The U.N. Security Council met on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week. But when it came time for U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley to speak, she avoided the issue completely. She wanted to talk about Iran, how repressive its regime is domestically, and how destabilizing it is regionally. This, of course, isn’t a new role for Haley—she has incredible anti-Iran credentials (valuable currency in Washington, D.C.) and was reportedly the most influential national security official in the Trump administration lobbying the president to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal.
But her insistence on devoting her remarks exclusively to Tehran’s negative behavior in the region—behavior that not even the staunchest supporter of the nuke deal would deny—is quite a dramatic turn of events. It reveals the Trump administration’s obsession with Iran as the sole instigator of Middle Eastern instability and chaos.
While adopting this position and using these talking points may make for good domestic politics, they definitely don’t make for good foreign policy. Indeed, the White House specifically and the foreign policy establishment in particular would be doing themselves and the country a disservice if they didn’t at least acknowledge that other states in the region, including those Washington has long supported, are also causing tremendous grief as well.
Iran may be the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, but this doesn’t excuse the Arab Gulf states for their tolerance of, and past outright support for, madrassas, which teaches an extremist interpretation of Islam that is grist for the jihadist mill. Nor does it overlook the unfortunate reality that U.S. policy in the Middle East over the last decade and a half — culminating in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the major balancer of Iranian influence in the region -- has presented numerous strategic opportunities for Tehran to fill.
Saudis with deep pockets, for instance, have continued to send donations to the Taliban in Afghanistan at the same time that Saudi officials in Riyadh pledge for a diplomatic end to the war. Private financing from Saudi Arabia, the New York Times reported last year, “spawned hundreds of universities, madrasas and radical groups that have extended Sunni influence and that Afghans fear are sowing seeds of future turmoil.” If Pakistan is playing a double game by providing weapons, intelligence support, and safe haven to the Taliban, Saudi Arabia is engaging in the very same duplicitous with its fundraising.
Qatar has come in for special scrutiny since this summer when a Saudi-led bloc cut off diplomatic relations with the small Gulf state over allegations that Doha is a patron of both Sunni and Shia jihadist groups. A controversial prisoner swap agreement this year, in which Qatar paid an Iraqi Shia militia linked to Iran hundreds of millions of dollars in return for the release of members of the royal family who were taken prisoner, encapsulates the extent to which the Qataris have been willing to use their wealth to broker short-term deals regardless of the cost.
Kuwait, a country made famous by Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990, has been a key U.S. ally for decades. The U.S. military operates multiple bases on Kuwaiti soil, is an intelligence ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and has been an enlisted member of the anti-Islamic State military coalition since U.S. aircraft bombed the ISIS fighting position. And yet despite this relationship, U.S. Treasury Department officials in the past labeled Kuwait “the epicenter of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria.” The Kuwaiti government didn’t outlaw terrorist financing until 2013—and even then, implementation of the law has been judged by U.S. officials to be less than ideal.
And then there is Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s major powers whose foreign policy has become far more aggressive under King Salman. Unfortunately, that aggressiveness has come with a steep price, especially in the Arab world’s poorest country. Riyadh’s 2.5-year bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen has been so indiscriminate that it seems like civilian targets are as likely to be destroyed as fighting positions and weapons storage facilities. Hospitals, schools, clinics, houses, and even funeral processions have been bombed out and leveled to the ground, wiping out whatever basic public infrastructure Yemenis had.
The Saudi-led coalition has also needlessly delayed the export of food and medicine to Yemen. According to a confidential U.N. report, Saudi Arabia is stopping vessels trying to dock in Yemen’s ports—the same ships that are carrying the very supplies that would help address the malnourishment and disease now plaguing Yemen.
Why does all of this matter to the U.S.? Because operating an effective foreign policy requires accurate information -- an impartial, facts-based outlook of what is happening in the Middle East, who is doing what, and whether it complicates America’s policy in the region or facilitates it. In other words: accepting the region as it is, not how we want it to be.
To assume that all of the region’s ills emanate from Tehran and are part of a grand scheme by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to colonize the Arab world, as the Trump administration seems to believe, is a highly simplistic view of the situation. The truth is there are complex, competing interests warring with each other. Rather than trying to solve these problems, which are disconnected from our security, U.S. foreign policy should focus on eliminating terrorist threats to our homeland, securing our economic interests, preventing any one country from dominating another, and assisting with regional diplomacy when U.S. national security interests are affected.
A central component of an effective, realistic foreign policy is accepting difficult truths. And the truth is that Iran, while contributing to conflict in the Middle East, isn’t the only accelerant. And knocking another regime down would not do anything to improve prospects for the region, while further burdening U.S. taxpayers.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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