Time to Rethink US Mideast Policies

U.S. policy toward the Middle East carries an extraordinary burden of strategically outdated and politically overweight baggage, from oil deals with Saudi Arabia to emotional ties to Israel. What’s needed now is a thorough reexamination of what’s in the U.S. national interest, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

There is much to be said for what is commonly called a “zero-based review”, a fresh look at a problem or project unencumbered by existing assumptions and practices. Just about any organization or mission could benefit periodically from such an assessment, to make possible the removal of accumulated historical impedimenta. This is true of U.S. foreign policy, which exhibits far more continuity than is often assumed.

Failure to perceive that continuity stems from the tendency to think in a more disjointed way in terms of presidential administrations. “Doctrines” get attributed to different presidents whether or not the presidents themselves have spoken in such terms. If an administration does not seem doctrinal enough and distinctive enough to pundits, it is apt to be criticized for having “no strategy.” Continuity from one administration to another is not expected and is even rejected.

President Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May 20, 2011 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May 20, 2011 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

The underlying continuity that nevertheless exists is partly a reflection of, and a sensible response to, constancy in fundamental U.S. interests and in the constraints the country faces in pursuing those interests. That’s good. But it also partly reflects adherence to certain familiar beliefs, themes, and objectives simply because those beliefs, themes, and objectives have always been there, at least in living memory, and it would be difficult and politically costly to challenge them. And that’s not good.

That latter pattern certainly has been true of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, a region of especially costly U.S. involvement. Modern U.S. involvement in the area could be said to have been launched with Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of today’s Saudi Arabia, on a U.S. warship in the Great Bitter Lake during the closing months of World War II.

The involvement enlarged as the United States displaced the United Kingdom as the principal outside power in the area while the British shed their obligations “east of Suez.” American attitudes and assumptions toward the Middle East, and thus U.S. policies toward the Middle East, have ever since been weighed down by accumulating historical baggage. Several events and factors have formed a large part of that baggage, including in no particular order the following.

The oil bargain. The understanding reached in that meeting between FDR and Ibn Saud, involving U.S. support for the Saudi state in return for an uninterrupted flow of oil and other considerations, has long outlasted conditions that may have made it understandable at the time. This was true even before the U.S. shale oil revolution, which at least has generated commentary about how a lessening of U.S. dependency on Middle East oil may make appropriate some rethinking of policy toward the region. Despite such commentary, the political distortions caused by the oil bargain persist.

In any other historical context it would be bizarre for the United States to treat as a coddled ally a state that not only is a family-ruled authoritarian enterprise with zero freedom of religion and based on an intolerant ideology that is a basis for violent jihadi extremism but also more recently has been a destabilizing factor as the family pursues its own vendettas and narrow interests in other Middle Eastern states. This sort of baggage also has sucked the United States further into taking sides in sectarian rivalries in which it has no interest.

9/11. That one piece of severe national trauma 14 years ago has left an indelible imprint on American thinking about the Middle East, terrorism, and U.S. responses, with nary a thought about how trauma-induced reactions to single events are not necessarily a good basis for constructing sound policy on wider questions. Popular views of 9/11, more so than the actual history of the attack and its preparation, have cemented in American minds the belief that any patch of faraway real estate controlled by radical Arabs represents a threat to the U.S. homeland.

The waging of a “war on terror” has meant that the combination of traditional dichotomous American attitudes toward war and peace and the ubiquitous and continuous use of terrorism as a tactic has made unending U.S. involvement in warfare in this part of the world the new normal. It also has led to perceptions of, and alarm about, the group calling itself Islamic State that disregard the major differences in strategy (and specifically strategy involving the United States) between it and Al Qaeda, the group that perpetrated 9/11.

The Tehran hostage crisis. There are multiple reasons that Iran occupies the place of primary bête noire in American discourse, but the big crisis that occurred shortly after the Islamic Republic’s creation deserves to be singled out as setting the attitudinal stage for everything else that followed. Certainly the hostage-taking was shockingly reprehensible, and it is hard to think of a worse way to start off a relationship with a new regime.

