The names of the beasts in the fables are subject to change. The logic of the fable is always the same. One example: a scorpion needs to cross a river and so he enlists a frog to carry him across. “But you will sting me,” says the frog to ward off the would-be rider. “Why would I do that?” says the scorpion. ”That would kill us both.” The frog agrees and they set off across the river. Midway across, the scorpion stings the frog, which says – “now we’re both dead.” Says the scorpion as he and the frog sink to the bottom of the river – “That’s the Middle East.”
No region on earth seems so beset, in fables and in reality, with tales of self-interest pushed to self-destruction, or at least to wanton destruction of parties as innocent as the frog in the story.
Disentangling rivals bent on mutual murder, finding ways to bridge conflicts and transport all parties to peace and stability often seem to be the missions that define American policy in the Mideast.
No such balancing acts bothered the mostly non-diplomats, actual disbelievers in diplomacy, who ran foreign affairs under the Trump Administration. They had their Mideast favorites – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – and almost everyone else, Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Yemenis, could go to Hell.
It’s not surprising that for the incoming Biden Administration several of the top priorities are changing policies, cleaning up messes affecting U.S. relations with Syria, Iraq, Iran and – first of all – Yemen, while doing minimal damage to alliances with the Israelis, Saudis and Emeratis.
Accomplishing these often-conflicting goals will take a lot of what the late, longtime dictator-president of Yemen famously described as his method of governance – “Dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Elizabeth Hagedorn is a correspondent for Al-Monitor covering Middle East policymaking in Washington and breaking news. She previously reported on the region as a freelance journalist in Turkey and Iraq for publications including Middle East Eye, The National and The Guardian. On Twitter: @ElizHagedorn. Email: email@example.com.