As the fallout from the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables continues, one unmistakable conclusion is that the principal tenets of Washington’s foreign policy establishment’s conventional wisdom, not to mention the Obama White House’s public policy positions, have been clearly disconnected from reality in the Middle East. Also apparent, however, is the problematic role which dubious allies played in propping up the administration’s discredited grand narrative.
These shady regional players deliberately fed the illusions back to influential American visitors, especially congressional delegations, thereby manipulating an alternative channel, which, alongside the assurances and admonitions of so-called foreign policy experts, reinforced the administration’s impulse to seemingly dismiss sound counsel and double down on what were clearly bad policy decisions.
The basic conceptual assumptions that have driven the administration’s public positions on Middle Eastern issues were initially distilled in the dreadful 2006 Baker-Hamilton report – the bible of establishment thinking, which was also hailed by the American left as the template for its theology of “engagement.” It was meant to right the wrongs of the Bush presidency, because it was supposedly a grown-up and “reality-based” set of principles. This allegedly “realist” narrative purported to know what the priorities of US regional allies were and what those allies expected of the US.
Several astute analysts realized that it was all a fallacy, and indeed it was quite easy to deduce that from publicly available, open-source material. WikiLeaks has now provided the official confirmation and vindication. For instance, while the conventional wisdom holds that the key regional dynamic is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the threats to US interests and allies, as well as to the stability of the region, directly derive from that conflict, a perusal of the leaked documents shows that the US’s Arab allies privately don’t assign to the Palestinian issue that level of centrality.
Take for instance the following assessment from a meeting between Saudi King Abdullah and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan in March of last year. “A solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict would be a great achievement, the King said, but Iran would find other ways to cause trouble.” So much for the grand strategic theory of linkage.
Similarly, when it came to another dearly held fantasy – namely, engaging Syria and reactivating the Syrian peace track in order to distance Damascus from Tehran – the opinions of US allies ranged from being politely skeptical to explicitly dismissive. When asked about the prospects of Syrian behavior change and movement away from Iran and other unsavory alliances, the Emirati crown prince, Muhammad bin Zayed, didn’t waste too much breath: “I think not,” was his opinion.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak was even less generous, describing the Syrians (and the Qataris) as “sycophants to Tehran” and “liars,” and therefore, he “was not enthusiastic about dealing with the Syrians.” Needless to say, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared both views.
So why then did the Obama administration waste over a year on its Syrian wild goose chase, against the counsel of its closest regional allies? There are a number of reasons, to be sure, but perhaps an important one is the counter-influence of certain questionable regional allies, with even more suspect agendas. A prime example is Qatar.
In order to carve out a role for themselves, the Qataris have staked out positions directly at odds with a number of US interests and allies, hence Mubarak’s uncharitable words against them. To that effect, the Qatari emir has attempted to position himself as a sympathetic interlocutor with Hamas, a personal friend of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and a benefactor to Hezbollah’s fiefdom in South Lebanon. The editorial line of the emir’s Al-Jazeera network clearly reflects that policy.
For a few years now, certain Washington operators have been hailing regional players like the Qataris and the Turks as more effective alternatives to the tired, ineffective old allies in Cairo and Riyadh. The Qataris and Turks were “dynamic” and fell outside the obsolete categories of “moderates” and “extremists.” The US needed to work with them or find itself outmaneuvered and boxed out.
To push their advantage, the Qataris found the bullet points of the Washington establishment’s narrative quite convenient. They identified as useful channels certain American political players, such as Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, and proceeded through them to feed back to Washington the same discredited fantasies, acting as de facto lobbyists for the likes of the Syrians. So whereas all the other allies dismissed the notion of Syria “changing its behavior,” the Qatari emir told Kerry, who is known to have developed a rapport with Assad, that the latter was committed to “big change.”
The cable describing the meeting is surreal, if completely predictable, and feels almost like a read-out of official Syrian propaganda. More distressing is that for over a year, Kerry has been the most enthusiastic advocate of pursuing this illusion. The White House’s policy has more or less done so – and has, predictably, failed miserably.
It is not surprising, therefore, that what emerges from the WikiLeaks dump is a strong confirmation from the US’s closest friends that Qatar and Turkey have been America’s most problematic allies in the region – hardly a revelation.
What is shocking, however, is the extent to which the White House’s official policy for the last two years ignored sound counsel from its close allies in the region. Perhaps this was a result of the administration’s natural inclinations and impulses. However, if it’s not yet abundantly clear, the foreign policy establishment’s discredited, grand strategic template needs to be shelved once and for all.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.