FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: The Arab Spring at Five

Fight or Flight

America’s Choice in the Middle East

Houthi fighters patrol the main street of Sadah, Yemen, June 2015. Sebastiano Tomada / Getty Images

The modern Middle East has rarely been tranquil, but it has never been this bad. Full-blown civil wars rage in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Nascent conflicts simmer in Egypt, South Sudan, and Turkey. Various forms of spillover from these civil wars threaten the stability of Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen to new heights, raising the specter of a regionwide religious war. Israel and the Palestinians have experienced a resurgence of low-level violence. Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have weathered the storm so far, but even they are terrified of what is going on around them. Not since the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century has the Middle East seen so much chaos.

Moreover, it is unlikely to abate anytime soon. No matter how many times Americans insist that the people of the Middle East will come to their senses and resolve their differences if left to their own devices, they never do. Absent external involvement, the region’s leaders consistently opt for strategies that exacerbate conflict and feed perpetual instability. Civil wars are particularly stubborn problems, and without decisive outside intervention, they usually last decades. The Congolese civil war is entering its 22nd year, the Peruvian its 36th, and the Afghan its 37th. There is no reason to expect the Middle East’s conflicts to burn out on their own either.

Even as the Middle East careens out of control, help is not on the way.

As a consequence, the next U.S. president is going to face a choice in the Middle East: do much more to stabilize it, or disengage from it much more. But given how tempestuous the region has become, both options—stepping up and stepping back—will cost the United States far more than is typically imagined. Stabilizing the region would almost certainly require more resources, energy, attention, and political capital than most advocates of a forward-leaning U.S. posture recognize.

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