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The Obama administration has clearly pulled back from the United States’ recent interventionism in the Middle East, notwithstanding the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and the U.S.-led air war against it. Critics pin the change on the administration’s aversion to U.S. activism in the region, its unwillingness to engage in major combat operations, or President Barack Obama’s alleged ideological preference for diminished global engagement. But the reality is that Washington’s post-9/11 interventions in the region—especially the one in Iraq—were anomalous and shaped false perceptions of a “new normal” of American intervention, both at home and in the region. The administration’s unwillingness to use ground forces in Iraq or Syria constitutes not so much a withdrawal as a correction—an attempt to restore the stability that had endured for several decades thanks to American restraint, not American aggressiveness.
It’s possible to argue that pulling back is less a choice than a necessity. Some realist observers claim that in a time of economic uncertainty and cuts to the U.S. military budget, an expansive U.S. policy in the region has simply become too costly. According to that view, the United States, like the United Kingdom before it, is the victim of its own “imperial overstretch.” Others argue that U.S. policy initiatives, especially the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, have distanced Washington from its traditional Middle Eastern allies; in other words, the United States isn’t pulling back so much as pushing away.
The long period of American primacy in the Middle East is ending.
In actuality, however, the main driver of the U.S. pullback is not what’s happening in Washington but what’s happening in the region. Political and economic developments in the Middle East have reduced the opportunities for effective American intervention to a vanishing point, and policymakers in Washington have been recognizing that and acting accordingly. Given this, the moderate U.S. pullback should be not reversed but rather continued, at least in the absence of a significant threat to core U.S. interests.
Between World War II and the 9/11 attacks, the United States was the quintessential status quo power in the Middle East, undertaking military intervention in the region only in exceptional circumstances. Direct U.S. military involvement was nonexistent, minimal, or indirect in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The 1982–84 U.S. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon was a notorious failure and gave rise to the “overwhelming force” doctrine, which precluded subsequent U.S. interventions until Saddam Hussein’s extraordinarily reckless invasion of Kuwait forced Washington’s hand in 1990.
Washington didn’t need a forward-leaning policy because U.S. interests largely coincided with those of its strategic allies and partners in the region and could be served through economic and diplomatic relations combined with a modest military presence. The United States and the Gulf Arab states shared a paramount need to maintain stable oil supplies and prices and, more broadly, political stability. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states have had the mutual objective of containing Iran. Beginning with the Camp David accords in 1978, American, Egyptian, and Israeli interests converged, and their trilateral relationship was reinforced by substantial U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel alike. And even after 9/11, the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states had shared priorities in their fights against terrorism.
Over the past decade, however, several factors largely unrelated to Washington’s own policy agenda have weakened the bases for these alliances and partnerships. First, the advent of hydraulic fracturing has dramatically reduced direct U.S. dependence on Gulf oil and diminished the strategic value and priority of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab states: indeed, the United States will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of crude oil and will need to import less fossil fuel. Although Gulf producers will keep determining the world price of oil and U.S. companies will continue to have a stake in the Gulf’s wells, the United States will enjoy greater policy discretion and flexibility.
The spread and intensification of jihadism have also weakened the strategic links between the United States and its regional partners. A decade ago, a combination of American pressure and the shock of large-scale al Qaeda attacks inside Saudi Arabia convinced the Saudis and their neighbors to clamp down on jihadist activities within their own borders. Yet today, the Gulf Arab states have subordinated the suppression of jihadism to the goal of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and hobbling his patrons in Iran. They are doing this by backing Sunni extremist rebels in Syria despite Washington’s exhortations to stop and Saudi Arabia’s own desire to avoid a post-Assad Syria ruled by radicals. The United States’ regional partners see themselves as less and less answerable to Washington, and Washington feels less obligated to protect the interests of those partners, which seem increasingly parochial and remote from American interests and values. In addition, widespread Islamic radicalization has driven the emergence of a genuine pan-Islamic identity that complicates Western involvement in the Middle East. Consider, for example, the unwillingness of many moderate Sunni Syrian opponents of Assad to accept European or U.S. help, which they believe will disqualify them in the eyes of Islamists.
