By Lawrence Philby
The Blob likes to think of itself as a vast marketplace of ideas – think tanks, academics, pundits and politicians each offering their thoughts on the best course for US foreign policy, with the best of the lot winning out.
Yet this marketplace is governed less by the content of the ideas themselves and more by the intellectual pedigree of those expressing them. The same familiar faces debate the same general worldview, shrugging off outside perspectives unless couched in such a way as to preclude any real change.
To the blob, radical change proposed by outsiders is unrealistic, mere fantasies put forward by individuals who can’t see the big picture. Even the Blob can wobble under the strain of its own fatigue, however, as evidenced by the world-weary jeremiad that Martin Indyk published in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, January 17th.
When a former Ambassador to Israel, former Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former Vice President of the Brookings Institution, and distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations gets top Sunday-op-ed billing to tell us that “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore,” every national-security intellectual in the land sits up and takes notice.
The ideas in the article are hardly ground-breaking. Indyk is hardly the first to suggest that the United States has little to show for the destruction wrought by decades of highly militarized engagement with and autocracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa, and that maybe some restraint is in order.
In short, oil supplies from the Persian Gulf no longer hold the supreme importance to the American Empire that they once did, while even Israel’s staunchest supporters within the United States can rest assured that “the Jewish state’s… survival is no longer in question.”
As a result, the time has come for the United States “to eschew never-ending wars and grandiose objectives… in favor of more limited objectives.” Other countries can patrol Gulf shipping lanes, a renewed Iran deal can curtail a nuclear threat, local partners can handle their own balancing and deterrence, and Israel can defend itself – as well as decide whether it ever wants a meaningful resolution to the status of the Palestinian territories.
Credit where credit is due – Indyk has shown a willingness to revise his thinking and speak accordingly. This article will no doubt prompt yet further consideration of US military presence in the region, if only to push back against Indyk’s claims
Yet two features of this op-ed speak to the intellectual poverty of much of the US foreign-policy establishment, and a marketplace of ideas driven by personalities rather than the merits of proposals.
The first is an unwillingness to truly grapple with the choices of the past.
Setting aside the complicated evolution of his views on the US-Israel relationship, Martin Indyk was the principal architect of a “dual containment” strategy of simultaneously confronting Iraq and Iran under the Clinton administration, starting in 1993. This in turn helped commit the United States to an ever-more-expensive security presence in the Gulf while laying the intellectual groundwork for the wrecking of Iraq and the erratic ebb and flow of confrontation and engagement with Iran. Unsurprisingly, Indyk (newly out of office after stints as Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Sec. State for Near East Affairs) and others at the Brookings Institution spent the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq gaming out the best way of doing so, rather than questioning whether the removal of Saddam “would [indeed!] be a good thing.”
Understanding why so many otherwise-skeptical DC denizens chose to bandwagon with neocon hawks in the run-up to the Iraq War, acknowledging their regrets at doing so, and suggesting ways to avoid the same kind of group-think in the future would be a useful exercise for Indyk, for his readers, and for the broader cause of de-militarizing US involvement in the region.
As recently as 18 months ago, for example, Indyk made a quite similar diagnosis of shifting American interests in the region (shale gas revolution + limited influence over Israel), yet still contended that “What happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. It comes after you,” arguing for more sustained “US diplomatic leadership.”
Instead of finding fault with decades of US policy in the Middle East, we hear of leaders who “vacillated” rather than taking decisive action – Obama’s refusal to abide by a red line in Syria, Trump’s demolishing of the Iran Deal without having any idea of how to follow it up. One gets the sense that if only US leaders could simply override the popular will, all would be well in US foreign policy.
This in turn sets up a second problematic feature of the article – a “my-way-or-the-highway” distinction between full-bore military engagement and a full-bore withdrawal that fails to imagine any other relationship with the countries of Middle East and North Africa.
The lesson of Vietnam is not, as Indyk suggests (quoting Kissinger), that the United State vacillates between “exuberance and exhaustion” of its own accord, but rather that efforts to maximize US power and influence are precisely what exhaust the US public and scuttle chances for limiting our destructive footprint abroad.
Indyk notes that the United States “cannot afford to turn our backs on the Middle East,” but stops short of imagining what “more limited goals” might be.
The cult of the status quo thus appears to have snookered itself. By relentlessly straw-manning criticism of America’s forever wars as outright abandonment of any foreign policy, the leading lights of Blobius Maximus can only turn to blunt isolationism when the fatigue of unsustainable war-making finally catches up with them.
The lesson for a left foreign policy, unfortunately, is that new approaches face a high bar in outmaneuvering the stasis of the Blob. The broad goals of ending forever wars and demilitarizing US diplomacy in turn demand specific proposals that wind down US security commitments, build solidarity with those who seek individual freedoms abroad, and help generate prosperity abroad without generating fatal backlash at home.
This is a tall order. So long as the Blob stands, any failure by a left-sympathetic administration to enact this vision suggests that the sentinels of the status quo will otherwise hold firm to the last before claiming that their ideas were right but that the world has changed, retaining controls of the commanding heights of the foreign policy ideas industry. It must come from people who realize that these failures long predate any “structural shift” in American interests, and extend far beyond the decision to invade Iraq in 2002-3. Hence the aim of this blog – shape the discourse, enact policies, achieve success, change the world.
Lawrence Philby is an occasional literary translator as well as a student of power and policymaking.