality of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the importance of finding a solution to the Palestinian question. Yet, the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move our embassy there is a dramatic change from past policy.

It is difficult to impossible to see how this decision advances the peace process. Administration officials argue that this move will provoke positive movement in a gridlocked peace process; but they have offered no specifics, as yet, as to how this will happen. Other observers, including virtually all previous American Middle East negotiators, describe the move in hugely negative terms. Governments in the region have attacked the decision. In addition, there are moves in Congress to curtail aid to the Palestinian Authority or to nongovernmental organizations assisting in humanitarian aid. These actions will not advance the peace process. In fact, they will further exacerbate the U.S. relationship with one of the two parties. More importantly, curtailing U.S. assistance will hurt innocent civilians and has the potential of intensifying resistance, even violence, in the occupied territories.

Human Rights

In the area of human rights and efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, there is a notable difference in the Trump administration’s approach. The administration made clear early on that human rights would not be a major focus of U.S. policy in the region. This declaration came as music to the ears of a number of regional leaders who resented the criticism and pressure from the Obama administration. In the region, governments have clamped down on opposition figures and moved to curtail speech and assembly. Washington has been uncharacteristically silent. Clearly, leaders in the region understand that their actions are not going to result in either public criticism or restrictions on assistance or arms sales, as was the case under Obama.

The U.S. decision to de-emphasize or ignore human rights violations in the region is not without costs. One only needs to note Egyptian government arrests or detentions of persons who announced or even considered running against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming presidential election. Now, I admit that through the years populations in the region have become very cynical about U.S. policy on human rights. Yet, my conversations in the region convince me that people continue to believe that the United States values basic human rights and democratic values. Their despair is that, if the United States does not advocate for human rights and democratic values, there is no other country that will or can do so with effect.

Any assessment of U.S. policy and its effectiveness in the region needs to consider the perceptions of the governments and people in the region. Since the beginning of the year, I traveled twice to the Middle East, specifically to Kuwait, Jordan, and Oman. I spoke with officials and private citizens and was struck by their perceptions of the United States. Foremost was a pervasive perception that the United States is no longer present in the region as before. They contrast the previous active American engagement and, frankly, influence on virtually all issues that arose in the region with a much diminished, even absence, of presence in most current matters today.

For example, they acknowledge the very active engagement of the United States in combating the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria but point immediately to how Russia has usurped a pre-eminent position in Syria – both by its active military engagement and critical political support for the Syrian regime. They point also to the ongoing tripartite negotiations led by Russia with Turkey and Iran that virtually excludes the United States. How is that possible, they ask? They harken back to the Obama decision not to attack the Syrian regime when it crossed his red line in using chemical weapons seeing it as the harbinger for American inaction or passivity in Syria. They point to confusion in the American approach toward the Syrian resistance groups and the failure of the United States both to assist them with weapons and to demand more discipline among our Arab allies. The latter criticism refers to the failure of the Gulf Arab nations to coordinate their support toward various Syrian factions that led to their fighting each other rather than the regime.

A far more serious issue underlies our allies’ concern. In abandoning our historically consistent and far-reaching presence in the region, the future looks all the more uncertain for our allies. Our friends in the region see no power with the resources and interest to fill the gaps we leave behind in our pursuit of an “America First” policy.

Repeatedly I heard anxiety and despair that America’s passivity has created vacuums – voids – that are being filled by hostile, overtly self-serving powers like Russia and Iran or even regional actors who demand subservience on the part of weaker regional states. So, enter Russia and Iran in Syria – Turkey as well; Turkey and Iran in Iraq; Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. The phenomenon they are addressing is worth serious note.

There is a second consequence to our withdrawal. When powers in the region – even our allies – sense that the United States is not going to take the lead, or be active, in supporting mutual interests, those regional powers act unilaterally in their own self-interest. Their actions are not necessarily good for U.S. interests.

The best example is Syria. In the absence of U.S. leadership to pull regional support toward particular resistance groups, regional states found the groups that seemed most likely to carry out actions that benefited them. Consequently, as I said before, several Gulf states supported different Syrian factions that ended up fighting each other.

Yemen serves as yet another example. The United States was active in early days in efforts to bridge differences within the Yemeni political scene. We also supported GCC diplomatic initiatives. Unfortunately, as the internal security situation deteriorated, we had to close our embassy – greatly impacting our ability to remain engaged with the various factions.

