I well remember sitting through my dreaded methods class at St. Andrews, as I climbed the greasy pole towards my Ph.D. My brilliant professor, a man who was passionate about the art of thinking, told us a story about causation that has always stuck with me. Imagine you are the ubiquitous bird that sits atop a rhino, as is perpetually the case in nature documentaries.
Say the rhinoceros turns to the right, just at the moment his tiny visitor wills him to do so. The rhino has done what the bird wished, but of course the bird had no role whatsoever in making the rhinoceros do so. Two things occurred (the bird’s wish and the rhino’s action) but only one determined the movement. Despite its undoubted great power, American foreign policy often seems like that willful, little bird, convinced it has far more power to determine outcomes than reality dictates.
In other words, humility – even for the world’s greatest single power – matters in the making of foreign policy. So important is the attribute intellectually that when I wrote Ethical Realism with Anatol Lieven we anointed the virtue as one of the key pillars defining a true ethical realist foreign policy. When researching the book, it came as a surprise to me that the great thinker Reinhold Niebuhr composed the Serenity Prayer, “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
We went on to say, to have any real chance to change the world in foreign policy terms, one must – in a real sense – understand the absolute limits of one’s ability to do so. The bulk of the over-mighty American foreign policy establishment – Democrats and Republicans, Wilsonians and Neoconservatives – simply does not possess this understanding.
The Middle East as the theory of the case
Ironically, both the outgoing Trump administration and the in-coming Biden White House start with the same theory of the case in the Middle East; it is not worth the candle. Amounting to the graveyard of presidencies, given the US shale revolution, the rise of the China and the centrality of the Indo-Pacific – both in the terms of the world’s future economic growth and the world’s future political risk – lessening the US’s top-heavy strategic role as American pivots to Asia is a necessary strategic correction.
Of course, this amounts to a matter of degree; no one is seriously calling for the US to have no role in the region, and the well-meaning goal of everyone is to construct a largely self-regulating balance of power in the Middle East over the next few years, ensuring a modicum of stability as the US transfers its focus to the greater geopolitical concern of the Indo-Pacific. Trump would do this through doubling down on support for America’s traditional allies in the region (Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated Gulf states), isolating and diminishing troublesome revolutionary power Iran, thereby containing chaos in the Middle East, leaving US allies in the ascendent.
Joe Biden, mimicking earlier Obama administration efforts, is adopting a very different strategy, based on the common goal of lessening America’s role in the Middle East, while maintaining a modicum of stability. For the current President, Iran must be brought in from the cold, as only when all the region’s great powers are in play (Iran, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) can an organic balance of power emerge, stability be brought about, and America safely lessen its role.
As such, the Biden White House is aggressively engaging Iran in diplomatic terms, through attempting to resurrect the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. At the same time, Biden has distanced himself from long-term allies Saudi Arabia and (to a lesser extent) Israel, in an effort to not be seen playing favorites in the region.
All of this is interesting and illustrates that American strategic foreign policy thinking is often far more coherent and joined-up than it is given credit for. But both Trump’s and Biden’s very different theory of the case in the Middle East lack two basic qualities for success; they evince not a shred of humility, and like the bird on the rhino, fatally assume that they are in charge of the situation in the Middle East. This begs the central, fundamental question: What if they are not?
The regional actors are the rhino, not the US
The Biden and Trump Middle Eastern strategies share another thing in common; both have as a clear goal that the US does less in the region. Of course, the great powers of the Middle East know this and factor it into their own calculations, rightly seeing that they have far more freedom of maneuver as America heads toward the door. They are rhinos, driving much of present situation in the Middle East, even as America acts like the unaware bird, ordering people about without possessing the staying power to make such diktats stick.
A quick tour around the present Middle East makes this abundantly clear. After twenty years and billions of dollars, the US is finally in the process of militarily withdrawing from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the clutches of the Taliban, the same outcome they could have secured two decades ago after routing Al-Qaeda. America’s arrogant and deeply flawed nation-building dream has come to naught.
The administration’s efforts to chasten Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) – the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the country – has also come to nothing. Determined to diminish him, due to Washington’s disapproval of the war in Yemen, as well as his human rights record, as a matter of protocol the White House said MBS should communicate with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (MBS also holds this same title) rather than President Biden himself, who would instead speak with the elderly King Salman. But if the Biden team naively (and arrogantly) thought they could demote MBS, they had another thing coming. To all intents and purposes, he remains the ruler of the most important Sunni state in the Middle East, without whom nothing can be practically accomplished.
Nor has the US moved mountains in bringing Iran back into the regional community of nations as it confidently aims to. Here again, as is true in both Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, it is domestic political imperatives that are the rhino driving foreign policy, not the American bird. Iran has presidential elections scheduled this June. The two favorites for the post, the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi and the conservative Ali Larijani, are far less devoted to the JCPOA than is outgoing, pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani.
Playing to hardline, virulently anti-American Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, both they and the Rouhani government are presently staking out a tough, noncompliant position, saying they will only re-enter the JCPOA and accept its terms if the US removes all sanctions on Iran, and pays Tehran compensation (one assumes in the billions) for the economic harm Trump’s highly effective sanctions caused. Suffice it to say, once again it is the regional great power that has the upper hand.
Finally, the tragic fighting between Israel and Hamas has broken out due to domestic political calculations in both camps, having little directly to do with the US, and over which America cannot turn off the conflict at will. From the Israeli side, the big takeaway is there was an 80% chance that long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would finally be ousted from office before the rocket salvoes began. Now there is a 70-75% chance that he will participate in a fifth general election, as the coalition arrayed against him has broken down over involving Arab Israelis directly in government at the last, critical minute.
The entirely unaware New York Times blared a headline on May 18th, “Biden supports Israel-Gaza Cease-Fire,” as though his (and American) feelings over the issue will determine the state of peace in the region. Arrogant and bird-like, our tour of the Middle East instead shows the limits of American power, and the need for humility.
Back to the rhino and the bird
This analysis is not a call for the US “to do more” (that most vague and dangerous of all foreign policy phrases) in the Middle East, to halt its (rightful) pivot to Asia, or to cease to think it can accomplish things in the world. Far from it. I strongly advocate the US doing less in a region of decreasing importance to America, while I have long championed the pivot to Asia . However, our tour of the Middle East instead highlights that the terms of America doing what it must in making its foreign policy fit for purpose may not include the luxury of leaving the region stable.
But, on second thought, even with a far larger US presence in the region, since when has the Middle East been stable? While outside powers always play a role, generally foreign policy regional balances of power are determined by the regional actors themselves. America’s real choice is whether to do more or less in the thankless Middle East. It is up to the people who live there to determine the rest. Often even the greatest power in the world is a bird on top of the rhino. But it is the rhino that determines which way the region heads.