America's Middle East foreign policy is on autopilot

America's Middle East foreign policy is on autopilot
5 min read

Kevin Schwartz

06 February, 2024
For decades, the US has refused to move past its misguided policies and unwavering support for Israel, with no regard for the human cost, writes Kevin Schwartz.
The US's support for Israel's war on Gaza is one of the hallmarks of its Middle East policy that continues to erode its credibility in the region, writes Kevin Schwartz. [Getty]

As Israel continues to pummel Gaza in response to Hamas’ 7 October attack, US foreign policy in the Middle East is on autopilot.

Automated responses, like the never-ending supply of US arms and foreign aid, the undying commitment to Israel’s “right to defend itself” and blocking of humanitarian resolutions at the United Nations – no matter the cost to human life – remain the hallmarks of US policy.

Such well-trodden policies and tired cliches appear impervious to change, no matter the decade or even century, unable to evolve with the times, adapt to new facts on the ground, or recalibrate in the face of public outcry, dissent from US government officials, widespread support for a ceasefire, and an International Court of Justice ruling that Israel must refrain from genocide.

They seemingly have been and always will be. US policy toward Israel is predictably automated.

The automation of US foreign policy in the Middle East is not restricted to the country’s relationship with Israel, but plagues its approach to allies and enemies alike.

Across the region the US offers up the same predictable responses, none more so than prioritising the security of states above all else, even if it means creating security states through transfers of armaments, surveillance tools, and technologies that have the potential to harm, imprison, and kill civilian populations.

Long-standing US regional allies, nearly all of whom are autocracies or monarchies, continue to benefit from ongoing transfers of US-manufactured conventional and small arms, aircraft, and armoured vehicles to bolster both their internal security and brand their regional military interventions with “Made in the USA”.

Despite these misuses, the arms spigot continues uninterrupted, as does the branding of recipients of US arms as “important force[s] for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East.”

Dismembered journalists, jailed dissidents, and human rights violations appear of little concern. Allegiance over democracy and state security over human security is predictably automatic.

So too is the idea that Iran is at the heart of all regional woes. No (mis)deed across the region, whether by Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, subunits of the PMF in Iraq, or Hamas in Gaza can seemingly be understood without the predictable assumption that Iran is the prime mover, the hidden grand puppeteer, and the major force of regional instability.

Those groups that Iran supports – which they do to varying degrees and effects, often resulting in destruction and the loss of human life – are understood as nothing more than pliant proxies, wilful stooges of an masterplan stemming from Tehran, as if they have no strategic interests, displeasure with a US-led regional security architecture and military interventions, or any agency at all to act on their own.

It is an overvalued assumption that runs the risk of miscalculation, escalation, and the internationalisation of conflicts that have the potential to otherwise be solved through more local solutions. The ongoing need to continually “confront Iran,” at the expense of all other approaches, is predictably automatic.

Any slight modifications to such long-standing automated US policies and assumptions in the region, like support for the Egyptian population at the expense of the autocrat Hosni Mubarak or the signing of a nuclear deal with Iran, are not so much aberrations, as glitches in the program, inconsistencies that need to be ironed out and corrected, often times rewritten with even fuller force than before.

Sign a negotiated deal with a sworn enemy to limit their nuclear capabilities? See it quickly dismantled.

Abet the ouster of a regional dictator like Mubarak? Back his equally dictatorial successor Sisi even more so.

Call out a stalwart ally like Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses? Backtrack and reaffirm the working relationship with a fistbump and handshake.

And if all else fails, then revert to one of the program's most automated features – label those that threaten your interests as terrorists and bomb them – as we are currently seeing in Yemen, despite its potential for humanitarian disaster and distress to civilians.

Deeply inflexible and incapable of pivoting away from approaches that clearly are not working, these automated approaches cost the US credibility and influence with key audiences at home and abroad, not to mention putting regional populations at severe risk.

Whether it’s unquestioned support for Israel, propping up autocracies, or an over-zealous focus on Iran as the cause of all regional instability, US policy persists in spite of the facts, the risks, and the presumed unavailability of any alternative.

Until the US rethinks the automated policies toward a region designated as paramount to its security – but ironically continues to suffer the most because of it – the same misguided actions will yield the same misguided results.

Kevin L. Schwartz is a Deputy Director and Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

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