The lasting result has been major distortion, long ago molded into conventional wisdom, about many popular American beliefs associated with Iran. This has included assumptions about Iranian intentions whether or not the Iranians actually have them, and assumptions about Iranian objectives automatically conflicting with U.S. interests whether or not they actually do.

The set of attitudes also has entailed looking at the Middle East in terms of rigid line-ups in which Iran is always on, and even the leader of, forces hostile to good guys and the United States, whether or not that’s really the way politics in the Middle East work or most Middle Easterners really think.

The Israeli relationship. Given the outsized role in American politics of those who work on behalf of the objectives of the Israeli government, it is inevitable that the roots of much of what can be described as attitudinal distortion about the Middle East can be found here. Admittedly, we are talking more about sheer political power and political fears in the here-and-now than about historical baggage.

But the history aids the perception-molding efforts of the lobby in question, in the sense that it has helped to mask changes over time that have made the extraordinary U.S.-Israeli relationship even less justifiable than it may have been in the past. The evolution in question has been one from a plucky little Jewish state, created in the shadow of the Holocaust and besieged by neighbors, to the militarily dominant power of the Middle East, which repeatedly throws its weight around with disregard for the sovereignty and security of others.

It is a state that has moved ever farther from any commonality with laudable American values, given its maintenance of an apartheid system with a large subject population being denied political rights, and the increasing influence, including influence on Israeli policy, of racial and ethnic exclusivity and intolerance.

The Iraq War. Even though the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was such a monumental blunder that all except for a few diehard supporters of that war now acknowledge it was a mistake, American attitudes and discourse are still distorted by that departure, and not primarily in a reactive, Iraq-War-syndrome sort of way. Something extreme, even if a failure, can shift the whole frame of reference for debate and discourse in a direction that makes other ideas appear less extreme than they otherwise would have seemed.

With the United States having taken just 12 years ago the extreme step of launching a major war of aggression, it is now accepted as respectable to talk about overthrowing other governments in the region by force if we don’t happen to like them. The Iraq War has left other baggage as well, including more of a proprietary sense about Iraq itself than U.S. interests would ever warrant and a continuing expectation, ignoring the sunk nature of sunk costs, that we still must not “lose” Iraq.

We also are still collectively prisoners of the sales campaign for the war, which emphasized purported weapons of mass destruction, even though that was neither the real reason for launching the war nor logically a sufficient justification for doing so, in that when some other government we don’t like has even a suspected weapons program this is taken as a reason to start talking about the need to do something about it, including something forceful.

The whole history of heavy U.S. involvement in the region. Many things feed on themselves, and U.S. involvement, including military involvement, in the Middle East is one of those things. The fact of what is now prolonged U.S. involvement there, along with more specific events and considerations such as the ones mentioned above, has inured American politicians and the American public to such involvement and to the prospect of still more such involvement.

The burden of proof has shifted, however unjustifiably, from those who argue for additional costly endeavors to those who might question whether U.S. interests would justify the costs.

A zero-based review would yield a U.S. policy toward the Middle East appreciably different from the U.S. policies that have prevailed in recent decades. A review-based policy would not approach the region in terms of line-ups of “allies” and adversaries but instead would use U.S. policy instruments more flexibly to advance U.S. interests through different types of interactions, involving both sticks and carrots, with all the states of the region.

It would reflect current realities more than old bargains or old emotional relationships. It would apply a non-emotional calculation to how activity in the region, including extremist activity, does or does not affect the security of Americans. It almost certainly would entail fewer costly commitments and operations in the region than has actually been the case.

We are not likely to get that kind of policy. If an administration were to undertake a real zero-based review behind closed doors, it quickly would run up against political barriers. Apolitical policy planners would get trumped by political advisers.

We get some hint of the dynamics involved with the difficulty that the current president, who has shown signs of wanting to break away from some prevailing U.S. approaches to the region, has had in doing so, including the difficulty in accomplishing his “pivot” to East Asia.

