The resolution this week of the budget crisis – at least for the rest of the year – has resulted in many Americans thinking once again about the problems of the Middle East.  Violence continues unabated in Syria, and just yesterday, in protest of what it perceived as United Nations inaction in the conflict, Saudi Arabia rejected a rotating two-year membership on the UN Security Council – a completely unprecedented move.
Paul R. Pillar, a longtime CIA veteran who was Deputy Director of its Counterterrorism Center in the 1990s, and who now serves as a visiting professor of security studies at Georgetown University, argues at The National Interest’s website that our government should look to the approach developed by President Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger when dealing with this troubled area of the world:

Perhaps the most successful U.S. diplomacy of the past half century was the management by Richard Nixon, aided by Henry Kissinger, of relations with other major powers in the early 1970s, and in particular the triangular diplomacy involving the Soviet Union and China.

Although some of what Nixon and Kissinger did was specific to the issues and circumstances of the great power politics of their time, their performance holds some transferable lessons. We should think carefully about the major attributes of their diplomatic approach and strategy.

They were not stuck in a bipolar mold, even though the Cold War was widely perceived as a world-shaping bipolar confrontation. They did not conceptually divide the world into good guys with whom to cooperate and bad guys to be opposed or shunned.

They did not let diplomacy be limited by repugnance over someone else’s domestic policies […] They had no particular attachments to other states that got in the way of their diplomatic maneuvering. Alliances were tools to be employed when appropriate in pursuit of U.S. interests, not impediments to that pursuit.

They used relations with each power as leverage in managing U.S. relations with other powers. The Soviets probably would have preferred that there had not been a rapprochement between the United States and China, but it was not up to the Soviets to determine that. The U.S. administration did not let any foreign state veto initiatives it made toward other foreign states.

The lessons can be applied to global great power politics of today, but the lessons also are scalable. They can be scaled down to a single region […] Moreover, the principles apply not just to triangular contexts such as the U.S.-Soviet-Chinese dynamic of the 1970s but to situations with more than three centers of power and action. Applying those principles to any region in which there are such multiple players, each of which is important to U.S. interests, is the best way to advance U.S. interests in the region in question.

The Middle East of today is such a region. […]It has several players that each present to the United States elements of both conflict and cooperation. Each has interests that parallel those of the United States, but each also has other pursuits and practices that cause problems for the United States. The players could be counted and grouped in different ways, but the principal ones are fairly obvious.

There are, for example, the Persian Gulf monarchies and especially the most sizable and significant one, Saudi Arabia. On one hand the Saudis share with the United States interests in the physical security and stability of the Gulf region, stability in the oil trade, and checking extremist violence. On the other hand they have an agenda that diverges from that of the United States and leads to some sharp disagreements with Washington and even troublesome behavior, such as with how the Saudis’ sectarian concerns shape their policy toward Syria and how their opposition to democratization (and hang-up about the Muslim Brotherhood) shapes their policy toward Egypt.

There are the Arab republics, which demonstrate a wide range of current problems and opportunities but of which Egypt is the most important by virtue of size and weight. The shared interests with the Egyptians center on stability and countering violent extremism, as well as other ones having to do with military cooperation. The divergent interests currently have mainly to do with Egypt’s sharp turn away from democratization and political rights. The problem in this regard for the United States is not one of American repugnance over someone else’s domestic policies but instead of the United States being associated in many other people’s minds with this type of harsh authoritarianism.

There is Israel, where again there are shared interests involving counterterrorism, as well as some involving military and technical cooperation. The divergent interests have to do most of all with Israel’s clinging — for religious or economic reasons the United States does not share — to occupied territory seized in war. The United States shares in the opprobrium and the costs, including ones involving the motivation of extremist violence, of this occupation, which is widely considered in the Middle East and beyond as profoundly unjust. The Israeli proclivity for quick use of military force in surrounding territories and states also is contrary to U.S. interests, both because of similar opprobrium and because of the destabilizing effects within the region of such military action.

