President Donald Trump’s October decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria produced a rare moment of bipartisanship in foreign policy. With a shared sense of alarm, Republicans and Democrats alike accused Trump of betrayal.
Certainly, it was a betrayal of the Kurdish partners who bled for us in the fight against the Islamic State. It was also a betrayal of process—leaving our military leaders and diplomats struggling to keep up with tweets, our allies in the dark, our messaging all over the map, and chaos on the ground.
If all this episode engenders, however, is a bipartisan dip in the warm waters of self-righteous criticism, it will be a tragedy—or worse, a mistake. We have to come to grips with the deeper and more consequential betrayal of common sense—the notion that the only antidote to Trump’s fumbling attempts to disentangle the United States from the region is a retreat to the magical thinking that has animated so much of America’s moment in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.
I served as a career diplomat throughout most of this era, sharing in our successes as well as our failures. Despite important achievements, we all too often misread regional currents and mismatched ends and means. In our episodic missionary zeal, especially after the terrible jolt to our system on 9/11, we tended to overreach militarily and underinvest diplomatically. We let our ambitions outstrip the practical possibilities of a region where perfect is rarely on the menu, and second- and third-order consequences are rarely uplifting. The temptations of magical thinking, the persistent tendency to assume too much about our influence and too little about the obstacles in our path and the agency of other actors, led to indiscipline and disappointments—steadily diminishing the appetite of most Americans for Middle East adventures.
That leaves American policy at a crossroads. Our moment as the singular dominant outside player in the Middle East has faded, but we still have a solid hand to play. The key to playing it well will be neither restoration of the inflated ambition and over-militarization of much of the post-9/11 period nor sweeping disengagement. Instead, we need a significant shift in the terms of our engagement in the region—lowering our expectations for transformation, ending our habit of indulging the worst instincts of our partners and engaging in cosmic confrontation with state adversaries, finding a more focused and sustainable approach to counterterrorism, and putting more emphasis on diplomacy backed up by military leverage, instead of the other way around.
America’s post–Cold War journey in the Middle East looked a lot more promising at first than it does today. Blessed with a stronger geopolitical position than its successors, the George H. W. Bush administration was also less prone to magical thinking. The administration brought discipline to the challenge of mobilizing the Desert Storm coalition—and to resisting the temptation to pursue fleeing Iraqi forces to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Secretary of State James Baker masterfully orchestrated the Madrid peace conference between Arabs and Israelis, but kept his expectations in check, careful not to overpromise what might come of the long slog of negotiations.
Bill Clinton built on that foundation, with painstaking progress throughout the 1990s but a debilitating setback at the Camp David Summit in 2000. George W. Bush’s modest successes, such as persuading Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya to abandon terrorism and a rudimentary nuclear program, were overwhelmed by the massive failure of the Iraq War in 2003. That tragically unnecessary conflict laid bare the deep and violent fissures of Iraq, opened the playing field for Iranian ambitions, and unsettled Arab partners already drowning in their domestic dysfunctions. The War on Terror crowded out other priorities. To the extent that the administration tried to press other concerns—about the political and economic stagnation on which terrorists fed, for example—the debacle in Iraq and our own War on Terror abuses made us unpersuasive messengers.
Barack Obama was the last person who needed to be convinced that America’s fantasies in the Middle East were often self-defeating, and he was clear-eyed about the need to shift our approach. But he never managed to escape his inheritance. His early, lofty hopes for a “new beginning” fell victim to the unsynchronized passions of the region and its leaders, most visibly during the Arab Spring and most painfully in the Syrian civil war. The ambitions of his long game—redirecting America’s focus to the Asia-Pacific, reversing the inversion of force and diplomacy, and reducing the U.S. military footprint—collided with the vexations of the region and the tactical missteps of our short game.
Despite the notable accomplishment of the Iran nuclear deal, adjusting the terms of our engagement was harder than Obama had anticipated. Most of the region’s players were accustomed to America’s centrality in their world, and schizophrenic in their simultaneous resentments and expectations of American influence. While we saw the Arab Spring as a window of opportunity and the Iran agreement as a demonstration of the value of hard-nosed diplomacy, most of our friends saw them as existential dangers. They continually exaggerated our ability to affect events, and we did the same.
Trump’s diagnosis of the pathologies of U.S. policy in the Middle East was in some ways similar to Obama’s, and his anti-establishment view struck a chord with many Americans. As Trump saw it, we were suckers for taking on too much and gaining too little in the Middle East, where people had been fighting for millennia, and where we had no obvious responsibility or capacity to fix things. Trump’s prescription, however, has been crudely drawn and ineptly executed, a reflection of his own distinct brand of magical thinking.
Rather than rebalancing diplomacy and force, he has so far abandoned the former and misplayed the latter. His big idea was the flawed notion that you could shoehorn American strategy into a grand coalition against Iran, stretching from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel to Gulf Arab autocracies. The result has been spectacularly corrosive for American interests. Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear accord and launched a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran, untethered to realistic goals, an idiosyncratic model of coercive diplomacy that was all coercion and no diplomacy. Iran made clear that it had a vote too, escalating tensions in the Gulf and edging steadily away from nuclear limits. The U.S. dispatched 3,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia just as the president was insisting that he was scaling back the American military presence in the region.