Middle East: Religion and Responsible American Engagement


Religion and Responsible American Engagement of the Middle East

The Review of Faith & International Affairs

By Chris Seiple 


Image: The political cartoons included in this are selected as tools to teach about public policy issues. Their inclusion does not in any way constitute an endorsement by Teachers College, Columbia University, of their point of view. [International New York Times]


Note: The is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article that will appear in The Review of Faith & International Affairs (www.tandfonline.com/rfia), Volume 14, Number 2 (Summer 2016). 


Paradoxically, the 2016 U.S. presidential election has thus far featured frequent affirmations of the importance of foreign policy, yet also an inability of most candidates and pundits to talk about foreign policy meaningfully. Especially with respect to the Middle East, the discourse has consisted largely of rather simple statements about how the next president might use (or not use) the American military in reaction to ISIS. But more drone strikes to kill terrorists, or more U.S. troops to stop ISIS, are not strategies, they are tactics—tactics that are counterproductive if they are not part of a broader vision and strategy, globally and regionally.


With this understanding, and advised by traditional and non-traditional experts, the next president should focus on the “mega-crisis” in Iraq-Syria1 through a process that, at every opportunity, explicitly and implicitly affirms and builds the capacity for people to live with their deepest political and theological differences. Put differently, never has a nuanced approach to integrating religious freedom been more needed in American foreign policy.


In particular, the president should seek a “buffer zone area” that balances and buttresses the confluence of competing interests. The president should: 

  • Convene an ongoing summit that re-considers the international boundaries of, at a minimum, Iraq-Syria;
  • Invest personally in the Syrian Peace Process; and,
  • Encourage the establishment of a new regional security structure, which would include a “Marshall Center” for teaching governance and citizenship (rooted in religious freedom’s requirement to live with and respect our deepest differences) to governmental and grassroots leaders alike, including faith communities and businesses.  

Given that these goals are quite big, and (perhaps) long-term, the president, in consultation with friends and allies, should in the near term also take the strategically significant but small step of creating a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain. Such a step would allow for a slower pace for the above actions, while helping to: protect those who have fled ISIS; stem the refugee flow to Turkey and Europe; delegitimize ISIS; demonstrate the mutual respect and mutual reliance required of good governance and citizenship; and, routinize working relationships that could contribute to a new regional security structure.  Finally, the above should be rooted in a Sunni-led defeat—militarily and theologically—of ISIS, followed by a Sunni-led and Sunni-funded (with international support) “Marshall Plan” for the region.   


The Current Situation in the Middle East


In 2008, I wrote a similar piece for these pages, titled, “Seizing the Middle East Moment.” I argued then that the next president should take a more integrated strategy to the region, rooted in robust religious freedom and public diplomacy per the interrelated foreign policy issues presented by Iran, Israel, and Iraq (Seiple 2008). Eight things have changed in the eight years since then.


First, President Obama came to office with a well-intentioned desire to see U.S. foreign policy less dominated by the Middle East, and less responsible for the region (coupled with a desire to give additional attention to Asia). Having run against the record of President George W. Bush, the president who started wars, President Obama was going to be the president that ended wars (Goldberg 2016).


Second, it turns out that the only thing worse than going to war without a strategy is leaving a war without a strategy (Seiple 2003a, Seiple 2003b).2 In 2011, President Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from an Iraq that he described as “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.” But then he also turned a blind eye to the persecution and torture of Sunnis by Prime Minister Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. By 2014, aggrieved Sunnis were ready to fight back and began joining what President Obama would call the “junior varsity,” the Islamic State (Charen 20153). 


Third, President Obama singularly pursued a nuclear deal with Iran with multifold effect. In a region where everything is interrelated, President Obama insisted on singularly addressing the nuclear issue, refusing to link it to any other issue. For example, Obama did not make as a precondition for talks the cessation of state-sponsored terrorism by Iran, or the release of innocent American hostages. Nor did he link the negotiations to Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. By choosing this singular approach, he clearly signaled to the region’s Sunnis that he was seeking to elevate Shia Iran into a regional balance of power with Sunni Saudi Arabia (presumably to make less work for U.S. leadership) (Badran 2016, Goldberg 2016). 


