The American foreign policy in the Middle East since the demise of the Soviet Union has oscillated between neoliberal and neoconservative interventionism. Both strategies have had long-term detrimental consequences for the United States’ national interest and the peoples in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. Fundamentally, both strategies ignore the welfare of the peoples in the region. Similarly, the historically-dominant Realist perspective of U.S. foreign policy has had a ‘state-centric’ view of the world based on power politics and the pursuit of national interest that, despite its simplicity and efficiency, is neutral on the State’s ‘regime type,’ treating all states equal in matters of national sovereignty. This also implies that peoples’ welfare in any state is a matter of national sovereignty and is subject to non-interference by other states and central international actors like the United Nations.
The United States has, however, a long history of foreign policy interventionism in the name of national interest and peace but in violation of political realism, e.g., the balance of power, off-shore balancing. So, if president Donald Trump’s pull back from Syria appeals to political realists, his incoherent policy approach toward Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Russia leaves doubts about his administration’s true understanding of political realism and its principles. The Progressive movement of the turn of the last century that sought to further social and political reform also failed in its idea of U.S. foreign policy as a force for positive change in the face of Realpolitik. This was despite its domestic agenda aiming at curbing political corruption and limiting the political influence of large corporations. The result was earlier U.S. interventions and colonialism in the form of American-Spanish war, intervention and occupation of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti.
An alternative U.S. approach can rely on international law and diplomacy and organizations, involving an expanded and restructured United Nations and other multilateral institutions and organizations in the service of sustainable development and global governance. International intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and its functional agencies (e.g., WHO, ILO, WIPO, UNESCO, IEA, OPCW, UNCDF, UNESCO, others), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, The International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the European Union can and are central players in global governance. Calls for the reform of the United Nations’ Security Council and other IGOs’ is not new and are really needed. (Recall, for example, the only expansion of the UN Security Council occurred in 1965, and there have been genuine debates for reform within the World Trade Organization framework.) The urgency of world politics today demands a more responsible global governance based on international law and through multilateralism and diplomacy to avert looming sociopolitical, economic, and environmental calamities.
The 20th Century witnessed the death of 170 million people as victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The post-cold war alone has witnessed numerous conflicts, wars of aggression, failed states, acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, terrifying environmental degradation and climatic concerns, and deregulated, hyper-capitalism with repeated international economic and financial crises (1994 Mexican Tequila crisis; 1997 Asian Economic Crisis; 2000 Dotcom crisis; 2007-08 (somewhat still ongoing) housing and financial crisis, just to name a few). The 21st Century has already witnessed high crimes committed, among others, in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Myanmar.
The intention of this article is not to engage in a discussion of how to reform and build mechanisms necessary for a more constructive global governance. Instead, my contention is that strengthening the function and the utility of international law and institutions can greatly enhance global human security and governance. It can also help reduce the risk of major powers’ confrontation, evident in the conflictual world politics in the post-cold war aftermath. This can also help the United States to avoid continuously getting involved in global conflicts in the name of humanitarianism while violating international laws and principles. A point of departure here for analysis is to review and highlight deficiencies inherent in the U.S. Mideast policy, if not its overall foreign policy behavior built on paradigmatic assumptions and principles.
The U.S. Mideast policy has ignored the long-lasting crisis of governance that has left most of the populace of the Arab MENA region under authoritarian regimes, humiliated by defeat in wars, chronic inefficiencies and corruption, and overall poor governance. Both the neoconservatives and the neoliberals have selectively advocated support for authoritarian regimes and regime change through direct military intervention (the neoconservatives) or through pressure and NATO action in the name of human rights and humanitarian interventionism (neoliberals). Both paradigms’ supporters in the U.S. foreign policy establishment are selective in their views on the significance of ‘principles’ and values” in determining policy choices: both are comfortable with supporting authoritarian but friendly regimes in the region (and indeed elsewhere in the world) while ignoring continuing human rights abuses in places like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf States.
The United States throughout the 1990s remained the unmatched hegemonic power, supported by a booming domestic economy that saw economic growth throughout the 1990s: Between 1993 and 2000, the United States exhibited the best economic performance of the previous three decades. In 2000, its economic expansion surpassed in length the expansion of the 1960s, and thus became the longest on record. During Clinton’s second term, real economic growth averaged 4 ½ percent per year, and unemployment fell to 4 percent, although by the year 2000 the economy had returned to approximately the same point in the business cycle it had occupied in 1990.