There also is a larger lesson here about democratic societies and foreign policy. The main knock against democracies regarding their ability to run a coherent and effective foreign policy has involved inconsistency due to passions of the moment and the inability to take a long term view.

The United States certainly has provided material that would support this criticism, with lurches such as those we saw after 9/11. But another possible democratic weakness, one especially marked in the United States, with suffocating effects of public opinion similar to ones Tocqueville observed long ago, involves not too much propensity to change but too little.

With limits to policy being set by deeply entrenched popular attitudes and beliefs that democratically elected politicians continually recite, the history that gave rise to those attitudes and beliefs is a heavy restraint on any leader who might see the wisdom of following a different path.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

15 comments for “Time to Rethink US Mideast Policies

  1. alexander
    July 10, 2015 at 12:11

    Thank you for an excellent article, Mr Pillar,

    Certainly one of the more pernicious aspects to our ” War on Terror”, has been the willingness to fight wars without declaring them , a very sneaky way to circumvent all the war profiteering statutes that FDR sought to impose (to discourage war), after World War Two.
    Nobody in Congress has yet to prescribe restrictions on our ” War on Terror” profiteering .even though our National Debt has run from under 6 trillion in 2000 to 18.26 trillion today.
    I wonder why that is ?
    It would be interesting to see what the ratio of ‘actual costs to profits has been over the last thirteen years in our “noble war on terror”.

    People seem to forget that no one is supposed to make money from war, AT ALL !

    For many, the current alignment of our policies is with “war perpetuation”, a continuous unrelenting cycle of violence that never ends !

    “War on Terror Profiteering Statutes”, were we to enact them, would have a PROFOUND effect on our desire to END wars, not just start and never finish them !

    If there is no money in sticking around, better to get it done…. fast !

    It would also be an superb tonic to be more circumspect in starting them to begin with !

    Certainly the Neocon mindset of aggressive war and war profiteering has been (among other things) “a reign of Terror” on our Nations balance sheet.

    Given their willingness to defraud us into war , profit from it…and never stop….one has to question at what point ,when we point and say “terrorist”…why we shouldn’t be pointing at THEM?

    • Mortimer
      July 13, 2015 at 11:25

      Alexander, this just in… … …

      Read all about it here:

  2. Uncle Sam's concerned brother
    July 10, 2015 at 07:06

    Mr. Pillar,

    It seems like culture, as influenced by human nature and instinct, are all often left out of our conversations concerning foreign policy and military actions. That is understandable considering our politicians and news media don’t really want us to know what goes on behind the scenes — it is part of “their culture” to only mention culture, human nature and instinct to denigrate their enemy or tell lies about their own motivations. Your article did go behind the scenes on a broad spectrum, making it easier for people to see how and why some of the pieces of these puzzles fit together. Thanks for that…

  3. Joe Tedesky
    July 9, 2015 at 16:57

    “War, because it has been made entirely by businesses rather than by the people. Had it pursued a humanitarian policy of international development, it would have lifted half the world from poverty and disease, and would have few enemies.”

    John B. with words like that you would have my vote if you were running for office. I liked the efficiency of how you think. Good going!

    here is a link to another great article about the U.S. and the Middle East (it’s long but good)


  4. John B
    July 9, 2015 at 15:18

    It should be noted that the US caused the Iranian revolution, by overthrowing their democracy in 1953 to install the dictator Shah and get 40% of the British oil concession, and can hardly deplore the inevitable revolution nor the embassy hostage crisis, entirely of its own making.

    US foreign policy has been a disaster since at least the middle of the Korean War, because it has been made entirely by businesses rather than by the people. Had it pursued a humanitarian policy of international development, it would have lifted half the world from poverty and disease, and would have few enemies. The right-wing pretense of defense by creating foreign enemies, has indeed made the US the enemy of most of the world, ruined its industry, and has ruined the constitutional protections and even the financial security of the people. So long as our elections and mass media are controlled by money, there shall be no re-thinking of foreign policy, no attempt to align policy with the goals of humanity or even of the US population. But it is well to notify the few able to think independently, as the article does admirably.

