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Such Men are Dangerous: Grievance, Ambition and the Challenges Facing US Middle East Policy

02 Feb 2024
By Dr Bob Bowker
Secretary Antony J. Blinken meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank, January 10, 2024. Source: Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy /

The United States can degrade the capabilities, but not the motivations, of its adversaries in the Middle East. Memories and mythologies matter; the root causes of the malaise gripping the region are not within the power of Washington to resolve.  

Caesar. Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

… Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves (.)

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2.

In Shakespeare’s telling, Caesar identified a problem to which policy thinkers can relate. Cassius represented an unsettling alternative view of the world—shrewd and perceptive certainly, but also a view which was devoid of humour or culture.

Cassius saw fear in Caesar. He knew his weaknesses. And Cassius was aggrieved, fundamentally, by “(those) greater than themselves.” It was the final element of his character that was truly dangerous. But Caesar was assured by Mark Antony that Cassius was “a noble Roman.” So he hesitated—and paid the ultimate price.

Like Shakespeare’s tragedy, the dynamics in play in the Middle East eerily remind us of the dilemmas posed by actors, driven by a sense of historic injustice and unequal treatment, to seek redress. The United States and Israel, mutually constituted in the minds of their adversaries, are facing challenges driven by a sense of grievance which is unmatched since 2003.

From Yemen to Gaza, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris, the United States is being tormented for its failure to either meet, quash, or accommodate the ambitions and demands of forces that reject the US-backed status quo. Its adversaries intend to rebalance the relationship.

The sophistication in planning and execution of the Hamas attack on Israel, and threats to US forces emanating from Iranian-backed forces elsewhere, demonstrate a capacity to shape battle space in directions that suit America’s opponents. Carnage in Gaza, their sophisticated use of media, capacity to connect globally and to mobilize locally, and to adapt technology to their own ends, have helped them to believe the United States will emerge from the Gaza conflict even worse positioned to influence regional trends than before.

Unlike the debacle of Iraq in 2003, moreover, the forces seeking to undermine the US  role are being led, and coordinated to a large extent, by an Iranian regime which has all the qualities—including the murderous tendencies—ascribed to Cassius.

The Iranian regime is deplorable. Its values are regressive. Its willingness to resort to violence at home and abroad to preserve itself, and to pursue its goals, affronts civilized values. Unlike Iran’s population at large, it represents a direct threat to the capacity of a younger generation of reform-minded Iranians and Arabs, and especially of Iranian women, to fulfil their creative and intellectual potential. The same can be said of all those who form the so-called Axis of Resistance, and the Taliban.

But the Iranians are shrewd, and the sheer awfulness—by any measure—of the forces aligned against the United States and Israel does not mean they are incapable of sustaining their efforts. They have no intention of engaging in war with the United States. They know President Joe Biden reciprocates that desire. But they are committed to reversing the balance of power within the region.

The Iranians calculate vulnerability, both national and personal. Their sense of identity and purpose is built, to a very large extent, around an antagonism to the United States shaped by collective memories of unequal treatment and disrespect and, in some cases, by lived experience. They are most unlikely to lose the will to fight: it is the nature of that struggle that will be adapted by the Iranians to suit their ambitions as circumstances allow, not the cause itself. Iranian strategy supports and draws upon its partners to do the heavy lifting on its behalf. Resort to violence is becoming the new normal for all sides.

That is not an environment in which the main strengths of the United States—its capacity to present itself as fundamentally a force for good (which it is) while delivering almost unimaginable levels of destruction against those who directly threaten it—can be deployed to lasting, positive effect.

Among those non-state actors in partnership with Iran, motivation, especially where Israel is concerned, is deeply ingrained. Deterrence is a forlorn hope, not a strategic option, for dealing with the Houthis, and the various Iraqi militias sponsored by the Iranians. Their connections to Iran are deep, ideologically and operationally. In many cases, the ties are personal.

When risks of disproportionate retaliation rise the Iranians are prepared to constrain their affiliates—despite the objections of some of them. But matters can unravel quickly, especially if an affiliate scores an opportunistic success.

The consequences for US policy of this situation are extraordinarily complex, both strategically and politically. The situation that has emerged since 2003 is unfamiliar territory for the United States. Kinetic force and technology are important parts of meeting the challenge, alongside diplomacy and intelligence functions. But those capabilities do not address the underlying problem.

Short of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is the issue par excellence galvanising antagonism towards the United States, and addressing the sense of disempowerment and frustration that conflict engenders, the root causes of the malaise gripping the region are not within the power of Washington to resolve.

And there is no end in sight to the Palestinian conflict.

If Biden remains president after 2024 he will bring a wealth of experience to dealing with recurrent crises. He may have acted impetuously regarding Gaza, but in general his record demonstrates that he values systematic consideration of regional expertise and advice from Arab allies. If Donald Trump is president, such expert inputs and consultation may not be drawn upon to anything like the same degree.

But neither Biden nor Trump (if he refrains from instinctive responses to provocations) are likely to arrive at significantly different conclusions about the direction of US policy. Retreat under threat, or when facts change, is unpalatable, even when it makes strategic sense. But faced with a combination of Iranian ambition to reshape the US presence, the political costs of being seen to weaken in the face of military pressure, and the tremors it would send (of excitement in Moscow and concern in Brussels) mean the United States probably has little real choice but to dig in for a very long haul.

The US is not without options in responding to the challenges ahead. It will calibrate its responses to the level of threat being faced. It can try harder to explain and justify, probably to an increasingly sceptical domestic audience, what it is seeking to achieve.

Arab national sentiment may prove useful in shaping outcomes in Iraq and Syria, especially whenever the Iranians overplay their hand and place host government interests at risk. Diplomacy, and especially intra-Arab diplomacy, can help—especially efforts to arrive at a new security architecture in the region which accommodates at least some of Iran’s expectation to be recognized as a key, legitimate regional actor in the Persian Gulf.

An ongoing, capable US military presence, and the intelligence and special operations capabilities of friendly regional states, the Kurds and other actors, will be important to the protection of US interests. Iraq and Syria aside, there are no Arab states pressing the United States to leave.

But the political will of the United States to remain in its current position, and to do so in an essentially reactive posture, is open to question. Unlike its adversaries, who face no such pressures, it will struggle to explain why doing so, primarily on behalf of others, perhaps at increasing cost to American lives and other foreign policy priorities, is necessary.

Cassius, at least, had his own reasons.

Bob Bowker is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the ANU. He is a former Australian ambassador to several Arab countries.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.