Meanwhile, from the United States’ standpoint, the Middle East has become a highly dubious place to invest owing to systemic political and economic dysfunction. The region features little water, sparse agriculture, and a massive oversupply of labor. Of the Middle Eastern countries that still function, most run large fiscal and external deficits, maintain huge and inefficient civil service payrolls, and heavily subsidize fuel and other necessities for their populations; lower oil revenues will probably limit the Gulf states’ ability to finance those creaky mechanisms. Active conflicts in many Middle Eastern states have displaced large proportions of their populations and deprived their young people of educational opportunities and hope for the future. These conditions have produced either abject despair or, what is more ominous, political and religious radicalization. The effort to remake the Middle East as an incubator of liberal democracy that would pacify young Muslims failed even when the United States had plenty of cash to throw at the project and more reasons for optimism about its prospects, in the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
The potential for American military power to effect major change in the region is diminishing.
Finally, groups within Middle Eastern societies that were once reliable bastions of pro-Western sentiment—such as national militaries, oil-industry elites, and secular technocrats—have generally seen their influence wane. And in instances where traditional pro-Western elements have retained power, their interests and policies now increasingly diverge from American ones. The Egyptian military, for example, served for decades as a pillar of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. Thanks to the coup it launched in 2013 that placed the former army general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the top of a new authoritarian regime, the military now exerts more control than ever in Egypt. But this hardly augurs well for Washington: if past is prologue, the military’s brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood will almost certainly lead to an increase in jihadist violence and thus expose the United States to the very blowback that its assistance to Egypt is intended to prevent. Hopes in the 1950s and 1960s for the ascendance of a secular, technocratic, Western-oriented Arab elite that would bring their societies with them have long since faded.
At the same time that the salience of the Middle East to U.S. policy is waning and the interests of the United States and its traditional partners in the Middle East are diverging, the potential for American military power to effect major change in the region is also diminishing. The decentralization of al Qaeda and the emergence of ISIS, a jihadist expeditionary force and quasi state, have increased the asymmetries between U.S. military capabilities and the most urgent threats facing the region. As U.S.-occupied Iraq slid toward civil war in 2006, the Pentagon moved toward improving U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and practice, revamping the military’s structure to emphasize irregular warfare and special operations. But liberal and accountable democratic governments find it difficult to marshal either the staying power or the savagery that is usually required to suppress an unruly and committed indigenous group—especially a regionwide social movement such as ISIS, which does not recognize physical or political boundaries. This is particularly true when outside powers have no local partners with substantial bureaucratic cohesion or popular legitimacy. The United States still has the resources and resilience to sustain wars against modern nationalist states that would end with clear victors and enforceable outcomes. But Americans have learned the hard way that a transnational clash of ethnicities turbocharged by religious narratives is vastly harder to navigate, let alone manipulate.
A U.S.-led military operation against ISIS, for instance, would no doubt produce impressive and gratifying battlefield victories. But the aftermath of the conflict would drive home the ultimate futility of the project. Solidifying any tactical gains would require political will backed by the support of the American public; a large cadre of deployable civilian experts in reconstruction and stabilization; deep knowledge of the society for whose fate a victorious United States would take responsibility; and, most problematic, a sustained military force to provide security for populations and infrastructure. Even if all those conditions were present, Washington would struggle to find dependable and dedicated local constituents or clients, or indeed allies, to assist. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same list of things that Washington wasn’t able to put together the last two times it launched major military interventions in the Middle East, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the NATO air campaign against Libya in 2011. Put simply, the United States would likely lose another war in the Middle East for all the same reasons it lost the last two.
Even a less intensive, counterterrorism-based approach to ISIS, which would involve steady drone strikes and periodic commando operations, would carry grave risks. Collateral damage from U.S. drone attacks, for example, has made it harder for the Pakistani government to extend deeper cooperation to the United States. Five years ago, U.S. military officials took great pride in special operations raids in Afghanistan that resulted in the death or capture of high-value Taliban operatives. But the civilian casualties the raids produced undermined strategic goals by enraging locals and driving them back into the Taliban’s orbit.