The ‘successful’ Persian Gulf War of 1991 saw Iraqi forces ejected from Kuwait and facilitated U.S. troops’ presence in the holiest land of Islam in Saudi Arabia. It emboldened the first post-cold-war American administration to counter Iraqi and Iranian ‘bellicose’ foreign policy posture through a ‘dual containment’ policy and to also push for ‘the settlement of the long-enduring Arab (Palestinian)–Israeli conflict. Both China and the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin acquiesced to the American leadership in the Middle East and cooperated in the United Nations’ Security Council.
China’s eagerness for its further integration into the global political economy after 1989 Tiananmen Square incident ensured their cooperation. The Russian Federation’s embrace of an ‘economic shock-therapy’ to fix their ailing economy in the 1990s meant their full-fledged cooperation with the United States in the UNSC to pass resolution 660 (1990) to rally the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq to liberate Kuwait. Meanwhile, the United States’ push for the Oslo peace process led to the Oslo I (1993) and Oslo II (1995) agreements that also brought along the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement in 1994, and the Wye River Memorandum in October 1998, outlining further Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
The consolidation of U.S. hegemonic presence in the region in the 1990s, however, remained largely insensitive to the continuing worsening of the socioeconomic and political situation in much of the Arab World. The 1990s witnessed the US dual containment policy of Iraq and Iran, resulting in the additional death of one half million of Iraqi infants in addition to its natural rate of mortality, and the expansion of Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories despite Oslo agreements. The U.S. military presence in the region throughout the 1990s also ensured support for notorious regimes such as those in Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf states, while anti-American sentiments remained widespread in the region. Terrorists’ attacks on U.S. interests continued throughout the 1990s, culminating in the 1996 Khobar Tower attack in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.
The September 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks set the tone for the ‘new’ U.S. policy in the MENA region. The neoconservative camp in the George W. Bush administration did not hesitate to use the American military might in a new push to ‘rejuvenate’ the American hegemonic moment that had since 1990 dominated the world but had ‘remained underutilized.’ The United States in the post 9/11 world had the military and economic means, but it now had the ideological backbone behind a new strategy to change the world in its own image: to export democracy and to punish those opposing it, birthing the Bush Administration’s ‘Preemption Doctrine’ The declared war on terrorism only ‘legitimated’ a broader policy of interventionism, continuing support of authoritarian regimes and solidifying support for the state of Israel, while securing access to the region’s lucrative oil, natural gas, and consumer and financial markets, including the ever pervasive arms market.
Modern militant movements like the Wahhabis, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries in the tribal Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood beginning in the 1920s, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda since the 1980s, and a plethora of other extremist movements in the past few decades have aimed to take over the state to ‘restore’ justice and harmony through ‘Islamic governance.’ The U.S. policy of regime change (Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Libya 2011, Syria, ongoing), the expansion of a perpetual war on terror to Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and parts of the African continent has opened the gates of political rivalries and open conflict. It has strengthened the resolve of militant Muslim groups in countering the U.S. military presence and its support for political status quo in the name of stability. Mainstream and militant Muslim groups alike have taken full advantage of the chaos to claim their own space as alternative visionaries in matters of politics and governance. The prolongation of American military occupation, political wrangling among competing Iraqi Shi’a and Sunni elites and groups, and al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism initially targeted the U.S. and its allies.
However, Iraqi chaos created the environment for the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who broke off from al-Qaeda, with a deliberate strategy of inflaming sectarian and communal violence. In October 2004, Al-Zarqawi declared himself the “emir” of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. His followers broke from al- Qaeda, renaming itself the Islamic State of Iraq in late 2006, about four months after al-Zarqawi was killed by a targeted American airstrike. This along with the ineptitude of the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad and the foreign occupation ensured the rise of extreme ideologies, facilitating the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Daesh has thrived on ultra-conservatism and sectarian killings in the name of its ‘true’ version if Islam ever since, while supported by the very authoritarian regimes responsible for its creation through ideological, financial, and political support, and under the U.S. protection!
