The US cannot win the Middle East: six reasons why

USS Porter launches Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase in the Mediterranean Sea. Picture by MCS 3rd Class Ford Williams/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved. This article explores why realist views alone cannot explain the
complexity of insecurity in the Middle East and why internal and
regional conflicts in the Middle East, since 2003, look endless. What
are the alternatives to advocating a single
international relations theory to explain different regions
with different socio-cultural, political, historical, economic, and
security specificities? The Middle East’s particularities can prove
the United States wrong in addressing the region’s problems by
adopting hard-power policies, at least so far, as it did in
Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. 

The end of the Cold War coincided with the shift from inter-state
conflict to intra-state conflicts. Since then the world has witnessed
more conflicts within states than between states. Realists who hold a
power-centric or state-centric understanding of world affairs fail to
predict and explain intra-state issues. Washington continues to deal
with the complex regional insecurity in the Middle East from a
narrowly defined, realist/military-centric, security approach. And
yet again, it is failing to give the right messages, rather, it keeps
sending ‘strong messages’.  The question remains to be
answered whether a multi-layered ongoing security issue in the Middle
East can be fixed by such realist/militaristic approach.

There are at least six interlinked divisive reasons why the United
States cannot win its wars in the Middle East and why its resort to
bombing is not going to resolve the problem. These are: social
issues, societal issues, national issues, political issues, regional
issues, and international issues. The interplay between such
divisions creates extremely complex and unpredictable security
problems, which requires a comprehensive and collective approach.
While these might not be specific to the Middle East, the existence
of all of them in one place is. let us briefly delve into these
divisions one by one.

Social divisions

Academics, elites and policy-makers often neglect the fact that
societies in the Middle East are composed of various classes and
categories each having different expectations and seeking different
socio-political and economic demands.

These demands are socio-historically informed and are changing.
For instance, in Egypt hundreds of thousands including young, well
educated, perhaps liberal Cairenes gathered in Tahrir Square, seeking
democracy and demanding an authoritarian president to resign. They
forced him to do so, neglecting the fact that when elections take
place the following year, millions of Egyptians in small towns and
villages will also participate in the election, mainly and mostly
people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

The election results were considered catastrophic by the same
people who have contested the election, creating a critical division
in the Egyptian society, which yet continues to exist. Another good
example is Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. Iranian reformist
elites considered young middle class Iranians, who had greater access
to internet in big cities such as Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz, as
representing Iran entirely, and their view should determine the
election results. They neglected the fact that these people who form
a large segment of the Iranian society, underdeveloped, less
educated, more traditional, and far from Tehran have different views,
or can be convinced to vote against the reformist candidate. The
result was considered a shock to reformists, and thus caused a major
division between different social classes, each believing it
represents Iran. Such social division, is also present in other
countries in the Middle East, for example between secular and
Islamists in Turkey, between Sunnis of different social classes, be
it merchant or not, in supporting Bashar al Assad in Syria and so

As a result, the gap between people’s expectations based on
their social interests determines what is right and what is wrong in
the many countries of the region. This growing gap, creates an
interest dilemma, when any decision would be considered as a win for
some part of the society and a loss for another. Therefore, in the
absence of democracy, it would be extremely difficult to make
everyone happy in such fragmented societies.

Societal divisions

Societal security is about identities, be it ethnic, religious,
and/or sectarian. The artificially created states, their borders, and
the incomplete process of national identity making undermine the
cohesiveness and unity of the nations in the Middle East. Most of the
identities are transnational, and more importantly are not
represented by their central government, their rights are ignored and
in some cases their existence is not recognised by the dominant
ruling culture.  Tens of millions of Kurds residing in Turkey,
Iraq, Iran and Syria, for instance, are not only historically
oppressed by their governments but also by the neighbouring
governments. They are either attacked or instrumentally employed for
political purposes.

Peoples and their interests
were neglected for so long.

The growing sectarian division, namely the Sunni-Shia conflict in
Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria is shaping the region’s politics
and security. Furthermore, the transnational nature of the region’s
ethnic make-up as well as politicised identities invite neighbouring
countries to interfere in other states’ domestic security affairs.
In other words, in the Middle East, the politically drawn borders do
not represent the societal borders. Turkey and the issue of Kurds in
Syria, Iran and Iraq is just one example. Most of these identity
groups are transnational, territorially located, they are sizable,
politicised and are often supported by a foreign country based on
their ethno-sectarian and/or ideological affiliation. Moreover, the
de-territorialised concept of Ummah which recognises no
border or nationality but Islam as a faith and as the only source of
authority complicates such a complex identity even further. This
increases the likelihood of internationalisation of conflict in the
region, and beyond.

