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The Quincy Institute’s Middle East Fantasies

The positions adopted by the think tank’s scholars during the war in Gaza are illustrative of its overall Middle East agenda: appease Iran and demonise Israel.

· 15 min read
Profile photo collage of Ali Khamenei, Trita Parsi, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ali Khamenei, Quincy Institute co-founder Trita Parsi, Benjamin Netanyahu. Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 2019, I was thrilled to hear about a new think tank devoted to advancing the case for foreign-policy realism. It would be named after the sixth US president John Quincy Adams, who famously stated that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” How different things could have been, I thought, had a Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft existed in the months before President George W. Bush sent American troops into Iraq on 20 March 2003, or before his administration lent its support to the 2006 parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories that produced a victory for Hamas.

In the early 2000s, I was a research fellow with the Cato Institute, and my colleagues and I warned that the military adventure in the Middle East would become a geo-strategic catastrophe for the United States. Iraq, we cautioned, was not a genuine nation but a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian entity (Sunni Arabs vs. Shiites vs. Kurds), the collapse of which would likely lead to a bloody civil war. The notion that the country could be transformed into a Wilsonian democracy disregarded the history and culture of Mesopotamia. Unfortunately for all concerned, we were right.

Not all foreign-policy realists are isolationists. Philosophers like Hans Morgenthau and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr advocated an internationalist policy during World War II and the Cold War. However, they opposed US involvement in the Vietnam War, which they believed was a quixotic attempt to improve the world rather than an attempt to deal with the world as it is. The failure of US democracy promotion in the Middle East after 9/11 was followed by the failure of the “Arab Spring” in 2010 to deliver democratic change. Both developments further illustrated the dangers of wishful thinking.

Realists are chiefly concerned with the enduring competition among self-interested states vying for power and position in an international system that lacks a centralised authority. Nation states should only use strategic military force and alliances to defend their interests, or to maintain a balance of power that can deliver stability and eventually promote cooperation and peace. The 1814–15 Congress of Vienna was a paradigmatic realist project and a hundred years of relative peace in Europe followed.

Unfortunately, the first five years of the Quincy Institute’s existence have demonstrated that its founders are not the intellectual descendants of the people who organised the Congress of Vienna. Quincy’s scholars believe that the key to peace is US withdrawal from the world and a reluctance to use military force even to protect legitimate US interests. Quincy often seems to be more concerned with defending the interests of US rivals—Iran, in particular—and to that end, it promotes a mishmash of isolationism and appeasement intertwined with an aggressive hostility to Israel. Indeed, the only monster that the Quincy Institute seeks to destroy is the Jewish state.

In 2020, Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, used a speech on the Senate floor to attack the new think tank. Antisemitism, Cotton said, “festers in Washington think tanks like the Quincy Institute, an isolationist blame-America-first money pit for so-called ‘scholars’ who’ve written that American foreign policy could be fixed if only it were rid of the malign influence of Jewish money.” (Quincy’s defenders responded that accusations of antisemitism were misplaced because one of the Institute’s biggest funders, George Soros, is a Holocaust survivor.)

In a 2022 article about the alleged influence of the Israel lobby on US Middle East policy, Quincy fellow Paul Pillar dwells on the role played by the late Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson:

Adelson and his wife were the biggest individual donors to Trump’s campaigns in both 2016 and 2020. Although evangelical Christians were still Trump’s main base of support and reason for his policies toward Israel, it would be hard to overstate Adelson’s role in influencing policy, at least as far as the Republican side of the political spectrum is concerned. That role became so large that a rite of passage for Republican presidential aspirants was the “Sheldon primary”—a trip to Las Vegas to seek Adelson’s favor. And Adelson’s overwhelming policy concern was anything involving Israel, which he made clear was the nation he loved the most.

The Quincy Institute routinely vilifies supporters of Israel in Washington. Its principal goal is to reorient American policy in the Middle East, marginalising America’s two leading allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, while promoting Iran as a future regional hegemon. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of The Israel Lobby, are both Quincy fellows and regular contributors to its website. In March, Mearsheimer gave an interview to Al Jazeera, which the Institute promoted under the headline, “Israel Lobby’s Influence on U.S. Policy as Powerful as Ever.” 