With the completion of the nuclear deal, sanctions on Iran were lifted: enabling Iran to begin integrating  into the global economy (helping millions of innocent Iranians who do not support their government), yet also making available  billions of frozen Iranian assets  to support Iran’s terrorism (which President Obama freely admitted) (Walsh 2015). Throughout the nuclear deal negotiations, Iran continued to build its infrastructure of influence in Iraq and Syria, ensuring it had a pipeline to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, while testing ballistic missiles intended to intimidate Israel (Independent 2016).


What I warned of in 2008, now exists: “Of course, if the situation gets worse, and an ascendant, perhaps nuclear Iran dominates a weak Iraq, it would put Iran right on everyone’s doorstep creating more tension and trouble than current regional security structures can handle” (Seiple 2008, 54). The result, when combined with Syria, is the emergence of an Iran-BaghdadAssad-Hezbollah-Russia axis that views itself as fighting Sunni terrorists. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel are drawing strategically closer (Sharkansky 2015).


Fourth, when the “Arab Spring” came, the Obama administration managed to mostly get it backwards in each context. When the Syria revolution began in 2011, the president failed to demonstrate any kind of support for those who took to the streets (Goldberg 2014); echoing his 2009 non-response to the Green Revolution in Tehran (Washington Post 2010).  And, no matter one’s opinion about whether Obama should have issued a “red line” regarding the 2013 use of chemical weapons by President Assad in Syria, that President Obama did not keep his public word deeply damaged the integrity of American foreign policy. Related, it is now conventional wisdom that not only has Russia stepped into the American-made vacuum, but that the U.S. is choosing to defer to Russia (Cohen 2016).  


When there seemed to be the threat of genocide in Libya before the death of Gaddafi, the U.S. led a coalition “from behind,” which de facto ensured that there was no practical follow-up

(Lyzza 2011). Today Libya is lawless and home to some 5,000 ISIS fighters (Banchiri 2016). And in Egypt, the Americans managed to alienate both the regime and the people in the streets during the 3 July 2013 coup (Kirkpatrick et al 2013).


Fifth, with the exception of Tunisia, the counter-revolution is firmly entrenched throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There is no place for non-violent Islamists in the public square, returning the region to the status quo ante and the vicious cycle of Arab authoritarian repression followed by terrorist attacks. ISIS and Sisi, it is said, are the same thing spelled backwards: they are from different ends of the political spectrum but they need and feed off of each other, validating their own existence, and thus their own increased violence against one another.4


Sixth, while it is true that the issue of an Islam-based terrorism has generally been a Sunni Arab problem—that is, al Qaeda, ISIS, et al, are Sunni originated and funded efforts—it is also true that Sunni Arabs are much less likely to trust the Americans today than they were eight years ago. In “Sunni eyes”—that is, from the perspective of Sunnis living in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia—it appears that the Obama administration has done everything possible to encourage Iran: from the nuclear deal to taking a back-seat to Russia-Iran regarding the peace negotiations in Syria. And thus it is natural for “Sunnis” to consider ISIS as a buffer against Iranian influence (Schmidt and Cooper 2016).


Seventh, there are new players. Foremost is Russia, which has taken advantage of the vacuum of international leadership, unilaterally deploying (and then removing some of) its forces to strengthen the Assad regime. The result has been to guarantee a port for Soviet ships in Latakia, while positioning Assad as an advance redoubt of the Russian homeland against terrorists. The move also strengthens President Putin at home as he demonstrates that Russia is indeed a great power—and, by comparison, that America is not so great—while also positioning himself, per the czars of old, as the defender of Christians (e.g., most of the Christians left in Syria are under Assad’s protection, as the other choice was ISIS). The combined result creates  more negotiation chips for Putin in the  international poker game for the future of Syria and Iraq,  as well as  Ukraine (Feldman 2015, Reynolds 2016).


China is also now a factor. It does not yet signal military involvement or even political involvement. But its economic power is undeniable. It will not seek “sides” anytime soon—but it will have to engage, perhaps sooner than it would like regarding counter-terrorism efforts. Most interesting will be whether or not China decides it needs a form of soft power to engage the region (e.g., helping with refugees, internally displaced people, etc.).


