BEIRUT, Lebanon — With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, we need no reminding that he inherits a disastrous situation in the Middle East where active conflicts in countries ranging from Yemen to Syria to Iraq offer few good policy options to bring them to a successful resolution. In light of these many challenges, what should a conservative approach to the Middle East look like in the Trump era?
Under President George W. Bush the conservative approach become synonymous with what is often described as the neoconservative one: that the United States can and should actively promote the spread of democracy, using force when necessary. Following President Obama’s ascension to the presidency, Republicans split into competing camps.
On one side were those who continued to favor the Bush posture and a strong U.S. position backing the Arab Spring protests, thus advocating for U.S. involvement in overthrowing the governments of countries like Libya and Syria. On the other side were those who advocated a much smaller U.S. presence in the Arab world, contending that America’s foreign policy was at the heart of the ills of the region.
A conservative approach toward the Middle East today should not be a choice between these two extremes: removing ourselves entirely from events in the region, or involving ourselves in every conflict regardless of circumstances so as to not appear “weak.”
The Middle East today presents a frustrating dilemma: the lack of democracy, or more precisely the lack of responsive government that addresses its citizens’ needs, has led to widespread discontent with the political systems in place. At the same time, the violent overthrow of political regimes in a number of countries, often in direct response to that discontent, has led to a power vacuum fueling chaos, sectarianism, Islamic extremism, and humanitarian catastrophe.
Much of the debate about how to address these issues revolves around the concept of democracy. Many in the realist and libertarian camps of the Right have come to view the spread of democracy in the Middle East with skepticism, seeing efforts to promote democracy such as the Iraq War and the uprising to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria as primary causes in the chaos currently enveloping the region. The neoconservative wing of the Right, on the other hand, has maintained that promoting democratic movements serves our interest in the long term, and that Obama’s abandonment of these initiatives as contributing to the dismal situation in the region.
Deep division on the right side of the foreign policy spectrum into competing camps is not new, and defined the transitions within the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s. While there is not space here to revisit the debates between those favoring and opposing détente with the Soviet Union then, we Republicans who grew up after the end of the Cold War can look back and see clearly that the Reagan position, not the Kissinger one, was right, and history has shown that quite clearly. This foreign policy drew clear moral lines between Western democracy and the Evil Empire, drew many Democrats over to the Right, at least for a decade, and more importantly freed millions of people from the inhumane tyranny of communism.
However, while some would draw a direct line between the firm position Reagan took against the Soviet Union and, say, intervening in the Syria conflict in an attempt to promote democracy as a solution to the region’s problems, it is important to remember that hardline anti-Communists did not always assume the spread of democracy would be in the United States’ interests. In the late 1950s William F. Buckley, Jr., criticized the left in his book “Up from Liberalism” for mistaking democracy for good governance. Democracy is the means to an end, he argued, not the end in itself.
Subsequently, Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote in her seminal essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards” about the dangers of pushing pro-American dictators to democratize too quickly. Her article has since been read mistakenly as being anti-democracy, but her point was not that a move toward democracy is an unworthy goal. Instead, Kirkpatrick argued that you cannot push a country to hold elections when the conditions in that country will not likely lead to a better political regime.
This is not a commentary on “cultural readiness” for democracy and the like, but rather a question of who specifically is organized enough in the country to benefit from an election. Kirkpatrick warned against pushing for elections in countries where the only organized opposition was Marxist, as they would invariably benefit, and would not be more likely to push for inclusive governance once in power. Instead, to take hold democracy needs the right conditions, and Kirkpatrick astutely predicted that rightwing dictatorships like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and South Korea would eventually democratize, whereas leftwing dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba would be less likely to transition to democracy.
The neoconservative, and conservative, right slowly transitioned, during the 1980s, from skepticism of democracy to seeing democracy promotion as an effective tool of U.S. foreign policy. James Mann aptly chronicles this transition in his book “The Rise of the Vulcans,” and attributes the success of forcing Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power in 1986, despite being a U.S. ally, as a turning point in the Republican approach to the issue.
So when Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989 (later expanded into a book), he had a more sympathetic audience to his argument that mankind had finally chosen liberal democracy as the only credible form of government.
