The funeral of Qassem Soleimani in Tehran. Photo: (Creative Commons)

The utter pointlessness of America's strategy in the Middle East

Here in Qatar, the assassination of Iran's Qassem Soleimani has been greeted with horror
January 29, 2020

Qatar is an interesting place from which to watch the latest crisis between the US and Iran—which is in turn mixed up with the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which, in turn, contributed to the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain. The US assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, and the increased threat of war between the US and Iran, are regarded with horror here in Qatar; for obvious reasons, since we would be very much in the middle.

Qatar does not favour the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, but has to maintain good working relations with Iran because the two countries share a huge gas field underneath the Persian Gulf. Since the start of the boycott in 2017, Qatar also depends on Iran for an important part of its food supplies. However, by a very Middle Eastern paradox, Qatar also hosts the US air base at Al Udeid, the biggest in the region. Al Udeid would be key to any US attack on Iran, and a legitimate target of any Iranian response—which gives all of us here a strong additional reason to hope that no such attack will occur.

Teaching at the campus of a US university in Qatar also gives some interesting perspectives on the US role in the world. A large majority of my students come from the Arab Middle East and South Asia. It is fair to say that not one of those I have taught has believed that the US represents a “rule-based” or “liberal” order in the world, or is sincerely interested in spreading democracy and freedom. In this part of the world, unlike in Europe, there is nothing in the US historical record to encourage any such belief.

Despite Trump, there is still admiration for the US domestic system; but in its external behaviour it is seen as operating on the same moral plane as Russia and China, only more stupidly. And incidentally, while most people here greatly preferred Obama to Trump, even he did not convince them that the US was an innately good country in its international role; and since Obama’s time, US ally Saudi Arabia has become an even worse regional actor, with a record at least as bad as much-maligned Iran.

Then again, ask the Qatari students whether the US should withdraw from the Middle East in general and Qatar in particular, and their answer is almost unfailingly no. Qataris know that it is the presence of the US air base that provides security against greatly increased pressure from Saudi Arabia.

Were it not for the intense embarrassment it would cause Washington to see the host of a US base crushed by a neighbour, the Trump administration (egged on by Israel) might have allowed Saudi Arabia to strangle Qatar in 2017. On the other hand, Washington’s inability so far to end this dispute between its two key allies in the Gulf emphasises growing US helplessness. Indeed, the position of the US in the Middle East might now be described as one of impotence tempered by assassination.

From here, the US certainly does not appear to be at the root of all the region’s problems. The hatred of Saudi Wahabis for Iranian Shia predates the creation of the US. The conflicts over Kurdish statehood date back to the end of the First World War. While Washington has supported deeply unpleasant regional tyrannies, regimes opposed to the US, like Syria and Libya, have been no less unpleasant. The dreadful failures and oppressions that led to the revolutions of the Arab Spring came from within, as did the failure of those revolutions.

If we can avoid war in the course of this year, and if Trump is defeated in November, then a new Democrat administration would be well-advised to return to President Obama’s recognition that Iran will always have great regional influence, for reasons that cannot be destroyed by the US military; and to acknowledge that Sunni Islamist terrorism, not Iran, has been responsible for every terrorist attack in the US and Europe over the past generation.

The final point about US strategy is its utter long-term pointlessness. As Democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren at least might be able to recognise, the threat of climate change to all existing states makes most contemporary security concerns look at best petty, at worst monstrous distractions. In particular, what will the historians of the future make of a US strategy intended to retain control over oil, a substance which we will in any case have to learn to live without?