One story that I heard in the region highlights the perception of U.S. passivity and the consequent decision of a regional state to act in its perceived interest. Purportedly, the UAE asked the Obama administration for logistical support for an intervention in Yemen. The UAE argued that a disintegrating state on the Arabian Peninsula was a strategic threat to the region. They were also concerned over both the Iranian involvement and the success that al-Qaeda was having amid the chaos and lack of central government authority. When Obama refused, the UAE decided to go it alone.

Presently both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are engaged militarily to achieve what they perceive are their national interests. Yet, the use of military force has not yet led, and is unlikely to lead, to success. The situation in Yemen is an example of a regional issue that the United States could have helped manage had it remained seriously engaged. Instead we suborned our interest to those of two regional states.

Most certainly the crisis most often mentioned during my visits was, in fact, the one between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain on the other. No one blamed the United States for the rupture; but they questioned U.S. actions that at first seemed to support the Saudi/UAE position and then turned in the direction of Qatar.

So, concern about America’s presence in the region – or lack thereof – is compounded by uncertainty of what really is America’s position on any particular issue, for example, U.S. policy on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the multilateral agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. They are talking about clarity. They point to conflicting statements by administration officials and inevitably mention presidential tweets. They are confused. More importantly they are increasingly fearful over the inconsistency in American policy. Will the U.S. policy today be the U.S. policy tomorrow? Our friends question whether they will be left adrift tomorrow even if they have good standing in Washington today.

So, in light of these observations, is American policy in the region a wise reset or tragic abdication? On three issues one could argue that the current administration is attempting to reset U.S. policy: on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, relations with Iran, and human rights. In my opinion in all three areas the policies advocated by the administration actually undercut our vital interests. The decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in the absence of any positive Israeli action was not only a wasted asset but an act that undermined the credibility of the United States as a broker for peace.

Regarding Iran, the current administration has taken a far more aggressive and confrontational approach. I certainly see Iran as a threat – and a growing one – to U.S. interests in the region whether that be its success in expanding its political influence or its increased military cooperation with Syria and Hizballah. But the constant threat to terminate the JCPOA (if it is not renegotiated) is detrimental to controlling Iran’s nuclear program as well as playing into the hands of Iranian hard-liners. I am not denigrating concerns about Iran’s missile program or its long-term desire to dominate the region; but those issues can be dealt with without terminating the nuclear agreement. In my opinion the United States needs to have a more pragmatic policy toward Iran. Iran is a regional state with valid interests. Approaching Iran, perhaps collectively with our allies, and searching for areas of common interests are arguably more likely to serve our long-term interests than confrontation.

On human rights America must stand firm on the principles that we fought for when we founded our country and that we have defended in many wars since. We need to speak up when actions by our friends transgress the acceptable. They need to feel pressure when they take such actions – such as the indiscriminate bombing in Yemen or the arrests of Egyptians who sought to run for president against the incumbent.

As to abdication, I go back to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq and the inexcusable postinvasion policies that left Iraq ransacked and ethnically divided. As the Bush administration was coming to a close, there were growing demands from a variety of political groups in Iraq for the departure of American troops. Obama ultimately did withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. In doing so, we abdicated any role or responsibility for what we had created. The Obama administration decisions that left U.S. policy in Syria adrift did, in fact, create an opportunity for Russia and Iran, which they capitalized on adroitly. The situation in Syria cannot be walked back. The Russians are there. What is done is done. Our friends accurately describe the consequences of our disengagement – emboldened regional and global actors driven by their specific interests seizing opportunities to our detriment.

Yet, while admitting the difficulty of walking back the situation in the region as it exists today, it is still possible to take actions that reassert our interests and our engagement. Recovery of our position in the region starts with an unequivocal decision to re-engage in pursuit of our interests. It requires that we identify those interests clearly, articulate our determination, and lead. Our friends in the region will respond positively to a reassertion of U.S. engagement. Admittedly, the United States has often been criticized for its actions in the region; but that does not negate the truth that our friends desire to see an engaged U.S. presence and leadership. American leadership can be effective if we are clear about our objectives and about our willingness to engage and remain engaged. We must be willing to apply appropriate pressure when pressure is appropriate, especially on human rights! We have led coalitions before and we can do so again; but the bottom line is that the United States must be prepared to lead. If we aren’t, then the vacuum will be filled by those hostile to our interests. The cost to us at that point will be significantly higher than that of leadership re-engagement today.

These remarks were delivered on March 5, 2018 as part of Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm, Jr.’s 2018 Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Ambassador Edward W. Gnehm, Jr. is a a board member at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.