The current state of the Middle East is one of the most chaotic and turbulent times in modern history – with the rise of ISIS and other militant groups, ethnic tensions and conflicts within countries, and a failure of governance in not one, but many of the Middle Eastern countries. Last week, The Reiff Center hosted former Ambassador Ryan Crocker to speak on issues pertaining to the Middle East and the cause and effects of the United States’ engagement in the region.
Crocker has served as Ambassador to the United States to six Middle Eastern countries: Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), and Lebanon (1990-1993). Since joining the Foreign Service in 1971, he has also worked in Qatar, Egypt and Iran. He has received numerous awards and medals for his accomplishments including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest honor given to a civilian. Currently, Crocker is a professor at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.
In his speech, Crocker stressed the importance of history. The history of the Middle East and its relationship with the West began in the 18th century when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in order to further French economic interests and use the country as a strategic pawn against the British Empire. Since then, numerous Western powers have invaded the Middle Eastern region and exploited it for its raw materials and location.
In 1916, the Sykes Picot Agreement, between the French and British, was a secret arrangement that broke up the region into “spheres of influence” during World War I. Essentially, the agreement was to break up the Arab region and stifle Arab nationalism in order to combat the Ottoman Turks. By the end of World War I, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the two European countries divided the broken Arab territories and allowed them to establish their own leadership but under the supervision of the French and British.
Ambassador Crocker highlighted that at this time, United States President Woodrow Wilson was highly opposed to the agreement – arguing in favor of dividing Arab countries by ethnicity and allowing them to establish their own independent nations. However, France and Britain had their way and today’s Middle East crisis can be partially attributed to this agreement. Crocker critiqued the U.S., saying that Americans failed to demand justice on behalf of the Middle Eastern countries and are trying to repair the decades of damage today.
The United States involvement with the Middle East since World War I has largely shaped the policies and behavior in the region. Crocker shared an anecdote from his time in Iran – stating that while Americans do not perceive themselves as imperialists, many of the people in the region feel that America tries to impose its beliefs and policies without understanding or respecting the culture.
Since the Cold War, the United States has had a foreign policy of democratization that they have pushed for in every corner of the world – including and especially in the Middle East. However, it is interesting to note that the current trouble is predominantly in the Arab republics. The Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of Yemen, is made up of monarchies that largely face no ethnic conflicts. While these countries may have other internal problems related to a monarch, conflicts among the people and state failure is not among them.
On the other hand, the republics or countries that have transitioned into a democracy face a tremendous problem in terms of adequate state governance and leadership. Countries like Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq are all failed states – which seems to imply a broader failure of Western powers, like the United States, to provide support for sustainable state building. These countries have gone through a variety of governments from authoritarian, communist, to democracy. The leaders of these countries have repeatedly failed to provide basic security and support social welfare programs for its people.
This is not to say that Western powers lack good intentions or resources to support these countries; but it does show a lack of understanding and creative thinking. As Ambassador Crocker pointed out, the United States has had particular difficulty with engaging and disengaging in foreign conflict – “the most important thing I would say to take away from this is to be careful what you get into and be equally careful when disengaging”. The ambassador’s words specifically pertain to the failure of the Iraqi state.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the grounds that former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was supporting terrorist groups – like al-Qaeda – which were responsible for the September 11th attacks. The American military took over Iraq by force, captured and executed Hussein for crimes against his people. As the initial wave of gratitude subsided, American troops continued to occupy Iraq amidst a civil war and chaos between ethnic groups. As the United States government set up proxy governments in Iraq, its people and the surrounding Middle Eastern states grew hostile toward American engagement – many proclaiming it to be a new form of imperialism.
Tensions heightened in 2004 when the Bush administration was under scrutiny for falsely claiming Iraq was producing WMD, when no evidence was found. In a secret report, commissioned by then Secretary of State Colin Powell, often called “The Perfect Storm”, Ambassador Crocker and co-workers had outlined the possible consequences for invading Iraq and the lasting effects it will have in the Middle East. While the details of the report still remains to be a secret, it is evident that the current situation in the Middle East was foreseen and disregarded back in 2002.
The ambassador stressed many times the significance of active and timely engagement. Not only was the U.S. invasion of Iraq untimely, it was also poorly planned and executed. The nature of state building requires long-term commitment – which America was not prepared for and rushed to get in and out of the country. As Crocker mentioned, the United States needed a vision for Iraq that they did not have when they carried out the invasion. Fast forward to 2008-2010, the U.S. was equally hasty when leaving the country. In the midst of an unstable government and continued sectarian violence, American troops pulled out of Iraq leaving 50,000 troops for regional support. By 2011, the United States called for the end of their mission in Iraq and pulled out the last of their troops.
The abrupt invasion and abrupt disengagement has resulted in the current crisis in Iraq. In the last few years, the United States has lacked a genuine relationship with the Middle Eastern countries and Crocker blames this lack of engagement for the Middle East meltdown. Engagement, he says, does not necessarily mean military force or occupation. It means forming strong diplomatic relations with the people of the country and holding the leaders accountable for corrupt and uncooperative behavior. He alludes to America’s partnership with Pakistan during the Cold War as an example.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States supported them via Pakistan by arming the rebels – the mujahedeen, who drove the Soviets away. In the years following the war, the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan for developing a nuclear program despite being their ally during the Cold War. When the Taliban rose to power, Pakistan aided the militants amid a civil war. Our disengagement and broken relationship with Pakistan, Crocker says, may have caused the alliance between the Pakistani government and the Taliban.
As a global leader, the United States has a responsibility to the world in supporting peace and cooperation. Ambassador Crocker advocates for greater diplomatic relations with nations in the Middle East to foster cooperative alliances. The best support the United States can provide is ensuring that these governments are sustainable and stable enough to serve the peoples’ needs. Active engagement also means directing our foreign policy initiatives towards this region and facilitating discussion between and among governments.
It is not that the United States lacks the ability or drive to change the conditions in the Middle East, it is that Americans are not engaging the right people and understanding their needs. With greater involvement among these chaotic nations, the United States has a better chance of turning the tables.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.