NATO ally Turkey remains the literal linchpin to all of the above issues. It has been tremendous in receiving over two million refugees. But it remains unclear what role Turkey will play, given its consistent inconsistency in trying to have it both ways on various issues.  It was for Assad before it was against him. It let foreign fighters into Syria (to fight with ISIS) before it said it stopped their transit. It allowed the Kurdish party to participate in domestic elections before not helping Kurds in Syria (e.g., Kobane). It says it is against ISIS, but has allowed ISIS to sell its oil (Tastekin 2014). It was for the free press before it was against it (Meral 2016).


Eighth, at least in my own eight visits to the region from October 2014 to March 2016, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the primary narrative through which Sunni Arab Muslims understand themselves. Rather, the twin crises of Iran and ISIS are what now dominate discussion, with the latter viewed by some as a buffer against the former. Meanwhile, everyone knows Israel’s redlines. There is no doubt that Israel will take action if its redlines are crossed.  


Elements of a Grand Strategy for the Middle East 


On 16 May 2016, the Iraq-Syria area will mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement: a secret agreement between the French and the British about how to divide up the Levant (with imperial Russian assent, although the Bolsheviks would later make the treaty public.) Today the treaty is short-hand for colonial (great) powers drawing boundaries without the consent of the peoples who lived there.  It is also a reminder that since the end of World War I and the Ottoman Empire, there have been too few examples of effective governance in the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East. This lack of governance—from providing public services to treating minorities with equal respect—has contributed directly to the rise of a terrorism that is motivated by its own manipulated understanding of Islam, while simultaneously using the injustice of the authoritarian-apostate regimes to its advantage. 


No one cared in the West. As long as the region was stable—thereby allowing the oil to flow out of it—Western powers didn’t care who governed, or how. It was only natural that some people in these countries turned to violence against the “near enemy” (Arab authoritarianism), as well as the “far enemy” (those Western countries that supported these Arab dictators, particularly the United States).5 U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as much in 2005: 


“For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people. As President Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address: “America will not impose our style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way” (Rice 2005). 


While these instincts are exactly right, they have not been backed up by the practice of American foreign policy. President George W. Bush, of course, had invaded Iraq just two years previously for two reasons. Bush sought to remove the threat of WMD, which were not there, despite consensus among the world’s intelligence communities. He also sought to impose a democratic government that would not be threatened by extremism, precisely because it would develop a strong public square where deep differences could be lived with because they were discussed (and not repressed).   


Where President George W. Bush was certain, however, President Obama was uncertain, echoing the Turkish approach of consistent inconsistency. By the start of 2016, the U.S. was fighting with Iranian affiliates against ISIS in Iraq, while supporting a Saudi war against Iranian proxies in Yemen. The administration had repeatedly called for the overthrow of Syrian President Assad, but seemed to let Russia intervene militarily and diplomatically as it shored up the Assad regime. Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s traditional top two regional allies, are deeply alienated from the U.S. by the nuclear deal with Iran. 


Good governance and good citizenship—rooted in the mutual respect and mutual reliance of a robust religious freedom—is not easily done in the Middle East, in part because there is no tradition or memory of it. Meanwhile, the U.S. has yet to find a “Goldilocks” manner and method of responsible engagement somewhere between Presidents Bush and Obama. 


What then should the next American president do? 


First, the president needs to create and integrate a group of non-traditional advisors at the National Security Council. They can help blend singular approaches while providing, as a result, a better perspective on what success looks like in the Middle East by the end of the century. Theologians, religious freedom/conflict resolution experts, entrepreneurs, faith leaders, and trauma specialists must speak into a strategy that must be much bigger than realpolitik. 


Second, the next president would be wise to have a grand vision of strategic but small, adjustable steps, focused on the mega-crisis of Iraq-Syria. Understanding that everything in the Middle East is interrelated—and that everything takes aggressive patience to implement—the president should work toward the development of a buffer zone that balances and buttresses the competing interests in the region. As I argued in 2006: 


“Buffer regions are places on a map that allow for the amelioration of the surrounding, and competing, influences of major and/or great powers…[they also present] the possibility that the soft power of a civil society—formed and informed by the literal worldview around them—might contribute to stability, and therefore security” (Seiple 2006).  


