The United States is experiencing a strategic reversal of its once-prominent position in the Middle East. It is fast becoming just another squabbling player on a chaotic and complex game board. This reversal has been years in the making but has clearly accelerated since U.S. troops left Iraq and since they began to leave Afghanistan. For the United States, this diminished status is humbling. For the region, it is deeply unsettling.
The agent of America’s shrunken regional role is not another state but rather the chaos spreading from Tripoli to Lahore. Much of this chaos is initiated from below but is also fueled by state actors seeking advantage. The U.S. capacity to restore order, to be the sheriff on the street, is limited given the nature of the challenges and the low regard in which the United States is held throughout the region.
The Obama Administration has responded to the post-Arab-Spring chaos by limiting its goals in the Middle East and by beginning the process of redirecting U.S. energies toward the Asia-Pacific, a region which is potentially more amenable to the exercise of state power and which is more central to future U.S. interests. Critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East and elsewhere are calling for a more robust exercise of leadership, particularly in response to Syria’s collapse. But it may well be that the era of American Vulcans going abroad in search of Middle East monsters to destroy is over.
Quite simply, the United States is exiting the post-World War II era, when our overwhelming strength gave us the luxury to make stupid mistakes and still escape catastrophe. After all the bad U.S. decisions in the Middle East since 2001, our target selection going forward must be restrained, and we must keep in mind that the Middle East remains a region that can suck us dry. Moreover, Asia now demands our urgent and sustained attention, both because of the opportunities present in the region for creative U.S. policies, and because of the risk of major power conflict present in the Asia-Pacific. Simply put, turmoil in the Middle East does not pose a risk to the basic structure of the international system. China’s rise, if it goes off the rails, does pose that risk.
Middle East Chaos: The New Normal?
Rarely, if ever, in the post-colonial period has the Middle East, defined as reaching from Morocco to Pakistan, been entirely stable or peaceful. It has regularly been convulsed by coups and counter coups. Afghanistan has been in continuous conflict since the 1970s. A horrendous eight-year war between Iraq and Iran claimed roughly half a million civilian and military lives. Internal wars in Algeria and Lebanon went on for years. Israel has fought wars every decade since independence, either with its neighbors or with the Palestinians living under its control or adjacent to it.
Post-colonial power struggles in the Middle East left some monarchies in place (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan) or mini-state emirs in the Persian Gulf. But in major Arab states (Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria) authoritarian secular leaders emerged, frequently from military ranks and ethnic minorities. (The Assad family, from Alawite roots, rose in a Sunni majority country, and Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, emerged in a Shi‘a majority country.) By definition, states and their leaders were consequential regional players.
External actors, such as the United States and Soviet Union, were also major players in the region, backing client states, intervening directly on occasion, and assisting in war and peace making. The United States led two major wars against Iraq. The second of these removed a vicious dictator but in the process fundamentally unsettled the strategic balance between Shi‘a Iran and the Sunni Arab heartland. We know now that the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein accellerated the introduction of Islamic extremism into the region. It is not surprising that many in the Middle East see U.S. policies as deeply destabilizing.
Both Russia and the United States grew accustomed to dealing with authoritarian leaders who could “deliver” their countries. For the United States, after 9/11 this capacity was critical to the prosecution of the War on Terror. An important corollary for Washington was that popular Arab dislike of the United States and its policies did not matter because their leaders largely disregarded popular opinion. (The PEW Research Global Attitudes Project in 2010 found that only 21 percent of Jordanians and 17 percent of Egyptians had a “favorable” view of the United States.) Now, neither many Middle East publics nor their leaders have much good to say about the United States.
The warm-up act to the Arab Spring was, in retrospect, the failed Green Revolution in Iran, put down by the regime. But starting in 2011 in Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria, authoritarian regimes were attacked, replaced or put at risk. Authoritarian lids have been lifted off countries with diverse sectarian, ethnic, and tribal makeups, and long suppressed animosities have emerged: majority Shi‘a populations against minority Sunni rulers in Bahrain, minority Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis against majority Shi‘a rulers in Iraq, Tripolitanians versus Cyrenaicans in Libya, and majority Sunnis against minority Alawis in Syria. Weapons “liberated” from Libyan arsenals, jihadists “freed” from Iraqi jails, Gulf Arab money for Sunni extremists, and Iranian weapons for Hezbollah fighters supporting Assad all have contributed to spreading chaos. Moderate voices have been marginalized everywhere, including in Egypt.
If pre-2010 conflicts were typically state on state and driven by elites, the new “normal” in the Middle East is that all leadership elites are at risk from forces below them. In the old Middle East, big external powers could play decisive roles. In the new Middle East they play at the margins.
The United States has gone from being a constant and substantial, if on occasion disruptive, factor on the Middle East scene to being a variable, uncertain, and less consequential actor. Russia would be delighted to benefit from U.S. miscues but finds itself identified with Shi‘a leaderships in Damascus and Tehran at a time of deepening sectarian divides across the region. Turkey, a purported “bridge” between Europe and the Middle East, has watched its earlier policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors crushed by emerging realities in its southern neighborhood.