For these reasons, U.S. policymakers should entertain serious doubts about taking ownership of any of the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts. Precisely those kinds of doubts explain and justify the Obama administration’s unwillingness to intervene more forcefully in Syria. For a period in 2012 and early 2013, the administration considered a full range of options for Syria, including U.S.- enforced no-fly and buffer zones, regime change by force (facilitated by far more substantial American and allied military assistance to anti-Assad rebels), and limited retaliatory air strikes against the regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. But the growing involvement of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah in defending Assad would have meant an unabashed U.S. proxy war with Iran that could have escalated and spilled over into the rest of region. That would have made it impossible to carry on fruitful talks with Tehran about curtailing its nuclear program and would have forced the United States to surpass Iran’s high levels of commitment and investment in the conflict. In addition, a U.S.-led intervention would have enjoyed very little international backing: China and Russia would have vetoed any UN resolution authorizing it, just as they had vetoed far less muscular resolutions, and the Arab League and NATO would not have endorsed it. And major Western military action would likely have intensified the spread of jihadism in Syria, as it had elsewhere.
The United States’ primary interest in the Middle East is regional stability. For now at least, constraints on U.S. power and the complex, interdependent nature of U.S. interests in the region—as well as the likelihood of sustained U.S.-Chinese rivalry that will inevitably divert U.S. strategic attention to the Asia-Pacific region—suggest that the best Middle East policy for Washington would be something closer to what international relations theorists call “offshore balancing”: refraining from engagement in overseas military operations and forgoing quasi-imperial nation building to focus instead on selectively using its considerable leverage to exert influence and protect U.S. interests. Washington needs to husband U.S. power in the Middle East, unless a genuine existential threat to its regional allies arises, which is unlikely. This course will require Washington to avoid any further projection of U.S. military power in the region—for example, a large-scale deployment of combat ground troops to fight ISIS.
Critics of U.S. restraint argue that in the absence of strongly asserted U.S. power, Iran or other U.S. nemeses will be emboldened—that restraint will lead to war. But U.S. adversaries will likely judge Washington’s resolve on the basis of conditions as they appear in the moment those adversaries are seriously considering aggressive actions, irrespective of conditions that existed years or months before. As long as the limits of U.S. restraint are clearly enunciated and Washington makes plain that its alliance with Israel remains undiminished, Iran will be loath to confront Israel or act much more aggressively in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or elsewhere in the region for fear of triggering a decisive American response that could scupper the nuclear deal and revive the painful sanctions that drove Tehran to the bargaining table in the first place. In any case, the question of whether saber rattling will provoke or deter a potential adversary can never be answered with complete confidence, since decision-makers often misjudge the perceptions and temperament of their rivals.
U.S. policymakers should entertain serious doubts about taking ownership of any of the Middle East’s ongoing conflicts.
Whether rapprochement is a promising paradigm for U.S.-Iranian relations remains to be seen. Iran clearly seeks to exert its influence wherever it can, but it’s far from clear that it can dominate the region. Iranian influence in Iraq was aided by the vacuum created by the U.S. invasion but stems more broadly from the demographic and political primacy of Iraq’s Shiites and is thus unavoidable. As long as Baghdad remains dependent on the United States for countering ISIS, Washington should retain sufficient leverage to moderate Iraqi politics and limit Iran’s sway. Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and for dissident Shiites in Bahrain is more opportunistic than strategic and therefore unlikely to permanently shift the balance of power in either place. Tehran’s meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t rise to the level of a strategic challenge: the Palestinian militant group Hamas has not been able to translate Iranian largess into a serious advantage over Israel, let alone Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, all of which oppose Hamas. Iran’s footholds in Lebanon and Syria go back decades, but even though its proxies in both places have steadily increased their commitment to defend the Assad regime, they have been unable to avert Syria’s de facto partition. Even if Iran chooses to make Syria its Vietnam, the best it could probably manage against an externally supported anti-Assad opposition would be to consolidate the status quo while sharing the meager rewards with Moscow. Syria, then, would be a springboard for Iranian mischief but hardly a platform for controlling the region. In short, even with the nuclear deal in place, Iran won’t be able to do much more now—and possibly even less—than it was able to do in the past.