  5. July 9, 2015 at 13:53

    I agree with all of the comments made here.

    However, no such review of US mid-east policy will take place as long as the “inmates are running the asylum”. US long-standing ties with both Saudi Arabia and Israel should have been jettisoned years ago. In fact, the ties with Israel should have been never initiated in the first place.

    Despite this, the US is very much out of options on the world stage for one primary reason; it gave up in its near entirety its own power-house manufacturing base so that a handful of corporate executives could make unimaginable profits by the subsequent outsourcing. As a result, the US has nothing of any real value to offer the rest of the world anymore since the status of the “Made in USA” stamp is long gone.

    What is left is political maneuvering and the Armed Forces, neither of which can carry a country only so far; witness the now sad fate of Ukraine.

    There is no doubt that if the United States does not begin re-building its own infrastructure and manufacturing base it will suffer the severe consequences of continuing decline. However, with fools such as Obama at the helm that makes public pronouncements that he may scuttle the current US-Iran negotiations since there is now (according to him) only a 50-50 chance of them succeeding demonstrates the utter lack of sincere leadership that the US citizenry is suffering under; some of which was very much self-inflicted by so many ignorant voters…

    • Uncle Sam's uncle
      July 9, 2015 at 17:47

      I agree with you post but would give the voters a bit of a break as:

      (1) They’re only given bad and worse choices as candidates.

      (2) The news they receive is 90% propaganda or worse on many important issues.

      (3) They don’t even know the alternative news sites exist — or that alternative news is generally more credible than mass-media networks.

      It is unfortunate, but if the public were truthfully informed by design instead of being purposely misinformed and manipulated, they might even manage to select someone that would honestly represent their best interests.

      plenty of blame to throw around here…

  6. Abe
    July 9, 2015 at 12:00

    Kurtz: “Are my methods unsound?”

    Willard: “I don’t see any method at all, sir.”

    Apocalypse Now

  7. Abe
    July 9, 2015 at 11:53

    Saudi Arabia’s lack of reliable allies stands for good reason. Bandar’s gloating about Riyadh’s role in creating and controlling some of the most vicious terrorist organizations on Earth confirms what has been reported elsewhere across both the alternative and even mainstream press. It also confirms that while Washington, London and Brussels disingenuously wring their hands about the threat of “Islamists,” they are allied closest with the very nation responsible for this very threat.

    Why Putin Can Refuse

    Russia’s resurgence as a global power is underpinned not on Saudi oil or the lack of terrorism in the Caucasus region, but instead underpinned by its growing relationship with other members of the BRICS association as well as other nations throughout the developing world who are quickly gaining ground versus traditional global power brokers.

    Brazil, India, China, and South Africa have all found themselves on the receiving end of similar pressure from Washington and London, though arguably to a lesser extent. Their combined economies and populations provide a market Russia has been incrementally transitioning to serve, outside of the confines and extortion imposed upon it dealing with the West. Likewise, other nations across the developing world are increasingly aware of this shifting balance of power and are seeking ways out of compromises they previously made to placate foreign interests that would otherwise eviscerate their nations much as has been done to Libya, Syria and Iraq.

    Additionally, despite the pressure of sanctions and Saudi Arabia’s oil price-fixing, Russia has attempted to continue reaching out to European nations in the hopes of working around derailed pipeline deals and other disruptions intentionally created and aimed at Moscow. Russia has done this with varying degrees of success, all while cultivating a policy of national self-reliance.

    The European Union itself is also suffering under the sanctions imposed on Russia, ironically, and many nations have attempted to undermine or circumvent these sanctions in order to secure for themselves the benefits Brussels and others would gladly forfeit on their behalf to pursue their own agenda.

    In reality, Russian President Vladimir Putin can say “no” to Saudi Arabia’s wheeling and dealing specifically because it is not Russia that needs Saudi Arabia, it is Saudi Arabia that in fact needs Russia. Riyadh’s role as Washington’s proxy in the Middle East and even as a means of leverage on the greater global stage has led it to the edge of a cliff. This is a cliff Washington itself will inevitably fall over, but it will not do so until its proxies have pushed over first.

