Rethinking America’s Strategy in the Greater Middle East
The ADVANCE of US interests from North Africa to Central Asia is collapsing. The exhausting occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan point to a strategic failure. Vast swathes of an Arab world dominated by the United States thirty years ago, leading to the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait and harboring an Arab-Israeli peace conference in various states of political fragmentation and economic ruin . An American military base in Syria is trapped in a network of regional and Russian forces. Missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia are able to disrupt the world’s energy supply. A US military support role for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen has served primarily to deepen perhaps the greater humanitarian crisis in the world.
Chinese and Russian influence is largely ascending, a new “Great Game” in Afghanistan is likely to accelerate after the United States Withdrawal, and Al Qaeda and ISIS – despite years of relentless and often successful American pressure – continue to plot and inspire attacks against American interests. worldwide. Regional states, including alleged allies of the United States, increasingly act without fear or deference to Washington. An erratic, multi-year effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions hinges on failure. The massive spending of blood, treasure and diplomatic capital throughout the wider Middle East that has produced these results since the end of the Cold War is a debacle for US strategy in a central part of the globe.
This litany of failures prompted US strategic thinkers and former policymakers to advocate a new fallback strategy. A consensus has emerged that the United States has been too engaged in a region whose internal challenges are beyond the reach of American instruments of power. Tests such as “Middle East no longer worth it ”,“ The Middle East just doesn’t matter anymore Much longer“And” The American Middle East Purgatory”Give voice to an exasperated foreign policy elite eager to pivot US strategy towards more immediate threats from Russia and China. Likewise, a bipartisan consensus for the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan had been building for several years.
Such frustration is understandable given the memory of the United States successfully protecting many of its interests in the wider Middle East throughout the Cold War. When a former retreating Western power, the British, transmitted to the United States a stew of nationalism, traditional monarchies and energy interests scattered throughout the wider Middle East, Washington – with the major exception of the Iranian revolution – has largely taken up the challenge.
The United States has achieved its regional goals by politically and economically engaging local elites, mobilizing diplomatic influence, and deploying naval power offshore. The Arab-Israeli wars were contained and redirected to a semi-permanent peace process, Egypt moved from Soviet sphere of influence to American sphere of influence, damaging oil embargoes were overcome and an Islamic insurgency supported by the United States – the Mujahedin – succeeded in countering the Soviet regime of 1979. invasion of Afghanistan. US ground forces deployed once to the region – to Lebanon in 1958 – to welcome the Lebanese to the beaches of Beirut. The post-Cold War era, on the other hand, turned out to be much less sensitive to American power.
The calls to withdraw are accompanied by a paradoxically long list of enduring American interests to be protected. The new national security adviser in January 2021, for example, sketch the challenges inherent in the withdrawal: “The reduction of the American presence in the Middle East will require a delicate balance: to reduce an obsolete American military footprint without creating new insecurity, while maintaining deterrence and influence where necessary. to meet the main remaining American interests. Other experts were more detailed: “The United States has three very vital interests in the region: limiting terrorism, protecting the flow of oil and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Likewise, others have affirmed this,
The United States should always be concerned with protecting freedom of navigation in the region’s major sea passages, preventing oil producers or troublemakers from suddenly shutting down and containing so-called regional hegemons and other actors. hostile to Washington.
In Afghanistan, the United States has pledged to continue counterterrorism and humanitarian operations, but will need a anchoring in neighboring Central Asian states to achieve these post-withdrawal goals.
A new US strategy that could secure this long list of vital interests has yet to be formulated. Instead, the orthodox Cold War discourse of classical realism lurks in the background with an emphasis on power, interests, and the state. A typical view is that America “still has interests (in the Middle East) to protect, but America must be realistic, careful and disciplined in how it secures them.” A foreign policy elite that rose to prominence during the Cold War is reluctant to revisit basic assumptions about how the United States acts towards the wider Middle East.
This tendency towards realism is understandable. This fits well with a national security establishment originally organized around the Cold War mission of containing Soviet power and winning an ideological showdown over secular forms of governance. Realism is also consistent with foreign policy elites accustomed for decades to dealing with peer palace elites to advance American interests in the wider Middle East. These palace elites protected the United States from direct engagement with mass movements and the labyrinthine fissures of societies ruled by authoritarian regimes. The interests, once defined, were delegated and managed by these agents.
However, the development of a new American strategy based on “interests” decoupled from the increasingly complex and volatile contexts in which such “interests” exist risks failing from the outset. The continued use of an essentially realistic, state-centric framework may obscure the fact that many states in the wider Middle East barely operate and often do so with only de jure limits. Realism also bypasses the way religious and other sub-state actors claim roles in governance amid the ruins of once secular nationalist states. Historical memory and national myths are also increasingly part of political identities and strategic ambitions that an American strategy based on realism alone can easily reject.
An account with past American assumptions is the sine qua non for the development of a new regional strategy. The extent of strategic failures over the past two decades suggests that a re-examination of the most fundamental assumptions of US strategy in the Greater Middle East is needed. Growing governance challenges, changes to the regional state system, declining energy dependence on the United States, and the disruptions of an information and communications technology revolution make the retention of assumptions even less plausible. unexamined on state, society, governance and American regional influence.
A new strategy begins with an expansion of our analytical toolkit. New frameworks for understanding the interconnected geographic space of an expanded Middle East and the power of myth and historical memory to shape the strategic intent of actors are needed to inform a new US strategy. Likewise, we need ways to understand the diffusion of political and cultural movements across borders, patterns of religious governance, and interactions between Islamic and neighboring civilizations to help America define its interests and pursue them further. effectively. Thinking beyond the state, beyond the assumption of secular governance and beyond the fixed ideas of Western modernity offers the promise of a more effective American strategy.
THE PRIMACY of the state in American strategic thought has persisted since the boom in the formation of new states after the demise of empires in the twentieth century. Despite the growing power of sub-state actors and the weakening of state sovereignty through globalization, states are still the most important to US foreign policy. Threats from state actors such as China and Russia are attracting the attention of foreign policy and national security elites and the US response to global challenges, from pandemics and climate change to international corporate tax structures. , remains state-centric. The state as the conceptual foundation of global politics and security also endures in the way that US national security and diplomacy are primarily organized.
This state-centric approach to American strategy had important consequences for how the United States conceptualized the wider Middle East. The state, controlled by the palace elites, was understood to be distinct from the governed societies. As Ewan Stein observed, the state was “clearly seen as the repository of modern Westphalian norms and society as a separate domain containing a premodern identity.” In such a framework, states have become the engine of the modernization of a region, transforming “traditional” societies in accordance with the demands of a scientific and technological revolution. Cold War protagonists differed on how to achieve such modernization, but both aimed at it with their competing regional strategies.
Such a distinction between the modernizing state and mainstream society has also shaped how history has been incorporated – or ignored – in US strategic thinking about the region. The emphasis on modernization over traditional society has devalued the region’s long history, including its ancient civilizations, which influences states in the modern era. An inescapable path to modernization suggests that history useful for American strategic reflection on the Arab world, for example, goes back only to the end of the Ottoman Empire. The rise of secular nationalism, the modern administrative state, and better-trained and equipped armies at the end of the Ottoman Empire provide a historical narrative that accords with the assumption of state-led modernity. The rest of the story boils down to a strategically irrelevant preamble relegated to rarefied academic pursuits.