The Trump administration’s support for Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory has been widely portrayed as a repudiation of “longstanding” U.S. policy. While this is true on formalistic and declarative levels related to the narrow issues framed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, a broader, historical look at U.S. policy in the region offers a far more nuanced interpretation.
One of the cardinal features of the post-World War II system of international relations was the consensus supporting the sovereign integrity of states. Insofar as this principle related to U.S. policy in the Middle East, Washington supported the constellation of national borders bequeathed by the exhausted Mandate powers, France and Great Britain — including the entirely new State of Israel, established with the blessing of the United Nations.
It is all the more extraordinary that Washington held to this policy, despite the view prevailing among the principal antagonists of the Arab-Israeli conflict — namely Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt — that the Armistice lines were just that: temporary and limited ceasefire lines established as a consequence of Israel’s creation.
The June 1967 war broke the taboo. The Armistice borders were breached. This new territorial tableau forced a rethinking of the sovereign division of the lines in Palestine established after World War II.
Israel was the great champion of this effort, focusing its diplomatic and settlement efforts to cement a claim to Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian territory. So too was the PLO, which for the first time in a generation, placed the issue of a sovereign Palestine on the international agenda.
The international community took partial note of this new reality in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which called for Israel’s retreat from the conquered territories to “secure and recognized boundaries” presumably different from the temporary ceasefire lines existing on the eve of the war. Palestine however, remained unacknowledged, and half a century later, unrealized.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, the breach in Washington’s commitment to the map of the Middle East opened by the June 1967 war widened. Throughout the heart of the Fertile Crescent, regional developments undermined Washington’s system of alliances. The revolution in Iran highlighted the shortcomings of Washington’s system of regional security.
Iran was not the only pillar of US policy that was imploding. The failure of Arab regimes — notably in Iraq, Syria, and Libya but also Egypt — to win Washington’s confidence soured the U.S. on their role as anchors for American influence and power, and raised explicit questions in Washington about the value of the postwar Arab order as a guarantor of American interests in the region.
In 2005, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice reflected this assessment when she declared in a Cairo speech, “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
The redrawing of borders was not the principal consequence of growing U.S. antipathy towards regimes in Baghdad, Tripoli, and Damascus that commenced in the latter years of the twentieth century. But in the search for a new regional security paradigm, the revision of sovereign borders and indeed the reconstitution and even creation of new states carved out of the decaying carcasses of Arab dictatorships now out of favor in Washington evolved as its most notable feature.
The standard for policy success in Libya, Iraq, and Syria now in vogue in Washington is to undermine, to impair and indeed to shake the state to its very foundations by contesting the staying power of the ruling regime. From the Clinton administration onwards, Washington has adopted and pursued policies throughout the region that strike at the very existence of the Arab state itself.
Iraq marked Washington’s unambiguous transformation from a status quo power to one supporting its destruction. Not only has Washington supported efforts to remake Arab national borders, but its policies also contest the policy of “one gun one authority” at the heart of the continuing effort of Arab states to establish a monopoly of force within their respective domains.
Washington’s radical turnabout has been embraced with bipartisan enthusiasm as the key to a new strategy in the region. Then-Senator Joe Biden reflected this burst of imperial reimagination, noting in 2006 that Washington should strive “to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group… room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”
Biden’s anodyne formulation might suit Washington. But regional players saw Washington’s invasion of Iraq and postwar chaos, like its breezy admonition that Assad “has to go” and the murder of Gaddafi, as a green light to any religious, ethnic, tribal, or rural element disadvantaged by the growing power of the state to challenge it.
In a dramatic turnabout from historical practice, in Iraq and Syria today the U.S. is the godfather of continuing efforts to assist those determined to recalibrate through force of arms the balance of power with the national authority. Others, notably Russia, Turkey and the UAE, are also keen to take better advantage of Washington’s readiness to upend the status quo. No one wants to be absent from the trough when new maps are being drawn.
Washington’s abandonment of the central pillar of the post-war order — respect for the sovereign integrity of Arab states — has reaped the whirlwind. It has fueled both the centrifugal and centripetal processes at the heart of national politics throughout the region.
Even as U.S. policymakers and politicians opened the gates to these bloody and disabling contests by repudiating support for the old order, the leadership to channel this engineered disarray into a coherent regional architecture has been entirely absent. Instead we witness a cornucopia of “forever wars” that serve only to destroy the state-building efforts of the last century, and persistent efforts to undermine the power of Arab central governments over places and peoples already unused to accommodating the power and institutions based in the capital.
In Iraq, U.S. support for Kurdistan has fueled a desire for partition and independence that, no matter the smooth talk from Washington, strikes at the heart of Iraq’s territorial integrity. The rulers of Baghdad, no matter who they are, together with rivals in Istanbul, Damascus and Tehran, remain as determined to defeat this effort as their forebearers.
More recently, the United States, in a demonstration of broad bipartisan agreement, has embraced a strategy towards Syria based upon the creation of zones beyond the sovereign reach of the regime in Damascus. In doing so, the United States has adopted the “divide-and-rule” strategy pursued with disastrous result by the Mandate powers during the interwar era — creating local proxies determined to weaken the power of the central government. In a very real sense, the policies now in favor in Washington mark a total rejection of the state-building paradigm pursued by the international community in the Middle East and elsewhere after World War II.
To be sure, there is no reason to lament the passing of Ba’ath regimes in Baghdad or Damascus. But until now Washington has proven far more adept at destruction of these execrable rulers than the construction of a new, more just order.
Washington has left no doubt about its ability and desire to undermine the foundations of the Arab state system. Yet American power and influence cannot be built merely upon a destruction of the old territorial and political order and the creation of a security wasteland from Libya to Iraq.
Even as Washington has embraced such a destabilizing formula, the region itself has demonstrated the continuing centrality, relevance, and indeed popularity, of the map Washington has tired of. Independence and nationalism continue to inspire hearts and minds throughout the region, as they have done so since the Urabi revolt in Egypt in 1879. Iraq still struggles with reconstituting itself in the aftermath of the American invasion and occupation. Yet another chapter in the long history of Kurdish efforts to rebalance power with Baghdad is being written. Only in Libya has the all but complete destruction of the state been effected. And no one among those advocating Gaddafi’s overthrow is prepared to defend the consequences as a model for American policy.
The Trump administration claims to support Israel’s annexation of West Bank territory as a fulfillment of the long-sought effort to establish secure and recognized boundaries for the Jewish state. Israel welcomes the long-sought U.S. recognition of Israel’s policy of creating “facts on the ground.”
But not all facts are created equal. Palestine, now sequestered in Gaza, is to suffer the consequences of the new border west of the Jordan River endorsed by Washington. As such Washington’s actions offer a seductive opportunity to powers — great and small — that hope to profit from the free for all it has helped to unleash throughout the region.