A “buffer zone” in the Iraq-Syria region could do many things, simultaneously. Foremost, a collection of smaller states and/or protectorates could manage and mitigate Iranian influence west toward Lebanon. Sunni Arabs would feel much better (as would Israel) about an ascendant Iran that did not have a direct pipeline to Hezbollah through Iraq and Syria. Moreover, such a zone would balance Arab and Kurd (with the possibility of an independent Kurdistan), as well as Kurd and religious minorities (with the possibility of a safe haven under international protection for religious minorities on the Nineveh Plain), and Kurd and Turk, as there are deep tensions between and among all of them.


Sufficient separation could also provide time for healing the wounds of the body and spirit as, over time, a practical religious freedom took root;, hand-in-hand with plans for an economic integration that addressed corruption and reform while intentionally harnessing the self-interest of these groups in particular places, de facto forcing them to work together, per their common need (e.g., a factory that created jobs). 


The development of such a buffer zone could be simultaneously pursued across three distinct but mutually-reinforcing efforts. The president should deeply commit to, and/or initiate: 1) Syrian peace talks; 2) an ongoing summit regarding the international boundaries; and, 3) a regional security structure whose members were vested in this vision.  


As the next administration considers—in consultation with allies in and out of the region—how best to balance the competing interests across these three efforts, the president should seek and encourage new working patterns and relationships among governments, civil society, faith communities, and business. These relationships—rooted in mutual respect and mutual reliance, thus embodying a practical religious freedom—might take specific form if organized around a small but strategic step: the establishment of a safe haven on the Nineveh Plain.


Declaring and defending such a haven would accomplish a number of objectives.  A safe haven would be a sign of practical hope for those persecuted by ISIS, as well as a concrete demonstration of the moral responsibility that follows from declaring the actions of ISIS as genocide. Nineveh villages could be protected by local units of the same ethnicity and/or faith of the villagers, backed by an international rapid reaction force.  A safe haven would also “theo-graphically”—theology + geography—delegitimize ISIS. Taking land that ISIS has declared a part of its “caliphate,” and then using that land to protect those against whom ISIS had perpetrated genocide, would constitute a direct threat to the identity and theological purpose of ISIS. 


In addition, the establishment of a safe haven would help stem the flood of refugees to Turkey and Europe, while signaling global ISIS “wannabes” that they should stay home because ISIS was losing. Moreover, once established, a safe haven would offer the opportunity to develop and practice good governance and citizenship—especially through a demonstrated capacity for different groups to live together, or side-by-side, despite deep differences—in a small way that might be replicated later. Finally, the declaration and defense of a small safe haven would also exercise patience, as the larger processes of negotiating Syrian peace, redrawing international boundaries, and building a regional security structure proceeded (Seiple 2015b). 


In developing and implementing such a safe haven—through the negotiations and working relationship of the relevant parties—a regional security structure might be practically discussed. This structure would, at a minimum, ensure regular communication between and among the region’s players, without America having to take sides. As former Central Command Chief, General Jim Mattis, USMC (ret), has written: “We need a new security architecture for the Middle East built on sound policy, one that permits us to take our own side in this fight” (Mattis 2015). 


Next, as integral to the new security structure, the 45th president of the United States should promote and provide resources to programs in which government and non-government leaders from the region are educated and trained—together—per the Track 1.5 nature of our times (Seiple 2008). A working example is the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany. Its mission is to: 


“create a more stable security environment by advancing democratic institutions and relationships; promoting active, peaceful, whole-of-government approaches to address transnational and regional security challenges; and creating and enhancing enduring partnerships worldwide…[through] tailored, professional education and research, dialogue, and the persistent, thorough, and thoughtful examination of issues that confront our client nations today and in the years ahead.”6


Such a center—as the crown jewel of the regional security structure—would also address peace-building, trauma/moral injury care, and gender integration, as cohorts developed their own culture and network of mutual respect and mutual reliance across ethnic, faith, and vocational lines. 


Finally, such goals, always in consultation with key actors inside and outside the region, should also catalyze a “Marshall Plan” for Iraq-Syria, led by those equipped in the region’s “Marshall Center.” The original 1947 Marshall Plan for Europe was American-funded and was specifically designed to buttress against communism: fostering political stability by enabling economic stability (e.g., with regulation reduction as well as introducing best business practices). More than anything else, the fact that a plan existed created hope for those burdened by the literal and emotional destruction of the World War II.   Perhaps as a function of the new regional security architecture, a Sunni led and funded effort might take place, with international participation. After all, “jobs and justice” are often the same thing in a region that must compete with the comparatively well-paid attraction of “jihad” in the name of a justice perceived to stand against rampant corruption.


