Leaving the Middle East

Greetings from Australia, where I’m on sabbatical and visiting family and friends.

The United States has an onerous role in the Middle East. It is patron to governments, it underwrites the security of states, it vigilantly polices the region to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, it attempts to broker ceasefires or peace settlements in the Israel Palestine conflict, it intervenes to preserve a favourable balance of power (as in the Gulf War of 1991) and it has a strong military presence to back it all up. This is not only to ensure its energy interests, but also to arrest or prevent multipolarity, where other powers also with an interest in the region would re-arm to do the job themselves.

What are the long-term results of America’s role  here? It means that regional problems become America’s problems. Israel expands its settlements and launches new building programmes in Jerusalem…and the issue preoccupies Washington. A state with powerful incentives to acquire nuclear weapons chews up much valuable time and energy, as policymakers work out how to apply America’s limited influence – and in ways that won’t have the perverse effect of accelerating the very process of arming that they want to stop. It places the US on potential collision course with Iran. And it makes America complicit in the activities of regimes it bankrolls, whether for their human rights violations or their military offensives beyond their borders. And while the US is not responsible for the creation of militant Islamism, which finds reason to attack any number of states and peoples and is born of a deeper ideological impulse, being the overlord protecting the ‘apostate’ states of Saudi Arabia or Egypt  means that America is classified as the ‘far enemy.’ And the foreign policy ‘community’ with its various regional experts and lobbyists spend a lot of time debating about whether and how America should engineer or foster the democratic evolution of these societies without radical enemies seizing power, without an oil shock or some other unintended turbulence.

Is the region worth this trouble? The world, and America  particularly, is becoming less and less reliant on Middle Eastern oil. And by assuming the role of regional overlord, America takes on the burden for the benefit of other states with an interest there. In return for these diminishing payoffs, the costs are alarming. It means that America is made vulnerable to the activities of allies, particularly wily ones who can exploit Washington for their own benefit. And America’s guarantees in themselves create incentives for states to act irresponsibly or in a risky manner, and to ensure that there is enough threat of instability in order to keep the US committed. And as we’ve seen this week, America’s role in doing actual fighting in Iraq provides plenty of propaganda opportunities (such as the recent viral video of an Apache killing civilians) for its enemies to depict the US as a predatory occupying power.

One of the long-term tasks for this generation of American strategists is to find a way to leave the Middle East. But this will require some difficult steps. On this, I’d strongly recommend reading Christopher Layne’s article on American strategy after Iraq. As Layne argues, leaving the Middle East would include a stepped-up shift on energy policy, to speed up the declining importance of the region.It would demand a shift in its military posture, from an sheriff with a forward military presence  to an over-the-horizon role, where the US would only intervene to protect the vital straits and prevent the emergence of a dominant hegemon with the power to use oil to coerce, which for reasons above looks less and less threatening. And it would entail a shift in American grand strategy, where Washington would accept that other external powers might decide to assume a role in the region and strengthen their military hand to do so.

And it would involve an intense debate about America’s relationship with Israel. Contrary to many commentators who argue that America must ‘do’ more to drive forward and resolve this almost intractable conflict and corral the many players who have an interest in sustaining it, I suspect the US would be better served focusing on what it can control. Namely, its own departure from the region. America can probably do more to be a neutral broker (while still guaranteeing that Israel would never be abandoned if its were existentially threatened) rather than being Israel’s armourer, forever being present and entangled in the problem. But maybe a better alternative is not being the broker at all, being less involved and less implicated in the tragedy that it actually has little power to resolve. Ultimately, only Palestinians and Israelis can resolve their disagreements, and recent events demonstrate just how little control America has over its ally. Paying ‘harder to get’ and disentangling itself by making the region matter less might encourage states and peoples do more to resolve their own conflicts prudently. But even if not, it would relieve America of the unreasonable burden it has set itself.

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