President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” was the logical continuation of this worldview, and his support of democrats throughout the Middle East and beyond testified of his rejection of the notion that some peoples are simply not ready for democracy. Unfortunately, however, the Iraq War was a misguided attempt to impose this agenda by force, and led to many opponents of the war to abandon the cause of democracy altogether.
We would do well, however, to return to Kirkpatrick’s notion that the conditions for democracy must be right before we push for regime change in countries run by dictators. The conundrum in the Middle East today is that the countries with the most brutal dictators are the least likely to successfully transition to democracy, or so the experience of the last several years suggests. The most brutal of dictatorships, where no opposition or dissent is allowed, generally do not have a viable political alternative at hand to take over the country.
This presents a real moral dilemma, as it is difficult to accept that countries like Syria are not able to immediately transition to democracy, as we watch the Assad regime’s brutality towards its own people which has led him to destroy entire cities rather than give up power. It’s easy to feel that something must be done to help.
Following Kirkpatrick’s logic, it should be no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood took power in post-revolution elections in Egypt. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started, is often held up as the success story of that movement, but Tunisia had a lot shorter path to travel from its situation in late 2010 to some semblance of a democracy where power is transferred peacefully and regularly.
Applying This Approach to Syria
Many on the hawkish right have criticized President Obama’s handling of the Syria conflict, specifically arguing he should have intervened early in the conflict on behalf of the opposition Free Syrian Army. This would have, the argument goes, allowed them to overthrow the Assad regime and prevent the rise of extremists amongst the opposition by not allowing for the vacuum that has since formed in large parts of the country.
But can we reasonably expect that the Syrian regime could have been overthrown and subsequently replaced with a more liberal regime that would respect religious minorities and allow for political dissent? More relevantly, would support for the opposition at this time improve the situation?
When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, it was characterized by peaceful protests against a dictatorial regime, which responded with deadly force against its own people. In the early days of the protests there was cross-sectarian support for the calls for democracy, freedom, and human rights. The regime operated—and continues to operate—like a mafia, favoring party members over normal citizens and using sectarian tension to solidify support among minorities and instill general fear over sectarian violence in the event of its downfall.
The protests and subsequent uprising against the regime is a testament to the level of dissatisfaction in the country prior to 2011, even if that dissatisfaction was not readily apparent to the wide-eyed Western tourist wandering the country’s historical sites (myself included) nor the country’s elite, many of whom still have not understood the underlying discontent that led to the uprising.
Syria’s Sectarian Politics
The Assad regime, under both father and son, has cleverly used sectarian divides to gain support. However, while the regime has exploited and at times exacerbated sectarian divisions in the country, it did not invent them.
Syria is a significantly diverse country, with the Sunni Arab majority living alongside Christians (ethnically Arab, Assyrian, and Armenian), Islamic offshoots like Alawites, Ismailis, and Druze (all ethnically Arab), and ethnic minorities such as Turkmen and Kurds, among others. Fear of a dominant Sunni majority in Syria has often led religious minority communities (Christian, Druze, Ismaili, and, most relevantly Alawite) and many Sunnis into Arab nationalism and its various related theories, emphasizing Arab national solidarity over sectarian division. However, adopting a state ideology of Arab nationalism, as Syria did, was essentially a recognition of the potentiality for sectarian tension. There would be no need to emphasize Arab unity over sectarian solidarity if the masses already largely placed their Arab identity over their sectarian one.
Syrian Protests and Armed Uprising
The peaceful protests that started in March 2011 initially garnered some support from minority communities, particularly among young people, though they were largely dominated by the Sunni Arab majority. After several months, as what became the Free Syrian Army began to take up arms to defend the protesters against the regime, the peaceful protest movement transformed into an armed insurgency against the state.
The opposition slowly shed minority support, and over the course of five years has transformed from a democratic movement looking to overthrow a corrupt regime into a sectarian Sunni movement, albeit with groups ranging from moderate to extremist.
No doubt there are still many opposition members, including among minority communities, supporting secular democracy. However, most of these more secular democrats are operating outside of the country, either in Europe or in Syria’s neighbors. The reality on the ground is that extremist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and Ahrar al-Sham have by far the most power, and many U.S.-backed moderate groups coexist and actively cooperate with them.
Could Support for the Moderate Opposition Have Helped?