In April, the Quincy Institute’s executive vice president Trita Parsi gave an interview to Rising in which he offered this explanation of Israel’s motives and war aims:

Well, to the extent that you can argue that there are some clear-cut goals that the Israelis have and that it’s not just actions they are taking in a manner that are quite unstrategic and not-thought-through, it does appear to me as if the Israeli government right now is trying to depopulate Gaza, annex certain parts of it, if not all of it, and play the long game in order to achieve that.

Parsi went on to accuse the Israelis of a “slaughter” in Gaza, and the Institute promoted the interview under the headline “US Kowtowing to Israel.”

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Trita Parsi was born in Iran, but his family fled to Sweden when he was four years old to escape growing political repression after the 1979 Iranian revolution. According to a long article in Tablet magazine by Armin Rosen, “In the mid-1990s, Parsi was the rare diaspora Iranian whose fervor extended to supporting the country’s theocratic dictatorship against the perceived encroachments and temptations of the West.” Parsi, Rosen reported, was also occasionally given to antisemitic rhetoric (“By your name, I suspect that you are a Jew,” he wrote of an Iranian democracy advocate). 

In 2002, Parsi co-founded the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the stated purpose of which is “to give voice to the Iranian-American community.” In practical terms, this meant lobbying in support of establishing ties and fostering greater engagement with the Islamic Republic, which Parsi believes will enhance US national security by stabilising the Middle East and boosting Iranian moderates. The objections of US-based Iranian dissidents (who evidently do not fall within what the NIAC considers to be the “Iranian-American community”) are routinely attacked or ignored.

In 2007, one such dissident, Arizona-based Iranian-American blogger Hassan Daioleslam, alleged that the NIAC was lobbying on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Parsi sued Daioleslam for defamation. In September 2012, US federal judge John D. Bates threw out the libel suit on the grounds that the NIAC and Parsi had failed to provide evidence of “actual malice.” Bates added: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as a finding that the defendant's articles were true. Defendant did not move for summary judgment on that ground, and it has not been addressed here.” 

Parsi’s critics were not convinced. Middle East Forum president Daniel Pipes wrote:

The veracity of Daioleslam’s claims were indeed “established,” as the court obliged NIAC to release internal documents revealing the organization’s extensive ties to Tehran, including a lobby effort coordinated with Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and collaboration with two individuals named in a Congressional report as agents of Iranian intelligence.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident at the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington DC, told Armin Rosen: “[Trita Parsi] is basically an ideologue, and he is pushing a very focused agenda, but the agenda has to do with representing a perspective of a certain wing of the Iranian government. Why anyone would make him the executive vice president of a supposedly American foreign policy association doesn’t make any sense. It is to announce that you are compromised from the outset, that you are basically nonserious, and that you don’t understand the implications of what you are doing.”

Certainly, if the Islamic Republic were to establish an AIPAC-like lobbying group in Washington DC, it would sound a lot like the Quincy Institute. Parsi believes that the conflict between the US and Iran is strategic and geopolitical in nature but not ideological, and that it can therefore be managed or even resolved. But he maintains that Israel’s goal is to drag the US and the West into a war with Iran to further its own alleged goals of regional dominance.  

Parsi has figured out that the changing balance of power in the Middle East after the Iraq War provided an opportunity to re-orient US policy in a direction advantageous to Tehran. Following the military fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is highly unlikely to support a new military campaign to advance regime change and democracy promotion in Persia. Nevertheless, from a realist perspective, the interests of America and its allies are threatened by the Islamic Republic’s terrorist proxies in the region, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Houthis in the Persian Gulf, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime continues to pursue its goal of acquiring a nuclear military capability.

All of this Iranian activity requires an American response. As a foreign-policy realist, I support many of the policies pursued by Republican and Democratic administrations in recent years, particularly those intended to contain Iran by strengthening ties between Israel and Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf and beyond. The Abraham Accords signed in September 2020 were a positive step towards that goal. More recently, the Biden administration has been trying to reach a security agreement with Riyadh, under which the Saudis would agree to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel. 

Such a development would help to erode Iran’s strategic position, which may explain why Parsi and his colleagues at Quincy have been so hostile to the prospect of an Israeli–Arab détente. You won’t find any analyses or articles in the Quincy Institute’s archives criticising Iran’s horrific human-rights record or its support for international terrorism, but you will discover copious attacks on Israel and research into political and economic corruption in the Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are denounced by Quincy scholars for trying to strengthen their military and economic ties with the United States—policies they worry are intended to draw America into a diplomatic and military quagmire. Parsi has been indefatigably tweeting his “daily reminder that the Abraham accord was an arms deal that will flush the Middle East with more weapons and move it further away from true peace.” 

