When did the Cold War end? Was it 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down or 1991 when the Soviet Union came apart? 30 years ago, however you figure it. So how come American policies in the Middle East still have that Cold War mentality?
Two ideas define “Cold War mentality:” the first isn’t even an idea, but a feeling, that everything in life comes down to one simple choice — us or them? In the bipolar Cold War competition between American democracy and Soviet Communism the whole point to U.S. foreign policy was to get countries to give the right answer to “which side are you on?”
The other Cold War idea was, of all the kinds of international competition, including business, culture and diplomacy, warfare trumped everything. The rewards offered countries to become America’s allies often were gifts of, or discounts on, American weapons, sometimes even the presence of American boots on the ground.
Welcome to today’s Middle East. 50,000 American troops in Iraq and Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, the U.A.E., Qatar, Oman and elsewhere, and enormous arms sales to the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia… and billions in American aid, most of it military, concentrated on just three countries: Israel — the richest state in the region, Jordan, perhaps the most insignificant, and Egypt, a corrupt police state.
But, all three of them are with “us” against Iran, the new “other side” for Mideast Cold War revivalists. Here’s how the “choose ‘em up” mentality works out in the real world: one excuse both the Obama and Trump Administrations gave for supporting the hideous, Saudi air war on Yemen was that the Saudis’ enemies were allied with Iran, however tenuously. Then, there was the American military attack that killed Iranian General Qassim Suleimani, a gratuitous “show of strength” that predictably set off a string of tit-for-tat retaliations which produce death and destruction and – strategically – nothing.
When it came to the Paris climate change accords and the World Health Organization, Biden foreign policy pivoted away from Trump isolationism swiftly and decisively. But in the Middle East, not so much.
Dalia Dassa Kaye is a 2020-2021 Wilson Center Scholar. She was a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and served as the director of its Center for Middle East Public Policy from 2012-2020. Before joining RAND in 2005, Kaye lived in The Netherlands where she was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Dutch Foreign Ministry and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam. In 2011-2012 she was a visiting professor and fellow at UCLA’s International Institute and Burkle Center. From 1998-2003 Kaye was an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University. She is the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including a Brookings Institution research fellowship and The John W. Gardner Fellowship for Public Service. Kaye speaks and publishes widely on Middle East regional security issues and has appeared in many media outlets. She is the author of two books, Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia and Beyond the Handshake: Multilateral Cooperation in the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, as well as dozens of journal articles, op-eds and RAND reports.