National divisions

This refers to divisions between people and their governments,
regardless of their social and/or societal affiliation. Most of the
states in the region are authoritarian, under different guises,
whether militaristic, religious, ethnic, sectarian, or monarchic.
These governments have hardly been democratically verified by their
people. The region inherited these authoritarians from the advent of
the 20th century, and the emergence of the so-called nation-state,
and were solidified during the Cold War. At that time super powers
considered states in the region as objects that serve their
geo-political interests. As a result, peoples and their interests
were neglected for so long.

The growing gap between people and their governments has resulted
in several revolutions, civil wars, uprisings and coups d'etats
across the region since the advent of the 21st century. People,
empowered by mass communication technology, new media, and education
acquired an increased socio-political awareness, and now demand
greater freedom. Their expectations increased dramatically while
existing governments either cannot or do not want to meet these
expectations. The result is emerging strong societies versus weak
states. The increasing gap between people’s socio-political
expectations and their capabilities to meet these demands has created
a greater gap between people and their governments, further
undermining the state’s legitimacy and greatly empowering people’s
views, seeking what they perceive as a greater human emancipation.

Political division

This refers to the fragmentation of the
political systems. Since most governments in the region are not
necessarily democratically elected, they often rely on army and
security forces to maintain state security. Legitimacy was not sought
by people democratically, and rentier system disengaged states from
people economically. Yet, authorities in the region were also
divided: reformists versus conservatives in Iran, seculars versus
Islamists in Tunisia, or Islamists versus military in Egypt, or also
in Turkey, and fragmentation within the ruling Al-Saud family in
Saudi Arabia, and so on.

The division between the already fragile
states in Baghdad and Beirut is also evident and is manifested not
only between sectarian factions but also divisions within sectarian
political parties and factions. Such political fragmentations and
divisions between different factions within political systems would
not only increase political insecurity in those countries but also
undermines unity and cohesiveness in making a solid and lasting
internal and external political and security policies.

Regional division

Regional rivalry has been present at least since the Arab Cold War
between Egyptian nationalism and Saudi Arabian monarchism, in the
1950s and 1960s. However, it wasn’t until the United States invaded
Iraq in 2003 that the balance of power changed in favour of Iran by
removing the Baathist regime in Iraq, and replacing it with a Shi’a
government close to Iran. 

International powers
have been serving and seeking their national, economic, military, and
political security, but hardly ever pursuing human security.

The rise of Iran’s power and its
influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, have been perceived by
many Arab states and particularly Saudi Arabia as a threat to their
security. Such political rivalry has been translated into a sectarian
language and, since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, into
proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, while In Lebanon and Bahrain,
it has been transformed into political confrontations.  Iran
allied itself with Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, while Saudi
Arabia aligned itself with Turkey and Jordan to implement their
regional policies in any means possible.

International divisions

The current international confrontations between the US and Russia
in the Middle East, and in Ukraine is another international division
that is affecting the region. What makes the aforementioned regional divisions even more
complicated is the presence of major interests of international
powers in the region. The declining power of the United States
internationally, and particularly in the Middle East has coincided
with Russia’s rise to power and its increasing involvement in the
region to serve its geopolitical interests, especially during the
last few years in Syria. The United States’ legitimacy and
credibility has been seriously damaged since the invasion of Iraq in
2003, and its weak performance afterwards in its war on terror.

the other hand, Russia’s allegiance, at least tactically, with Iran
has succeeded in maintaining their interests in Syria and Iraq. Such
international rivalry between the United States and Russia coupled
with the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran created such
a security complex, where each side tends to address their concerns
by mobilising their proxies, and bombing their enemies, often the
other side’s allies. At best, they are coordinating on how, when
and where to bomb, not necessarily to achieve their objectives but,
in fact, to make sure that they are not hitting one another. 

The mere existence of any or a few of the aforementioned divisions
would inevitably lead to insecurity in any region. Interestingly, all
the six interconnected divisions are strongly present in today’s
Middle East. Some of these issues are structural and are
socio-historically constructed, and the interplay between them makes
the case of the Middle East even more complicated. To address these
issues requires adopting a comprehensive approach. The issues
mentioned in this article, may not have been caused by a specific
agency, or by one or two key critical events such as the 2003 Iraq
invasion, or the 2011 Arab uprisings, or even by significant
historical phenomena such as divisions within Islamic denominations,
and the emergence of artificially created nation-states, rather they
are socio-historically constructed.

Nonetheless, no matter how these
security divisions or threats are conceived or perceived, they are
strong, and they do exist. They may be invented, but they are
practiced. Ideologies and identities might be imagined but they are
believed. Borders and states might be artificially created but they
are contested. Bombing and launching missiles may be considered a
strong political message which serves a politician’s domestic
interests, but they can never resolve the regional security complex
in the Middle East. So far, and for so long, international powers
have been serving and seeking their national, economic, military, and
political security, but hardly ever pursuing human security.

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