x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The new US policy in Middle East affairs: be pragmatic

Until now, Washington approached Middle Eastern conflicts through a Manichaean lens of good versus evil, moderate versus radical, in a zero-sum fight to the death.

As Iraq's parliament forms a tenuous new government, the man whose invasion got rid of Saddam Hussein was in a bit of a bind last week. George W Bush, who is promoting his new memoir Decision Points, told an interviewer that he had no choice but to attack Iraq in 2003, because he had no doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Bush admitted he had been "sickened" by the fact that no such weapons were ever found, but refused to apologise for invading under what turned out to be false pretences: "I mean, apologising would basically say the decision was a wrong decision," he said. "And I don't believe it was the wrong decision."

It's worth remembering that Bush's goal was not simply to disarm Iraq, but to turn it into a model of the "new Middle East". On the ruins of Saddam Hussein's regime would arise a democratic and peaceful Iraq closely allied with its American liberators and friendly with Israel. The combination of shock and awe at US military power, and the appeal of the new reality it had created in Iraq would transform the region.

Needless to say, things didn't work out that way. After seven years of chaos that have seen hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and millions displaced, last week's events confirmed that this new government, like its two predecessors, is dominated by parties closer to Iran than to Washington. Iran and its regional allies have been strengthened rather than weakened by the US invasion, while democracy in Iraq – as in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – has proven that those dismissed as radicals by Washington actually have a durable political base.

Desperate to reverse the perception in the US that Iran emerged on top in Iraq, the Obama administration last week absurdly sought to paint the new Iraqi government as an anti-Iran coalition based on the Kurds and Sunnis. The reality is plain to see: Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's re-election was effectively assured when Iran endorsed him and convinced rival Shi'ite blocs to do the same. The US found itself trying to salvage a consolation prize for its erstwhile protege, Iyad Allawi, whose list - which drew 80 per cent of the Sunni vote- had actually won more seats than Mr Maliki's.

Regional Arab support for Mr Allawi made little difference, and Washington failed to persuade the Kurdish leadership to relinquish the presidency to him. Instead, the Sunni-backed bloc had to settle for the speakership of parliament and possibly the foreign ministry, while Mr Allawi himself is due to head a national council with no constitutionally defined powers.

Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to the US vice-president, Joe Biden, tried gamely to put a positive spin on the outcome. When the final deal was brokered, he told The New York Times that the US ambassador was in the room, but not the one from Iran. Indeed. But the Iranians had no need to be in the room because their goal had been achieved; the final deal was simply over finding a junior role for Mr Allawi and his bloc. Mr Blinken's suggestion that "the result – an inclusive government, all blocs in and a redistribution of power – was exactly what the Iranians didn't want", is also simply nonsense.

The Iranian goal in Baghdad – besides enabling groups that give the US a hard time – has always been to stabilise Iraq on terms favourable to Iran. But Tehran has clearly understood that there would be no stability if Sunnis were entirely alienated and Shiites claimed a monopoly on power. Instead, it supported its allies, whose primacy is ensured by virtue of the Shiites' demographic majority, offering others enough of a stake to keep them from open rebellion. (Of course, that's a game Mr Maliki has often played clumsily, but his approach to power remains that of juggling competing constituencies.)

Iran, in fact, seems to have a realistic sense of the limits of its own power in the region, even if the rhetoric of some of its leaders belies this, and even if it is constantly working to extend its influence. In Lebanon, for example, Hizbollah has established a de facto veto power over government decisions it deems threatening, but it hasn't tried to take over the government. In Afghanistan, too, Tehran courts (and buys) influence, but clearly accepts that it cannot expect geopolitical monogamy from President Hamid Karzai.

The good news for the region, of course, is that Iraq demonstrates that the US is capable of taking a similarly pragmatic approach. Until now, Washington approached other Middle Eastern conflicts through a Manichaean lens of good versus evil, moderate versus radical, in a zero-sum fight to the death. That has led to a dysfunctional boycott of Hamas and Hizbollah, for example, with disastrous consequences for stability.

But even the Bush team took a different approach in Iraq: they included Iran's closest allies in the first Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the US, and when Iraqis finally got to vote in 2005 and returned a government dominated by Iran-backed Shiite Islamists, Washington did not try to reverse the results. It accepted the defeat of its preferred candidates and got on with building a relationship with those chosen by the electorate.

It is a grown-up approach, dictated by the need for stability and by the increasingly apparent limits of US influence. The Bush administration's confrontational approach to the regional influence of Iran and its allies, some of which has been continued by the Obama team, has caused some anxiety among US allies in the region. They know that they will have to live with the expanded influence of Iran and its allies for the foreseeable future, and that confrontational policies have strengthened rather than weakened those groups. The likes of Turkey and Qatar have been pushing for a diplomatic approach that recognises the need to integrate all stakeholders in the interests of stability.

Curiously enough, the US has shown a willingness to do just that in Iraq, perhaps because its massive troop presence there over the past seven years has made it think more like the pragmatic powers who live in the region.

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst who blogs at TonyKaron.com