A daily reader of the Quincy Institute website will find very little information about Tehran’s anti-American strategy. Its writers may acknowledge that Iran is allying itself with Moscow and Beijing, but they maintain it is only doing so because Washington hawks have stubbornly rejected the Islamic Republic’s earnest attempts to improve relations with the US. In Parsi’s bizarro Middle East, the poor state of the American-Iranian relationship is entirely the fault of US policies dating back to the 1950s. Americans, he believes, have failed (or refused) to understand that Iran is the most important and powerful nation-state in the region. Instead, they prefer dead-end affairs with the Israelis and Arabs that invariably lead to war and destruction.

This analysis leads Parsi and his Quincy colleagues to insist on the need for détente between Washington and Tehran. They had hoped that this would evolve after President Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran in July 2015 known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the terms of the deal, Iran supposedly agreed to accept restrictions on its critical nuclear facilities in exchange for the removal of Western economic sanctions that were crippling its economy.

But the JCPOA included many loopholes that allowed Tehran to continue working on its nuclear bomb, and the deal was revoked by President Trump just three years later. Attempts by the Biden administration to renew the deal were praised by Quincy, but when a new agreement could not be reached, Parsi held the US responsible and criticised Biden for re-embracing Trump’s approach. When it comes to the tensions between Iran and the US, the Quincy Institute always blames America first.

From a strategic perspective, the Hamas attack on Israel was an attempt on the part of Iran to challenge the regional status quo. By using its proxy against a US ally, Tehran hoped to alter the balance of power in its favour, placing the Saudi-Israel détente on hold and delivering a strategic blow to Israel. But that is not the way events were understood at the Quincy Institute, which has vehemently opposed the diplomatic and military support Washington has provided to Israel following the massacres and hostage seizures on 7 October.

In an essay for Foreign Policy, Quincy scholar Stephen Walt argued that the October massacre was “the inevitable result of decades of occupation and Israel’s harsh and prolonged treatment of its Palestinian subjects.” Therefore, American support for Israel was the real “root cause” of the Palestinian violence against Israel, and not the strategic aims of Israel’s jihadist enemies. Indeed, many of the analyses and media appearances from Quincy scholars during the Gaza War have found a way to blame Israel and its American supporters for the escalating regional violence and bloodshed, including Hezbollah’s unprovoked attacks on northern Israel and the Houthis’ strikes against international shipping in the Red Sea.

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In January, Parsi accused Israel of trying “to drag the US into another ruinous war”:

America and Israel’s interests have never been fully aligned on Gaza. But as Israel’s bombardment of the narrow strip has continued for almost 100 days, the Netanyahu government is shifting in a direction that directly threatens the stated goals of the Biden administration: Israel wants to expand the war into Lebanon and appears to welcome open warfare against the so-called Axis of Resistance—Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the revolutionary government in Iran. The assassination of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut yesterday makes that clear. So far, President Joe Biden has refused the one step that can prevent both this escalation and the US from getting dragged into yet another war in the Middle East: a cease-fire in Gaza.

When President Biden decided to respond to the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping with military force, two Quincy scholars complained that he’s “chosen to escalate the conflict and bomb Yemen in response to Houthi fighters’ Red Sea attacks.” Iran, on the other hand, is depicted by Parsi and his colleagues as the pitiable victim of Israeli machinations. Here is Parsi’s analysis of the Iranian drone and missile attack against Israel on 1 April:

The Iranian missiles and drones had not even approached Israeli airspace when Tehran declared the matter concluded. Iran’s retaliation for Israel’s April 1 bombing of an Iranian consular building in Damascus was choreographed to be heavy on symbolism and light on destruction. The point was not revenge but the restoration of Iranian deterrence and evasion of a broader war. But the choreography suffered from one major flaw: A broader war with Iran is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seeking for more than two decades.

The positions adopted by the think tank’s scholars during the war in Gaza are illustrative of its overall Middle East agenda: appease Iran and demonise Israel. From this, it follows that Palestinians are oppressed by Israel, which is systematically denying them their legitimate national rights. Quincy scholars argue that the US must therefore press Israel to withdraw from Gaza and end its occupation of the West Bank.