    Saudis to Offer Putin a Deal He Can’t Refuse?
    By Ulson Gunnar

  8. Abe
    July 9, 2015 at 11:46

    In its quest for world domination, which the White House has been pursuing for more than a century, it relied on two primary tools: the US dollar and military might. In order to prevent Washington from establishing complete global hegemony, certain countries have recently been revising their positions towards these two elements by developing alternative military alliances and by breaking with their dependence on the US dollar.

    Until the mid-twentieth century, the gold standard was the dominant monetary system, based on a fixed quantity of gold reserves stocked in national banks, which limited lending. At that time, the United States managed to become the owner of 70% of world’s gold reserves (excluding the USSR), therefore it pushed its weakened competitor, the UK, aside resulting to the creation of the Bretton Woods financial system in 1944. That’s how the US dollar became the predominant currency for international payments.

    But a quarter century later this system had proven ineffective due to its inability to contain the economic growth of Germany and Japan, along with the reluctance of the US to adjust its economic policies to maintain the dollar-gold balance. At that time, the dollar experienced a dramatic decline but it was saved by the support of rich oil exporters, especially once Saudi Arabia began to exchange its black gold for US weapons and support in talks with Richard Nixon. As a result, President Richard Nixon in 1971 unilaterally ordered the cancellation of the direct convertibility of the United States dollar to gold, and instead he established the Jamaican currency system in which oil has become the foundation of the US dollar system. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that from that moment on the control over oil trade has become the number one priority of Washington’s foreign policy. In the aftermath of the so-called Nixon Shock the number of US military engagements in the Middle East and other oil producing regions saw a sharp increase. Once this system was supported by OPEC members, the global demand for US petrodollars hit an all time high. Petrodollars became the basis for America domination over the global financial system which resulted in countries being forced to buy dollars in order to get oil on the international market.

    Analysts believe that the share of the United States in today’s world gross domestic product shouldn’t exceed 22%. However, 80% of international payments are made with US dollars. As a result, the value of the US dollar is exceedingly high in comparison with other currencies, that’s why consumers in the United States receive imported goods at extremely low prices. It provides the United States with significant financial profit, while high demand for dollars in the world allows the US government to refinance its debt at very low interest rates.

    Under these circumstances, those heding against the dollar are considered a direct threat to US economic hegemony and the high living standards of its citizens, and therefore political and business circles in Washington attempt by all means to resist this process.This resistance manifested itself in the overthrow and the brutal murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who decided to switch to Euros for oil payments, before introducing a gold dinar to replace the European currency.

    However, in recent years, despite Washington’s desire to use whatever means to sustain its position within the international arena, US policies are increasingly faced with opposition. As a result, a growing number of countries are trying to move from the US dollar along with its dependence on the United States, by pursuing a policy of de-dollarization. Three states that are particularly active in this domain are China, Russia and Iran. These countries are trying to achieve de-dollarization at a record pace, along with some European banks and energy companies that are operating within their borders.


    All across the world, the calls for the creation of a new international monetary system are getting louder with each passing day. In this context it should be noted that the UK government plans to release debts denominated in yuans while the European Central Bank is discussing the possibility of including the yuan in its official reserves.

    Those trends are to be seen everywhere, but in the midst of anti-Russian propaganda, Western newsmakers prefer to keep quiet about these facts, in particular, when inflation is skyrocketing in the United States. In recent months, the proportion of US Treasury bonds in the Russian foreign exchange reserves has been shrinking rapidly, being sold at a record pace, while this same tactic has been used by a number of different states.

    To make matters worse for the US, many countries seek to export their gold reserves from the United States, which are deposited in vaults at the Federal Reserve Bank. After a scandal of 2013, when the US Federal Reserve refused to return German gold reserves to its respective owner, the Netherlands have joined the list of countries that are trying to retrieve their gold from the US. Should it be successful the list of countries seeking the return of gold reserves will double which may result in a major crisis for Washington.

