The United States has for decades been reliant on Israel and a host of autocratic Arab regimes to solidify a U.S.-led security order in the Middle East. This order has proven to be unsustainable as key U.S. allies have weakened or been toppled in popular uprisings over the years. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to transform the region through military intervention have spectacularly failed and opened the door for U.S. rivals to gain regional influence.
Part one of this two-part Responsible Statecraft series rebutted a problematic report from the Center for a New American Security that called for military escalation with Iran. This installment will present an alternative U.S. approach to the region that would prioritize diplomacy and give Washington increased leverage over friends and foes alike.
A second-term Trump administration or a Joe Biden administration can better safeguard U.S. interests in the Middle East through dealing with all regional powers. This will allow the U.S. to extricate itself from regional conflicts and push major regional powers towards cooperation and taking on a greater burden in ensuring regional security.
Getting to a diplomatically flexible U.S. posture in the Middle East requires reimagining the U.S.-Iran relationship. While pressure policies have been the norm against Iran for decades and have reached their zenith under President Trump, diplomacy with Iran, apart from the temporary exploration under President Obama, has never fully been given a chance to succeed. To understand why the pressure track has failed and diplomacy is needed, it is first important to understand how Iran achieves its regional interests on the cheap.
What’s behind Iranian influence in region
The model of bombing away Iran’s regional influence or strangulating it with sanctions has proven ineffectual. Money is not the driver of Iranian influence in the region. In 2017, the head of Israel’s military intelligence detailed the amount of annual Iranian funding for anti-Israeli groups. The sums were paltry: $75 million to Hezbollah, $50 million to Hamas, and $70 million to Islamic Jihad. Compare this with the $5 billion a month Saudi Arabia has spent on its war in Yemen or the trillions President Trump has noted the U.S. has spent in the region.
What influence Iran does carry in the region it has nurtured through building ties with popular constituencies that are also alienated from the U.S.-led regional order: Lebanese and Iraqi Shia, occupied Palestinians, anti-Taliban (Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek) Afghans, Iraqi Kurds, Zaydis in Yemen, and increasingly Christian and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria. Notably, Iran’s allies are often political and social actors and carry legitimacy in their societies.
Iran has used its regional strategic depth to create a deterrent for itself in line with its threat perception, which is that it faces a threat of attack from the U.S. and its chief regional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia. This deterrent relies on missile technology and other forms of asymmetric warfare, including the capabilities of its allies. Importantly, Iran does not have the ability to project offensive military power in the region, such as the deployment of large numbers of troops.
Iran is not a serious competitor for the United States and threatens no core U.S. national security interests. Yet, as explained in part one of this series, many in Washington continue to be fixated with the country and call for military escalation on top of “maximum pressure.”
Getting to a more effective U.S. Middle East policy
U.S. primacy increasingly no longer reflects the realities in a region where traditional American partners no longer concern themselves with finding common cause with Washington. Many in the U.S. currently have serious strategic differences with Israel over the two-state solution, and broad disagreements with its Arab partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, oppressive autocracies whose long-term survivability is questionable.
The United States suffers a classic moral hazard problem with its Middle East alliances. Partners such as Saudi Arabia and Israel act under the well-founded assumption that Washington will pay the costs for their mistakes. Israel continues to expand settlement activity despite historic U.S. opposition and simultaneously collects billions of dollars in U.S. military aid. The Saudi government supports terrorism and engages in destabilizing actions such as its siege of Qatar and war in Yemen while continuing to receive U.S. political support.
Saudi Arabia and Israel naturally seek to exaggerate the Iranian threat to maintain lopsided U.S. support for as long as they can. However, they have not hesitated to explore new foreign partnerships for themselves. At a time when the U.S. seeks to reconfigure it foreign policy to focus on great power competition, namely checking the rise of China and Russia, America’s Middle East partners have deepened ties with these countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counts Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of his closest friends on the international stage, which he has highlighted in his reelection ads. China is also taking a major role in developing strategic Israeli infrastructure. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has dramatically increased economic and military trade with China and despite its recent oil market clash with Russia, has mostly closely coordinated with Russia to control the oil market in recent years.
The U.S. should similarly exercise flexibility in its regional relationships to boost its leverage. A more balanced U.S. footprint in the Middle East centered on sustained engagement with all regional powers will incentivize these countries to do more to curry U.S. favor. It will also obstruct Chinese and Russian encroachment. Such a policy will require finding a modus vivendi with Iran.
Notably, the U.S. currently has no leverage with Iran. The country currently has nothing to gain from being amenable to U.S. interests. This is even though Iranian and U.S. interests often intersect on issues such as combating ISIS and other Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organizations, securing the central governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ensuring stability in the Persian Gulf.
The 2015 nuclear deal opened the possibility of normalizing the U.S.-Iran relationship and started the process of reintegrating Iran with the global economy. But the Trump administration reversed that trajectory with a failed regime change policy that has taken the two countries to the brink of war. Such a conflict would be a strategic disaster that would catalyze U.S. decline and the rise of its great power rivals.
To build the trust necessary to get a constructive relationship with Iran, U.S. policymakers must think beyond revitalizing the nuclear deal. A rethinking of the relationship is necessary, which requires a major diplomatic push on a host of disputes with Iran.
The path to improving U.S.-Iran relations will be arduous. Hardliners in both countries will do everything in their power to derail it, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. Some U.S. regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia will likely join this effort. However, many elements of the Iranian government have long desired better ties with the West to lower the country’s dependency on China and Russia.
The next U.S. administration can feasibly negotiate détente with Iran and boost America’s regional and global leverage. This will require considerable political capital but it can be a political victory by bringing decades of U.S.-Iran hostility to a peaceful solution.
Importantly, America’s traditional regional partners should not feel abandoned by improved U.S.-Iran relations. To the contrary, a diplomacy-first U.S. Middle East policy can lead to regional cooperation and long-term stability. The U.S. can use its enhanced leverage to help realize a long imagined regional cooperation system between Iran, Iraq, and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be modeled after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which originated out of a diplomatic process that reduced tensions between the Warsaw Pact and NATO states.
Institutionalized dialogue among the Persian Gulf countries will ease the U.S. security burden in the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran will have a forum to communicate their grievances and engage in reciprocal confidence-building measures. Over time, such dialogue can expand to cooperation to resolve various regional conflicts, such as the war in Yemen, and on regionalizing the cost of securing the Persian Gulf.
Closing the book on the U.S.’s Middle East quagmires
Strategy is conventionally defined as a plan to achieve a desired objective through the minimal expenditure of energy and resources. The current objective of U.S. Middle East policy is to keep Iran permanently in the penalty box and give carte blanche to U.S. regional partners. This is a recipe for unending entanglement in a region that has drained American lives and resources for decades.
Military escalation against Iran would be reckless and counterproductive. It would keep the U.S. bogged down in a permanent confrontation against what is fundamentally a weak country that poses no clear threat to U.S. national security. The next U.S. administration should instead reassess the U.S’s core objectives in the Middle East and develop a diplomacy-driven strategy that gives it the ability to address more pressing challenges at home and abroad.
Sina Toossi is a non-resident fellow at the Center for International Politics. Previously he was senior research analyst at the National Iranian American Council, and a research specialist at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York City on September 25, 2018. [State Department photo]
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.