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The United States Needs to Rein in Its Regional Allies

By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)

(Photo: Tribes of the World / Flickr)

The interests of the great powers and their regional allies have seldom totally coincided, and often their interests have diverged in important ways. This was even true during the Cold War era, despite the fact that within each competing camp allies shared the same ideology.

This lack of coincidence of interest stems in major part from geographical differences and the fact that the interests of the great powers’ regional allies are bounded by their specific geography. Another main reason is the inevitable difference of historical experience, including the patterns of friendships and enmities of regional states with their great-power patrons. As a result, regional states’ perceptions of interests and threats often sharply differ from the priorities of their great power allies.

A further complicating factor is that, as a general rule, great powers seek the cooperation of regional states to help them achieve their global interests. By contrast, regional countries seek great-power alliances in order to strengthen their positions vis-a-vis regional rivals and prevail over them. Thus, Pakistan’s main motivation for aligning itself with the United States was to strengthen its position regarding India rather than to fight communism. Some Arab countries aligned themselves with the USSR more because of their dispute with Israel than any strong commitment to the Soviet ideology.

These inevitable asymmetries between the interests of regional states and their great-power allies have become more pronounced in the post-Cold War era as ideology as an element of unity disappeared and other factors, such geography and history, reasserted their role in determining states’ visions of their interests. Yet because of the persistence of many of the Cold War-era mindsets, major international actors, especially the United States, have not yet adjusted to the new realities of their relations with their so-called regional allies. Consequently, some regional allies of the United States have continued to use America to advance their own narrow goals rather than help the US to achieve its objectives, although the regional allies often portray their objectives as being congruent with American interests. More important, in many instances some of the obsessions and unreasonable fears of America’s regional allies have prevented the US from pursuing policies that are in its own best interests.

Take the case of US-Pakistani relations, especially as they relate to Afghanistan. Since the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan has pursued an unrelenting policy of putting in place in Kabul a government subservient to Islamabad or, failing that, preventing Afghanistan’s stabilization. Between 1993 and 1998, US- Pakistan interests seemed to coalesce: America wanted to counter Iran in Afghanistan and Central Asia and Pakistan wanted a subservient regime in Kabul, which meant that both sides agreed to use the Taliban as an instrument of their policies.

But Pakistan continued its policy after the US changed its mind about the Taliban in 1998 and even after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Unless one credits conspiracy theories current in the region that the US does not want Afghanistan to be stabilized, because that would mean the end of US military presence there, America’s tolerance of Pakistan’s double-dealing behavior and continuation of US military and other aid to that country becomes hard to explain.

Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf Arab states also supported the Taliban. In fact, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries that recognized the Taliban-dominated government in Kabul that came to power in 1996. The only other “country” to do so was the Islamic Republic of Ichkeria (aka Chechnya). And they continued to support the Taliban after 2001. Otherwise, periodic rumors about Saudi mediation between the Taliban and the post-2001 Afghan government would not make sense, because Riyadh would have lacked influence over the Taliban.

Farther west in Iraq, America’s Arab allies did much to undermine its position there. Certainly, the excessive U.S. concern with Iran and its potential influence among Iraqi Shias also played important roles in Iraq’s evolution. However, the major responsibility for Iraq’s troubles lies with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Even Turkey, which until only a short while ago seemed to be a beacon of moderation and sanity in a deranged and tumultuous Middle East, succumbed to temptations provided by the collapse of the state structure in Iraq. Turkish policies have certainly not helped in Iraq’s stabilization. Ironically, Arab and Turkish policies have only helped to convince Iraqi Shias that Iran is their only potential ally.

Lastly, Syria’s popular uprising-which, despite Bashar al-Assad’s heavy-handedness, could have been managed more peacefully and might have even by now led to Assad’s removal through electoral means under international supervision-degenerated into a bloody civil war because of the excessive fears and ambitions of America’s regional allies. This is not to discount the contribution of Assad’s supporters to the current mess, but the real contributors to the radicalization of the Syrian opposition have been Sunni Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which helped create and funded groups such as Jabhat ul-Nusra.

Meanwhile, since 1988, when Iran signed the ceasefire agreement that ended the war with Iraq, America’s Arab allies, especially in the Persian Gulf, joined with Israel in opposing any US reconciliation with Iran. This has been a major reason for the continued estrangement between the two countries and the many missed opportunities for engagement. Opposition by the same American allies nearly scuttled the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Even now, these allies have not abandoned their efforts to keep the agreement from being implemented.

In short, the experience of the last nearly three decades should convince the United States that its own interests and those of its Middle East allies do not necessarily coincide and that it’s time for America to begin reassessing its regional connections and their value. At the very least, the US should not continue to indulge pseudo-allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when they exploit the United States for their own goals and to settle scores with their local rivals and enemies. Clearly, the United States needs to promote its core interests, such as Israel’s security and the free flow of hydrocarbons from the region. Nevertheless, the US should adopt a more realistic and flexible approach to working with regional countries. Above all, Washington must remember that its regional allies need it more that the US needs them.

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About the Author:

Shireen T. Hunter is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming September 2014).


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