The next president should therefore encourage a Sunni-led defeat of ISIS, with international support. The King of Jordan is a natural leader for such a coalition.  Jordan’s King can claim significant Islamic legitimacy as he is a 43rd generation descendent of Mohammed. Meanwhile, Jordan, through the efforts of Prince Ghazi, has long led the theological struggle against terrorism (e.g., The Common Word initiative). No defeat of ISIS will be sustainable if it is not anchored in the holy scriptures of Islam. Only good theology beats bad theology. 7 


Without a soft power/theological approach, the only thing worse than military defeat at the hands of ISIS would the zombie-son-of-ISIS that will fill the vacuum created by a militaryonly “victory” against ISIS. 


As a result, the next president should also lead in the creation of new public-private partnerships that take a long-term approach to stopping the spread of Shia- and Sunni-terrorism. Different phenomena, the former is state-sponsored (i.e., Iranian leaders will stop funding terrorism if it is in their self-interest), while the latter is society-enabled (i.e., there is sympathy among aggrieved Sunnis in the region—against their governments and/or Iran—to strike against those who humiliate Sunnis). For example, the new regional security structure might include a “governance & citizenship” center as a public-private partnership. This center would catalyze soft power initiatives, rooted in local examples of co-existence (e.g., Kurdistan) that worked long-term against the terrorist threat, simultaneously from the top-down and the bottom-up. 


Finally, the Americans would have to set the example regarding the relationship between hard and soft power; about which, to date, it has not done a very good job. For example, in the U.S., at least, the relationship between the hard power of “CT” (Counter-Terrorism) and the soft power of “CVE” (Countering Violent Extremism) is often backwards. The Americans have tended to treat CVE as a lesser-included set of CT, instead of seeing CT as a lesser-included set of CVE. Meanwhile, the term itself—“CVE”—is nevertheless defined implicitly against Muslims, and it has thus been harder to engage (Sunni) Muslim communities in the U.S. pursuant a smarter engagement of Muslim-majority countries, especially the Sunni Arab world in the Middle East.




The Middle East is amidst an historic transition that is far from over. If it is to be a positive one, that transition must include recognizing and defeating the evil that is ISIS. That said, it will require great geo-political and theological nuance, as well as the will to take the long-term approach. Now is the time for a pragmatic leadership that addresses root causes through a long-term strategy for the century that builds good governance and good citizenship— and ultimately a sustainable environment of religious freedom for all. Otherwise there is but one thing that we really know about the Middle East today: it will only get worse, before it gets worse. 





1 I first heard Espen Barth Eide use this term, “mega-crisis,” at the Global Agenda Councils meeting of the World Economic Forum (where he is a managing director) in Abu Dhabi in October 2015. Espen Barth Eide is a Norwegian political scientist who previously served as Norway’s Minister of Defense, and Minister of Foreign Affairs.


2 I certainly understand the critique of the George W. Bush administration in Iraq. Indeed, I was among the first to offer that critique (e.g., see Seiple 2003a and 2003b). Nevertheless, when an administration has been in power seven years, it is also true that it deserves its own critique.


3 This opinion confirmed by my own discussions with people who served in Baghdad, 2011-2014.


4 Things are changing, however, as Saudi Arabia seeks to build a Sunni Alliance against Shia Iran. For example, after designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in March 2014, Saudi Arabia began engaging Brotherhood leaders of all stripes by July 2015. See Al-Arian 2015. 


5 “Near” & “far” enemies are terms that Usama bin Laden used to frame his holy war after the Saudi government invited the U.S. to stay in Saudi Arabia at the end of the first Gulf War.




7 For example, there is room to build on the recent Marrakesh Declaration—which calls for mutual respect between majority Muslims and minority faiths, and equal citizenship for all, based on the Charter of Medina—as faith communities discern, and make recommendations regarding, how good governance can create a context where the best of faith defeats the worst of religion. This declaration, 27 January 2016, on the 1400th anniversary of the Charter of Medina, asserted that this Charter is consistent with and calls for the protection of all religious minorities, including Christians, in Muslim majority lands, as equal citizens under the rule of law. Also see Abdul Rauf 2016 and Aroua 2013.


Copyright 2016 Chris Seiple


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