A common opinion expressed by hawkish Syria observers and politicians is that had we provided support to the moderate opposition early on, it would have strengthened their hand against both the regime and Islamic extremists. This would have prevented the rise of groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. It sounds nice, but would this have actually worked?
Many of the opposition, including some of those currently fighting the regime inside Syria today, truly believe in democracy more or less as we understand it. The argument that more support to them would have prevented the current chaos is predicated on a number of assumptions:
- that we can reasonably expect to overthrow the state structure of a modern Arab country by force and it result in something better than the status quo;
- that the sectarian nature of the conflict as it stands now is the result of Assad’s policies, and not an inherently sectarian streak amongst broad swathes of Syrian society;
- and that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, ISIS, and other groups enjoy limited popular support in the country and the populace would have backed the moderate opposition if they had been seen as being stronger.
The first argument, that it is reasonably possible to overthrow the entire state and replace it with something more amenable, falls apart quickly because there is no precedent for it in the region. This has been tried and failed in Libya and Iraq.
Western proponents of intervention in Syria, particularly those on the Left, are quick to contrast their plan with Iraq, stating that the 2003 invasion was misguided because it was built on faulty intelligence and that we were not intervening in an existing conflict but rather starting a war from scratch. Libya, on the other hand, was done the ‘right’ way by these standards: led by a liberal president, supporting local armed groups instead of putting our own troops on the ground, and intervening in an existing war rather than starting one.
The result of these three conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya), however, has been largely similar. In Iraq, full-scale invasion was followed by large-scale occupation and state building, and it fell apart quickly after we pulled out. The Libyan regime was overthrown through an air campaign supporting local forces with almost no Western presence in the aftermath, and the country quickly fell into chaos, largely divided between two competing governments and, subsequently, ISIS.
In Syria, small-scale support to rebels has prolonged a conflict and cost innocent lives without providing a decisive blow against the regime. However, there’s little reason to believe that more substantive support—enough to deliver a deadly blow to the regime—would have led to a positive outcome. Much of the reason why lies in the response to the second and third points above.
Regarding sectarianism, certainly the conflict has made many people who were previously very tolerant of their neighbors of other sects take on a more sectarian view of their country. The regime’s brutal and inhumane targeting of civilians in opposition areas has led many to blame the Alawites for the regime’s actions and to turn to extremist groups, who are seen as more effective opponents of the regime. While the regime is largely to blame for this situation, that fact does not undo that it has become a reality. However, sectarianism in Syria is not simply a result of Assad’s policies, but has significant precedence in the country’s history.
Secondly, it’s important to note that before the conflict Syria was inherently a conservative and religious society, particularly in rural Sunni areas outside of the major cities. While it may be more liberal than the Gulf or Afghanistan, the Sunni society in Syria has a very conservative streak in it, and the popular support for Islamist groups ranging from Ahrar al-Sham to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to ISIS show that many people have long wanted a stricter form of Islamic governance, but have not had an outlet to express that.
That is not to discount the civilian movements against both of these organizations in areas under their influence, but shows that there were significant segments of society ready to back extremist groups, and the conflict has given these elements room to breathe and grow.
Assad’s Support for Terrorists
Another argument used to advocate for the United States removing Assad is his past support for Sunni extremist groups, particularly those that fought against the United States following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It is certainly true that Assad has supported Sunni extremists, particularly by allowing them to pass through Syria freely on their way to fight the United States in Iraq during our presence there. He also released a number of Sunni extremists from prison at the beginning of the conflict, and has targeted the moderate opposition more heavily than their extremist counterparts, attempting cynically—and thus far successfully—to force people to choose between himself and groups like ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
All of these facts make him morally culpable for what’s happened in Syria, but do not necessarily mean that supporting the opposition was a viable policy. His brutal oppression of the secular opposition means that many of the true Syrian democrats were living outside the country, and not necessarily well-placed to gain popular support in the event of his downfall.
Assad’s father took power in a military coup in 1970, after decades of turbulence and frequent transitions of power. He was the first post-independence Syrian leader to firmly establish his rule and stay in power for a significant amount of time. This was not a coincidence or luck, and shows that the Assad regime has long known how to stay in power, and willing to go to any means to do so. This is an unfortunate reality, but one that wishful thinking will not undo.
