Middle Eastern Realpolitik
The Middle East has always been complicated. From the Sumerians in Mesopotamia to Suleiman the Great dominating the entire region, it is safe to say that the Middle East, much like every other region on Earth, has been subject to conflict. And, as the most powerful country on Earth, the United States will inevitably end up getting tangled up in a few of these conflicts.
The problem isn’t that the United States has gotten involved in a conflict here and there. The Persian Gulf War in 1991 was an essential war to fight to protect US interests. After relatively few casualties, coalition forces managed to retake Kuwait from Iraqi rule. More importantly, the threat to Saudi Arabia was eliminated. Saddam Hussein was greatly deterred from marching his huge army south to take Saudi oil fields - had this happened, the Middle East would’ve became an absolute mess, with the resulting oil price spike likely decimating the global economy. However, due to the swift, rapid, and powerful US intervention, Saddam instead found himself humiliated, with his armies routed. If the US had not intervened (as Iraq expected - they thought America would view Kuwait like Vietnam) than a more belligerent Iraq would be a near certainty, with an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia a distinct possibility.
The fact is, that, for the most part, the Middle East is not suited for democracy. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Middle East’s main resource, oil, does not require investment in the citizens to be produced. All a government needs to fill its coffers is a couple hundred decently manufactured oil wells, and all of a sudden, the main source of income isn’t people (through taxation), but a natural resource. This heavily disincentivizes investment in the citizenry and results in high inequality and corruption. Secondly, and partially due to the aforementioned fact, the Middle East has always been authoritarian. Whereas European nations gradually grew more democratic as time went on (with the notable exception of Russia - which explains Vladimir Putin), the Middle East went from the authoritarian Ottomans, to brief colonial rule, to western-backed absolute monarchies, to Arab secular dictators, to the discombobulated mess it is today. Thirdly, the Islamic faith tends to play into the hands of dictators. Many Middle Eastern states have used the Koran or “Allah’s will” to justify authoritarian practices, not unlike how the Catholic Church justified the Spanish inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Thus, the United States can’t exactly attempt to install freedom and democracy everywhere like it did in Iraq. Regardless of opinion, the fact is that the US attempted to take a stable, authoritarian dictatorship and turn it into a democracy overnight. This, evidently, did not work, due to the aforementioned problems of trying to flip around institutions that have existed for hundreds of years. The “freedom agenda” does not work when the people of a country do not want, nor can conceive, the idea of freedom, from a western viewpoint. The Middle East has always been different from the west, and the idea of Middle Easterners, who are culturally entirely different from westerners, sitting around and desiring western ideals is absurd.
Secondly, the invasion of Iraq didn’t remotely suit American interests. Was Iraq an enemy of the United States? Obviously. But who else was an enemy of the United States? Iran. Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies and rivals due to the massive Iran-Iraq war, which only ended in 1988. It made far more sense for the United States to play Iran and Iraq against each other, keeping both states preoccupied with each other and using both states to balance one another out. The US achieved this to a limited effect with the China rapprochement, which resulted in more conflict between China and the USSR. While there was never a complete balance between the two powers - the USSR had 35000 nuclear weapons, China had a few hundred at most - China’s sheer numerical might was enough to further contain the USSR. This resulted in the USSR collapsing due to the monetary pressure of building up defense along borders with China and NATO, while China was forced into focusing more on the USSR than on the United States. A similar strategy employed in Iraq could have resulted in more stability, as Iran and Iraq wouldn’t want to repeat the 1988 war, but instead be locked in a “mini cold war”.
What about Syria? The civil war has killed over 400,000 people and has wreaked havoc across the Levant. Previously, I have argued for intervention on behalf of the Kurds, but only with some form of agreement from Turkey. This looks increasingly unlikely. While Assad is a brutal, anti-american dictator, a rebel victory would result in instability. Not to mention, Assad has the civil war, for all intents and purposes, won. If the US truly wanted to kick Assad out of power, the best time to do it was at the start of the civil war, when neither Russia or Iran were heavily involved. Now, it is far too late.
The one good decision that the United States has made in this millennium, with regards to Middle Eastern policy, has been the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the fall of the Taliban regime within 2 months. However, due to Pakistan’s alliance with the Taliban, these fighters proceeded to flee across the border into Pakistan. When US troops began to pull back out of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda rushed to fill the void left. Thus, while originally a good decision - Al Qaeda and the Taliban, two of the most brutal terrorist groups on Earth were nearly wiped out - it was poorly executed following the original military successes.
The policy of the United States in the Middle East cannot and should not be based on western ideals of democracy. The US must act in its best interest, not what it thinks the best interests of typical Middle Easterners are. There are no true morals in foreign policy, other than do what is to the benefit of the nation. To do otherwise is morally corrupt.