The U.S. Mideast policy is short-sighted, inconsistent, and fundamentally ignores the welfare of the peoples in the region in pursuit of pragmatic national interest, or often in the interest of special interest groups and constituencies like the AIPAC, the oil industry, the arms manufacturers and the like, and in defiance of a realistic foreign policy. The gap between the rhetoric and policy encapsulated in selective and inconsistent behavior in matters of human rights and principles remain problematic. If the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 proved Saddam’s butchery and adventurism to the West, he was only praised and supported for his war against the Iranians! The eight years of a bloodbath in Saddam’s war against Iran throughout 1980s and the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Iraq’s Kurdish population and the massacre of Shi’a and Kurdish population in March and April 1991 became only footnotes in the overall strategy of stability, security, and the protection of the State of Israel! Fast-forward to Syria in April 2017 and again April 2018, when the use of chemical weapons is used as justification of two US and allies’ missile attacks on Syrian territory in the long-running civil war since 2011.
The message of such strikes does not escape the sharp mind: U.S. (and the UK and France) can break international law while acting as the judge, the jury, and the enforcer. The outcry over the death of over one hundred victims of both chemical attacks, by still undetermined entities and as horrible as that is, fails to raise outrage over the death of half a million in the Syrian civil war, instigated and illegally intervened by multiple rivaling parties! (Recall, the U.S. presence in Syria without a UNSC mandate or a Syrian government invitation is illegal.) This is while the use of Phosphorous and cluster bombs by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Israel in Lebanon and Gaza are totally ignored! The war on Yemen lacks any legal foundation and the United States has played a large role in providing weapons, intelligence, targeting expertise, and logistical support to the so-called Saudi-led coalition. The United Nations blacklisted the coalition for killing and injuring 683 children in Yemen and attacking dozens of schools and hospitals in 2016 alone.
In closing, imagine if the U.S. hegemonic moment in the 1990s had invested money and energy in reforming and strengthening international institutions and the meaningful rule of international law and diplomacy in the elevation of human security and liberty. Instead, the first UN intervention in the service of collective security since the Korean War in 1950 saw the restoration of Kuwaiti sovereignty, but the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through the war and the subsequent sanctions led to no attempt at reforming the UN! Similarly, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, that remains unresolved seventeen years later, could have been averted: an international tribunal could have tried members of al-Qaeda responsible for their crimes against humanity. Later, the fabrication of the Iraqi regime in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in 2003 led to an illegal war, causing regional and extra-regional interventions and the lives of millions adversely affected! The U.S-led NATO illegal operation in Kosovo in 1999 only emboldened its operation over Libya in 2011 that expectedly proved the initial calls for liberty and freedom in Libya hollow!
While the United States has spent hundreds of billions on perpetual wars, the Europeans at least promoted the cause of integration and cooperation through international mechanisms: The creation of the European Union (1993), the WTO (1995), the Kyoto Protocol (1997), the adoption of common monetary union (1999), and the creation of the International Criminal Court (1998). Conversely, the United States continues to defy a serious and persistent conduct of foreign policy behavior within the framework of international law, institutions, and norms while preaching it loudly: the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in June 2002, that led to Russia’s withdrawal from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) in the same year, its refusal, until today, to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), and its June 2017 withdrawal from the mainly voluntary adherence to the 2015 Paris climate agreement only demonstrate a unilateral and detrimental approach to global governance. The United States and the global community can do much better than this.
 Stephen M. Walt, “Has Trump Become a Realist?” Foreign Policy, April 17, 2018. http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/17/has-trump-become-a-realist/
 Sami G. Hajjar, “U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf: Challenges and Prospects,” U.S. Army War College, March 2002, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub185.pdf
 F. Greogry Gause, “The Illogic of Dual Containment”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/1994-03-01/illogic-dual-containment
 Newsweek Staff, “Shock therapy—With Emphasis on Shock,” 1/12/1992, http://www.newsweek.com/shock-therapy-emphasis-shock-197912 ; Jeffrey Sachs, “What I Did in Russia,” March 14th, 2012, http://jeffsachs.org/2012/03/what-i-did-in-russia
 Council on Foreign Relations, “The Bush Administration’s Doctrine of Preemption (and Prevention): When, How, Where,” Foreign Affairs, February 1, 2004, http://www.cfr.org/world/bush-administrations-doctrine-preemption-prevention-/p6799
 The Islamic Supreme Council of America, “Islamic Radicalism: Its Wahhabi Roots and Current Implications,”
 Ted Kemp, “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the man who founded ISIS,” CNBC, Thursday, 11 August 2016, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/11/who-founded-isis-abu-musb-al-zarqawi-started-the-terror-group.html
 Michelle Nichols, “UN blacklists Saudi-led coalition for killing children in Yemen,” Reuters, October 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-saudi-un/u-n-blacklists-saudi-led-coalition-for-killing-children-in-yemen-idUSKBN1CA2NI
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