There is Iran, which still has some of the same basis for parallel U.S. and Iranian interests as there were at the time of Nixon and the Shah. Today there are, for example, important shared interests regarding stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. Divergent interests have mostly to do with Iran’s relations with clients and allies elsewhere in the region, which have helped to shape its policies in places such as Syria.

Nixon and Kissinger worked a bit of their multipolar magic in the Middle East during and in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East war. Their deft diplomacy managed to strengthen a security relationship with Israel while also shepherding Egypt’s remarkable turnaround from a Soviet to a U.S. ally — while also keeping the Soviets out of the action in other respects.

But since the late 1970s (and since Jimmy Carter’s follow-up at Camp David of Anwar Sadat’s grand redirection of Egypt), U.S. policy in the Middle East has mostly been stuck in an inflexible and essentially bivalent mold. Partly this has been a reversion to Americans’ traditional Manichean way of looking at the world. Partly it has been reflexive reaction to outside events[…]

The frozen-frame distrust and hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is certainly one of the biggest hurdles between the situation we have now and the sort of enlightened, flexible, multi-polar Middle East diplomacy that would be far better at protecting and advancing U.S. interests in the region. That in turn is one of the biggest reasons the nuclear negotiations with Iran, resumed this week under new Iranian leadership, are so important.

The nuclear issue has to be tackled now because it has assumed, for better or worse, an outsize salience. But an agreement on this issue also would help to lead to a more normal relationship in which Washington and Tehran would deal with all of the issues that either divide them or on which they can make common cause, and in which they deal with each other as one of several relationships each has in the region rather than as a single all-consuming fixation.

A more normal relationship with Iran would provide the United States useful leverage in managing its other relationships with Middle Eastern states, whether those states are customarily counted as foes or as allies. It is this sort of liberation of American foreign policy in the Middle East that ultimately will be much more important than details about spinning centrifuges, break-out capabilities, and the like.

A second very large hurdle is closely related to the first one. It is the passionate U.S. attachment to Israel, leading to the abetting of damaging policies by the Israeli government and based on fears, habits and taboos in domestic American politics. The two hurdles are related because it is the Israeli government that is leading efforts to torpedo any U.S.-Iranian agreement and to prevent any deviation from unremitting punishment and ostracism of Iran by the United States.

With recent tentative signs of slight thawing in the frozen U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Israeli effort has intensified.

This second hurdle is the more formidable one, greater even than the legacy of the many years of mistrust and non-communication between America and Iran. Such a legacy can be overcome, if not continually reinforced by an outsider. The United States did not even recognize the Soviet regime until 15 years after it came into power. It would take World War II to bring about cooperation with Stalin, and several more decades of Cold War before detente under Nixon. The opening to China was more than 20 years after the People’s Republic was created, and full diplomatic relations were not established until several years later under Carter.

Some have argued that emulation of Nixon should go so far as the kind of presidential trip he made to Beijing. That certainly would be quite a boost toward getting U.S. Middle Eastern policy into a new and much more productive phase. It certainly would be dramatic; it would make believers of some who questioned why Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and it would provide great material to John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, for a new opera.

But it is very unlikely to happen, and it shouldn’t be necessary. What the United States needs is not Nixon’s drama but rather observance of Nixon’s strategic principles, including the principle that none of the foreign interlocutors of the United States should have a veto over the shape of relations with any of its other interlocutors. Observe those principles, and U.S. interests in the Middle East will be far better served than they have been for a long time.

Forty years ago this month, skillful diplomacy on the part of Dr. Kissinger and his aides, as well as decisive action on the part of President Nixon in providing military assistance to Israel, made possible a peaceful resolution of a war that threatened, at its darkest point, to produce a crisis as grave as any in world history.   As former White House speechwriter Ben Stein has pointed out so many times, RN’s multipolar approach to Mideast affairs helped preserve the Jewish state and, by splitting the alliance between Egypt and the Soviet Union, made possible the peace treaties between Egypt, Jordan and Israel in subsequent years. Certainly, President Obama’s White House has nothing to lose and much to gain by following the Nixon/Kissinger approach.