The nuclear deal has produced a genuine split between the Americans and the Israelis, who believe that the deal’s terms are too lenient and won’t prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. But the divide is unlikely to have dire practical consequences. Washington has an obligation to maintain its unique relationship with Israel and has a strategic interest in preserving bilateral links with the Israeli military, which is by far the region’s most powerful fighting force. The nuclear deal with Iran also upset the Gulf Arab states. But Washington’s global economic responsibilities and its substantial counterterrorist interests still require the United States to safeguard its strategic relationship with those countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. And the Gulf Arab states retain a stronger cultural connection with the United States than with any other major power: Gulf elites send their children to American universities as opposed to Chinese, Russian, or European ones.
The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs need not panic: prudence dictates a serviceable regional U.S. military presence to prevent ISIS from expanding further (into Jordan, for example) and to deter Iranian breaches of the nuclear deal and respond to any destabilizing Iranian moves, such as a major ground intervention in Iraq. The American military footprint in the region should not change. At least one U.S. carrier battle group should remain assigned to the Arabian Sea. The structure and personnel strength of U.S. military bases in the Middle East should stay the same. The air campaign against ISIS should continue, and American troops will still need to be deployed occasionally on a selective basis to quell terrorist threats or even respond in a limited way to large-scale atrocities or environmental disasters. But a resolute policy of restraint requires that any major expeditionary military ground intervention on the part of the United States in the Middle East be avoided and that regional partners be encouraged to take on more responsibility for their own security.
In addition to affirming its pullback from the military interventionism of the post-9/11 era, Washington needs to recalibrate its diplomatic priorities. The aftermath of the Arab revolts of 2011—especially those in Egypt, Libya, and Syria—demonstrated that most Middle Eastern societies are not ready to take significant steps toward democracy, and so American attempts to promote further political liberalization in the region should be more subdued. U.S. officials should also recognize that a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is highly unlikely to take shape in the medium term. The United States’ dogged determination to accomplish that objective, even in the least propitious circumstances, has created a moral hazard. Successive Israeli governments have been able to thwart Washington’s peacemaking efforts with near impunity, confident that the Americans would continue to try no matter what. In turn, the United States’ inability to facilitate an agreement has contributed to perceptions of Washington as a declining power—even as some U.S. allies in the Gulf see U.S. pressure on Israel as another example of U.S. faithlessness as an ally.
The United States should always support the goals of democratization and Israeli-Palestinian peace. But in the medium term, rather than unrealistically clinging to those aims, Washington should try to capitalize on the Iran nuclear deal to improve relations with Tehran. If the implementation of the deal gets off to a relatively smooth start, Washington should probe Tehran’s flexibility in other areas with an eye to fostering a kind of modus vivendi between the Iranians and the Saudis—something that looks very unlikely now, as it has for years. One way to do so would be to bring Iran and other governments together in an effort to end the Syrian civil war through a political agreement. The emerging recognition among the major players—the United States, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states—is that, although ISIS’ dream of a border-busting caliphate remains out of the group’s reach, the ongoing conflict in Syria risks dangerously empowering ISIS and accelerating the propagation of its extremist ideology.
But each player has also come to realize that its preferred method of solving the Syrian crisis is probably unworkable. For the United States and its Gulf partners, supporting forcible regime change by Syrian rebels who are increasingly infiltrated or co-opted by ISIS appears counterproductive as well as operationally dubious. At the same time, after more than four years of a military stalemate, it is clear that Iran’s ongoing support for Assad and Russia’s recent intensification of its aid to the regime can merely help maintain the status quo but cannot decisively swing conditions in Assad’s favor. Both Tehran and Moscow seem to understand that regardless of their support, Assad’s regime is weaker than ever and it will probably prove impossible to reconstitute a unitary Syria ruled exclusively by the regime. For mainly these reasons, both Iran and Russia have recently shown more interest in exploring a negotiated settlement. Although Russia’s protestations that it is not wedded to Assad are disingenuous, Moscow has supported the UN Security Council’s investigation of the regime’s apparent use of indiscriminate barrel bombs filled with poisonous chlorine gas and has backed the Security Council’s August 2015 statement reinvigorating the quest for a political transition in Syria. Tehran, with Hezbollah’s support, has been pushing a peace plan involving a national unity government and a revised constitution, although one under which Assad or his regime would remain in power at least in the short term.
