Saudi Arabia and Iran have normalized relations in a move set to modify the regional balance of forces. A Saudi-Iranian peace will not be durable. Indeed, there is no sign that the negotiations have resolved fundamental differences between Riyadh and Tehran, differences that run back decades. Western observers should not be fooled: the deal does nothing to stabilize the Middle East. Instead, it indicates the complete death of the Middle East status quo, and the need for forceful engagement, and a coherent strategy, on the part of the United States.
The concept of a “status-quo power” has significant merit in international relations. Yet terminological precision is crucial. A status-quo power is one that seeks to preserve the current situation, whether that be specific territorial arrangements or a regional or international system. A “revisionist” power, by contrast, seeks to modify or overturn some element of the system as it stands, if not all of it.
The trouble with these intellectual categories is that they require a “status quo” to defend in the first place. For a status quo to exist, there must be some loosely identifiable characteristics of a regional system that can be preserved. In Europe, these arguably still exist. Only Ukraine’s borders have been violated, while European NATO remains intact, and, the economic and political institutions that have evolved over the past 50 years remain in place. Indeed, the defense of Ukraine can be seen as the defense of the geopolitical status quo, because it is through and within Ukraine that Russia seeks to revise the status quo, and has sought to do so since 2014.
In the Middle East, however, there is no longer a status quo. This is because the U.S. never made it a matter of policy to preserve a specific regional system when it was the largest external power in the Middle East. The U.S., more accurately, never constructed or sponsored a regional system. The UK’s withdrawal from the Middle East between 1968 and 1971 eliminated a systemically continuous actor. The British approach, meanwhile, was exceptionally active – a reasonably small military footprint was placed alongside a competent, well-informed foreign service and intelligence apparatus to sustain regional stability.
The U.S. never created a similar system. Instead, it sought to partner with specific regional powers to maintain the apparent status quo, which meant not a sustainable long-term structure, but instead the absence of large-scale warfare. Iran was the U.S.’ first partner, a mistake insofar as the Shah was both too weak to maintain power but Iran too headstrong to serve as a viable regional policeman.
Once Iran’s current theocrats came to power in 1979, the U.S. turned to Saudi Arabia, and to a degree Israel, to preserve a semblance of order. Yet there was never an identifiable period of regional stability. Iran and Iraq hammered each other for eight long years.
Immediately afterward, an impoverished Iraq with the world’s fourth-largest army invaded Kuwait and was humbled by an American-led coalition. This triggered a decade of simmering Iraqi internal conflict and generated two regional threats, an Iran with unmistakable expansionist ambitions and an Iraq ruled by an ideologically poisonous, borderline psychotic dictator who funded Palestinian suicide bombers. The U.S. then intervened in 2003, but again absent a coherent regional structure for the future.
The Obama administration’s policy of Realignment stemmed from the same mix of maundering strategic planning. Like his predecessors since the 1979 Revolution, Barack Obama never seemed to identify the Middle East’s strategic importance. Unlike his predecessors, he was willing to break with the American policy of de facto strategic neglect – a policy that sought “change through sanctions application” and by extension the avoidance of war. Instead, Obama believe that a regional order could be created, one that included Iran, China, and Russia. All were meant to be responsible partners in a new Middle East, a Middle East no longer characterized by sectarian violence, but instead one in which the Gulf States, Iran, and by implication Israel “shared” the region.
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Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.