Support for the Opposition Moving Forward
So while it’s important to look at whether supporting the Syrian opposition from the beginning was a viable policy, it’s perhaps more relevant to look at whether or not increasing support to them moving forward is a good idea. The answer is a simple no: they’ve made their bed with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and one that is not easily undone.
There is significant tension between U.S.-backed groups and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in opposition-held areas in the north, but they are fighting on the same side of the conflict, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Opposition gains generally equate to gains for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
It is not fitting of a serious conservative alternative to the Obama foreign policy to continue to blame President Obama for not involving us in Syria earlier. We tried regime change in Iraq and Libya, and it didn’t work. Tunisia and Egypt are not apt comparisons to the situation in Syria, because in each of those cases the president ultimately stepped down from power while leaving the state structure in place. Iraq, Libya, and Syria have been attempts to overthrow the state structure and replace it with something else. What exactly that something else is, however, has never been realistically articulated.
Why Can’t We Just Remove Ourselves From the Region?
We will never know what the region would look like if we had not invaded Iraq in 2003, or hadn’t intervened in Libya in 2011. However, those actions not only had unintended, though probably foreseeable, consequences, but they arguably left us worse off than the status quo ante. Is the answer to remove ourselves entirely from the region, then?
The short answer is no. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was just as disastrous as the original invasion in 2003, and both contributed equally to the rise of ISIS. The point is not that we should have no role in the region, but rather that we should be discerning in using our power, hard and soft, to achieve our objectives in the region.
What a conservative Middle East policy needs moving forward is to strike the balance between involving ourselves in every conflict and removing ourselves entirely from any role in the region. We do not need to reinvent the wheel to do this. A good starting place is a variation on what has come to be known as the Colin Powell Doctrine: that the use of military power should have clear, tangible, and attainable goals. While few would disagree with this statement in theory, in practice our policies have often strayed from this principle.
The First Gulf War is a good example of the wise use of military force. President Bush and his team did not try to achieve the impossible. They instead aimed to remove an occupying force from an ally’s territory and, upon achieving this objective, stopped. It is interesting, then, that many of the advocates of the 2003 invasion of Iraq rightfully foresaw in 1991 the problems that would come with an all-out invasion of Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and others cautioned against marching to Baghdad. Somehow in the 1990s they lost sight of the dangers of removing Saddam Hussein by force, and the result was disastrous, even if the intentions were sincere.
Additionally, the United States’ ongoing intervention against ISIS is a necessary and just use of force, regardless of one’s views of the causes of the rise of ISIS and our culpability in it. We cannot allow a sophisticated terrorist organization to have such an expansive stronghold.
Our objective must be clear and limited. We are aiming to eliminate ISIS, not to institute a specific post-ISIS regime or right all the region’s wrongs. Many will rightly argue that without the right political regime to replace ISIS the cycle of Sunni discontent will repeat itself and bring us back to where we started. This is true, but the United States is not necessarily best placed to institute that order.
What we can do is pressure our partners to take positive steps to prevent a return to the conditions that contributed to the rise of ISIS. This includes pressuring the Syrian Kurdish PYD, and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to be inclusive of political opponents in their areas, including Arabs and opposition Kurdish political parties. This also includes the Iraqi government, who must ensure that the Sunni community feels their government responds to their needs and that they have an active voice in decisions that affect them and their country.
No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs
Thomas Sowell tells us that in politics there are no solutions, only trade-offs. As such, a conservative approach to our Middle East policy, such as the one outlined here, will not bring peace and stability to the Middle East tomorrow, will not eliminate every terrorist seeking to do us harm, and will not instantly make the United States loved by those wishing us ill. Anyone claiming that his or her plan will do so is cynical or delusional.
In short, a conservative Middle East policy in the Trump era should reject the notion that the United States is the cause of all ills in the region and should therefore remove itself entirely from it. Equally as important, it should understand that the United States cannot and should not involve itself militarily in every conflict without a clear and achievable objective.
It is important that we remember that the objective of our foreign policy is not perfection. We are still the undisputed global superpower, but that does not mean that we should be the world’s police force. This view of U.S. power is conservative, and I hope President-elect Trump will move us back in this direction as he works to establish what the Trump doctrine will be in the coming months.