A realistic mechanism for taking advantage of these tenuously converging interests has not materialized. But the Iran nuclear deal has demonstrated the potential of diplomacy to ameliorate regional crises. In addition to countering the spread of jihadism, a U.S.-brokered agreement to end the Syrian civil war would mitigate and eventually end the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis and restore much of the American prestige that has waned in the region. Effective and inclusive conflict resolution on Syria would also validate the rapprochement with Iran and might help convince the Israelis of the efficacy of the United States’ new approach.
Washington should leverage the new diplomatic bonds that the nuclear negotiations forged among the major powers—and, in particular, between U.S. and Iranian officials—to reinvigorate multinational talks on Syria’s transition. An initial step might be to reconvene the Geneva II conference, which foundered in February 2014, gathering the original parties and adding Iran to the mix. Russia’s insistence that Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition to political talks should not be a deal breaker and in fact could be an enticement for Iran to participate, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry might now be able to facilitate through a direct appeal to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Gulf Arab states’ cautious endorsement of the nuclear agreement and Saudi Arabia’s participation in trilateral talks with the United States and Russia on Syria in early August suggest that the Gulf Arabs are growing more comfortable with diplomacy as a means of easing strategic tensions with Iran. On account of their heightened perception of the ISIS threat, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey might now drop their insistence that Assad depart prior to negotiations.
The best Middle East policy for Washington would be closer to what international relations theorists call “offshore balancing."
The hardest part, of course, will be arriving at plausible transitional arrangements. One possibility would be to create a power-sharing body with executive authority that could marginalize ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syria-based militant group affiliated with al Qaeda, as implicitly contemplated in the August UN Security Council statement. Another would be to partition the country to some degree and establish a confederacy of sorts to replace central rule from Damascus. Tactical cease-fires reached between the regime and moderate opposition forces could serve as the building blocks for those kinds of broader political arrangements and might also allow the parties to focus on fighting the jihadist factions, which represent a common enemy.
The long period of American primacy in the Middle East is ending. Although the Iraq war damaged Washington’s credibility and empowered U.S. adversaries, by the time the United States invaded Iraq, the region was already becoming less malleable all on its own. The United States should not and cannot withdraw in a literal sense, but it should continue to pull back, both to service strategic priorities elsewhere and in recognition of its dwindling influence. Neither the United States nor its regional partners want to see Iran with nuclear weapons or substantially increased regional influence. And none of the main players in the region wants to see a quantum leap in the power of ISIS or other Salafi jihadist organizations. But because the United States’ leverage has diminished, it must concentrate on forging regional stability. That would be a wiser approach than pushing for improbable political liberalization and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Obama administration has done, or trying to transform the region through the use of force, a strategy that the Bush administration relied on with woeful results.
In particular, Washington must acknowledge that reducing its military role will mean that its allies will exercise greater independence in their own military decisions. In turn, U.S. allies need to understand just how much support Washington is willing to provide before they launch risky military adventures, such as Saudi Arabia’s recent strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Washington and its partners need better bilateral and multilateral communications and planning. Washington will need to be clearer about what might prompt it to intervene militarily and what level of force it would use, and it will need to initiate more detailed joint planning for the full range of its possible responses.
Israel still favors confronting Iran instead of smoothing relations, and Washington will have to strictly police the nuclear deal to convince the Israelis of its effectiveness. But as ISIS has risen, the Gulf Arab states and Turkey have warmed a bit to the United States’ approach to Iran and to Washington’s position that containing the spread of jihadism is now more important than achieving regime change in Syria.
For Washington to successfully commit itself to a constructive pullback from the Middle East, it will need to make its best efforts to avoid directly impeding the priorities of its regional allies and partners—and it should demand that its friends in the region do the same. That will require focused diplomacy supported by clear articulations of Washington’s commitment to its core interests. Washington should stress, in particular, that the Iran nuclear deal will actually ensure, rather than threaten, sustained U.S. diplomatic engagement in the region. Instead of reversing course, Washington needs to embrace the idea of establishing a healthier equilibrium in U.S.–Middle Eastern relations, one that involves a lighter management role for the United States. The military-centric interventionism of the past 14 years was an aberration from a longer history of American restraint; it must not harden into a new long-term norm.