    The above stated facts indicate that the world does not want to rely on US dollars anymore. In these circumstances, Washington relies on the policy of deepening regional destabilization, which, according to the White House strategy, must lead to a considerable weakening of any potential US rivals. But there’s little to no hope for the United States to survive its own wave of chaos it has unleashed across the world.

    The Global De-dollarization and the US Policies
    By Vladimir Odintsov

    • Bob Van Noy
      July 9, 2015 at 12:29

      Nice addition, Abe. Thanks for enhancing the discussion. This is the way we can all move forward .

    • Joe Wallace
      July 9, 2015 at 18:25

      Good stuff, Abe! Thanks for the tutorial and the link to the Odintsov article.

    • Mark
      July 10, 2015 at 07:29

      Informative post there Abe,

      It makes me wonder if getting off the gold standard might have opened the door for the Federal Reserve to print money and then, along with the government, pocket (steal) a percentage of the freshly minted cash any time it suited them, causing some inflation due to dilution of the previously existing currency? This might depend on how well the serial numbers, of new and old bills, were and are kept track of and accounted for? Seeing how thoroughly corrupted the entire system is, instinctively questioning the integrity of any audit conducted of the Federal Reserve’s books should be automatic.

      I hear the shuffling and flapping sounds of huge amounts and widespread “dumping of dollars” turning into an earth quaking rumble – probably this is inevitable given the reality of everything added up and subtracted since the 1973 oil embargo – an unstoppable crash unless the banks and their government collaborators suddenly lose the greed initiative. And barring divine intervention or some life and spirit altering personal tragedies, developing genuine humanitarian compassion would be extremely unlikely to suddenly manifest in the oligarchs.

      Luxuries will become less affordable for the average consumer while the prevalent dollar adjusts back from the inflated values. The economy is loaded with debt thanks to banking practices enabled by changes in the law since the New Deal, and those illegal banking practices overlooked by law enforcement. Economic collapse to what degree is the real question…

      Maybe this will be the survivalist’s dream reality? I hope not.

      Ironically, what might be a bright side, if this weren’t being orchestrated and people weren’t going to suffer, is that the rate of negative environmental effects accumulating could slow significantly (though it would be for very wrong reasons) — considering the evidence and all that they’ve done in the past couple of decades, I suspect a “significant slowing” of the economy is what some, or many, of the “deciding” and climate change believing oligarchs and their agents could be planning.

  9. Abe
    July 9, 2015 at 11:35

    Israel is certainly going ahead with re-establishing balance of power in the region which, as Israeli authorities believe, has certainly gone in favour of Iran after the US-Iran deal. The US, compelled by its own strategic needs, may have succeeded in normalizing its relations with Iran, it is certainly far from capable of arresting the growth of subsequent developments such as Israel-Saudi secret alliance and now Israel-Hammas covert dialogue. These state and non-state actors in these developments are certainly in the process of re-defining their relations with the US on the one hand, and on the other hand, with each other as well. These developments are by far not insignificant in terms of shaping, if not actually determining, the future of the Middle East in which the US may not have so significant a role as it has been playing since the end of the World War.

    Israel’s New Political Manoeuvering in the Middle East
    By Salman Rafi Sheikh

  10. D5-5
    July 9, 2015 at 10:40

    It seems to me that a zero-based review is the kind of thinking most relevant to a clinical graduate school study in terms of “what ought to be” in current world politics. In view of the resistance to unclassifying the 28 pages on 9/11, plus the resistance to asking intelligent questions about this event that have not been answered, and are even dismissed by intellectuals like Chomsky, the real political climate has nothing much to do with ideals of making progress with foreign policy. Instead, the malaise that is dominant falls under various doctrinal beliefs that constitute attitudes more than thinking, and these attitudes are clung to and defended with justifications ramped along by rear and arrogance. Here we have a very real psychological disposition toward what determines things, not rational analysis as in a zero-based review. But news organizations can start such reviews. Why not have Consortium news start with one for 9/11 on the very legitimate questions that exist, and that are not being answered? That might be a way to begin progressive change toward more enlightened thinking versus our current style toward the medieval..

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