Review Essay

Dreams of Westphalia

Can a Grand Bargain Solve the Middle East’s Problems?

In This Review

Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East
Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East
By Patrick Milton, Michael Axworthy, and Brendan Simms
Oxford University Press, 2018, 176 pp. Purchase

The year 2019 may be remembered as an inflection point for the Middle East, when the seemingly intractable violence and instability that have beset the region finally exhausted the United States’ prodigious confidence in its capacity for problem solving. Fifty years ago, the United States began to fill the void left by the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and, tentatively at first, take on the role of regional peace broker. For all its flaws—and there were many—U.S. leadership during this period generated some historic dividends, including the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, and the preservation of oil exports in times of intense conflict. 

Now, however, the presumption of a vital U.S. interest in promoting peace and security in the Middle East is crumbling under the weight of changing energy markets and the human and financial toll of Washington’s seemingly endless wars in the region. “Let someone else fight over this blood-stained sand,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in October 2019, explaining his abrupt decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. The president has long decried the $8 trillion he says the United States has spent on wars in the region, and he has passed the responsibility for his much-touted Middle East peace plan to Avi Berkowitz, a 31-year-old law school graduate with no diplomatic experience.

Trump’s readiness to disengage from the Middle East appears to resonate not only with his base but also with a number of the Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign, who, like him, have advocated troop reductions or even withdrawal from the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, Trump’s disinclination to respond with anything other than perfunctory sanctions met with bipartisan assent.

So long as somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 U.S. troops remain deployed across the wider Middle East, concerns about a supposed American retreat from the region are premature. Still, it is hard to escape

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