This is at variance with the Quincy Institute’s stated position on Russia and Ukraine, which it dresses up as hardcore realpolitik. Quincy scholars hesitate to criticise Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, and they treat the whole notion of Ukrainian nationalism with deep scepticism. So, while the onus is on Ukraine to reach a deal with the more powerful Russia in the interests of regional stability, powerful Israel is expected to make whatever concessions are required for peace, and the US is expected to coerce it into doing so.

Quincy scholars claim to be bullet-biting realists who believe that the US should stay out of the Middle East because its interests there are limited. But they are transformed into mawkish idealists—not to mention interventionists—when it comes to Israel, insisting that Washington take a clear stand against its wayward ally. Some of them have even begun to wonder whether the world’s only Jewish state should be allowed to exist at all, so they promote a post-Zionist one-state outcome instead. As similar experiments in bi-nationalist arrangements in Yugoslavia and elsewhere have demonstrated, this is a recipe for even greater instability and bloodshed.

Quincy’s scholars have repeatedly opposed Western intervention in Syria’s civil war or Western condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of China’s Muslim minorities, but they urge diplomatic détente with Iran, which is one of the world’s leading human-rights violators. And now they blame Israel for the outbreak and escalation of violence across the Middle East that an Iranian proxy started. And they demand that America condition its support for Israel on the latter’s willingness, as one Quincy scholar put it, “to actually engage in diplomacy with their neighbors to a degree they haven’t.”

It’s remarkable that any realist—or really any serious analyst of Middle Eastern affairs—would make such a statement at this late date. Decades of diplomatic efforts by the US and Israel produced durable peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and more recently, the Abraham Accords. They also produced the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, but subsequent negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs have been exercises in futility that have been met with rejectionism and violence. And yet the Quincy realists demand that the US punish Israelis by cutting off military aid and joining the condemnation of Israel in international fora.

This makes no sense. The Quincy coterie insists that the United States do nothing to encourage the ouster of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, that it must not punish Iran for exporting terrorism across the Middle East, and that it should not lead an international campaign against China’s mistreatment of its Uyghur minority. These and other countries may be doing terrible things, they say, but it is not America’s business to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states or take action over matters that don’t threaten its core interests.

Except, that is, when it comes to Israel. Only the antipathy felt by the Institute’s scholars toward that tiny American ally explains their moralistic attempts to draw the United States into an intractable conflict, despite the high costs involved.  

Here is how I believe a foreign-policy realist ought to respond to the latest eruption in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notwithstanding the appalling death and destruction on both sides, a realist’s main preoccupation must be a consideration of interests. Anyone demanding that Washington “do something” about the recent fighting should be asked to explain how the conflict affects the interests of the US. 

Alternatively, why not give war a chance in Gaza? That would make an Israeli military victory over Hamas much more likely, which would in turn benefit both Israelis and Palestinians. It would be a victory for a US ally and a setback for its enemies in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, all of which is indisputably in line with the US national interest. Finally, one fewer Iranian proxy in the Middle East will do a great deal more for regional stability in the long term than an endgame that allows Hamas to survive and rearm.

Once upon a time in the past century, the Arab-Israeli conflict did indeed affect direct US strategic interests. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War launched by Egypt and Syria, American support for Israel was punished with a catastrophic oil embargo, and the US found itself dragged into a superpower confrontation with Egypt’s ally, the Soviet Union. Rushing to end the 1973 war made sense on the basis of pure realpolitik concerns.

But we are in a different world now. The United States is well on the way to becoming the world’s largest oil-producing state and so it isn’t as vulnerable to threats of an embargo as it was in the 1970s. And the Arab oil states are not about to impose one anyway, because like Egypt, they understand that the greatest threat to regional stability, security, and peace comes from revolutionary Iran. The Soviet Union is gone, and the United States remains the preeminent global player in the Middle East, occasional challenges from Moscow and Beijing notwithstanding. Regardless of where their sympathies lie, Russia and China are not about to use their military power to help Hamas fight an unwinnable war against Israel. 

Ever since George W. Bush left office in 2009, American presidents have been trying to disengage from the Middle East and refocus US geostrategy on East Asia and the threat posed by a rising China. There is no reason why the Biden administration should invest much time, energy, and resources in the thankless task of trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Benign neglect and steady support for American allies seems to be the most cost-effective policy. That is what realism actually looks like.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the year the Abraham Accords were signed. Apologies for the error.

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