Within the region, old powers (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq) are consumed by internal difficulties. The “new” players (Iran and Saudi Arabia) are consequential if not determinative actors. Iran gained a friend with the transition from Saddam Hussein to Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Tehran risked losing another friend in Damascus, but that corner seems to have been turned as Assad has hung on to power. Iran now provides the locus of Shi‘a power in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, to a lesser degree, other Gulf Cooperation Council states, provide the Sunni “balance”, though they disagree on specific policies. They have provided money, weapons, and recruits to state and non-state leaders and combatants in the region, sometimes backing different and opposing groups. However, like Iran, Saudi Arabia is better at fueling the fires in the region than it is at stabilizing and building.
In the new Middle East it is the non-state actors that are, for the moment, driving change in the region. Political Islam, in all its variety, both moderate and extreme, has provided the ideological weight to this movement. True, traditional elites continue to run Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and the military has reasserted control in Egypt. But even in these countries vulnerability and uncertainty stalk the halls of power. Saudi Arabia is fast approaching a generational change of leadership without guarantees that the next generation can manage the strains of a fast-growing population that is ill equipped by relevant education or experience to operate in the modern world. Egyptian generals have no credible game plan for extricating the Egyptian economy from its deteriorating slide and have contributed to fracturing the country by driving the Muslim Brotherhood underground.
“Fuel” for the Middle East eruption from below has come from dissatisfied youth whose aspirations have been thwarted by the absence of opportunity. When Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in the 1950s, Egypt’s population was twenty million. When Hosni Mubarak assumed the presidency in 1981, Egypt’s population had grown to forty million. When he left office in 2011 it had doubled to eighty million and is now on track to top 100 million by 2030. The demographer Richard Cincotta warns that “the vast majority of intrastate conflicts will emerge within the so-called demographic arc of instability—a geographic swath of states having a population with a median age less than or equal to 25 years.” Egypt’s median age is 24. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan all have a median age of roughly 22.
This “revolution” has become progressively more violent, dangerous, and dispersed though for the moment it has calmed in Tunisia and has not spread to Algeria, Morocco, and some Gulf states. Syria’s troubles threaten the stability of the entire Levant. The Economist observed recently, “From Somalia to Syria, al-Qaeda franchises and Jihadist fellow travelers now control more territory, can call on more fighters, than at any time since Osama bin Laden created the organization 25 years ago.” A “lesson” emerging from the past dozen years (accelerating in the past three) is that the combination of networked individuals and youth-heavy, disgruntled populations can have a powerful impact on the future of nations. The Arab Spring, which started as a worthy protest against authoritarian leaders who had failed their peoples, has evolved into something ugly and dangerous.
The United States in Retreat
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham recently opined, “The Administration’s failure on Syria is part of a broader collapse of U.S. credibility in the Middle East.” Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence, said recently, “We have seen several red lines put forward by the President, which went along and became pinkish as time grew and eventually ended up completely white.” Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel attacked the U.S.-negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran as a “historic mistake.” These comments, by observers who disagree more than they agree, only begin to capture the intensity of criticism that has been leveled at the United States and its policies in the Middle East.
In retrospect, the high point of U.S. influence in the region was in 1990–91, when President George H.W. Bush successfully assembled and led a broad coalition (including Syria) to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, got others to cover most of the costs, and then pivoted to organize the Madrid Peace Conference, which initiated a decade of intensified negotiations aimed at resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Others may point to the massive insertion of U.S. forces into Afghanistan and Iraq beginning in 2001 as another “high point”, but the passage of time has tarnished that broad enterprise. Simply put, the United States in 2014 will conclude the longest war in its history, fought virtually in its entirety against non-state enemies, and leave behind two badly fractured and unstable countries after the expenditure of many millions of dollars and massive loss of life.
Objectively, the United States is in strategic retreat in the Middle East. U.S. troop levels reached 166,000 in Iraq in 2007 and now stand at zero with an accompanying loss of influence in Baghdad. Prime Minister Maliki facilitates Iran’s efforts to resupply the Syrian regime and has helped to stoke the sectarian fissures in his country that have made the Sunni terror group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a force for evil not only in Iraq but in Syria.
At their high point, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan reached 88,000 in 2012 and at most will settle at 10,000 in 2014. U.S. influence is visibly declining in that country as force extraction and force protection become defining objectives. It is difficult to believe either that the United States can be a consequential player with such a small force presence or that the U.S. Congress will provide the promised billions of dollars in assistance going forward. Afghanistan’s future looks grim.
Egypt and Gulf Cooperation Council states express extreme frustration, and at times anger, with U.S. policies in the region. They believe the Obama Administration effectively sat on the sidelines as Syria descended into chaos. Saudis are fearful that the United States will sell them out for a deal with Iran. U.S. friends in the region are hedging their bets, given a less than reliable United States.
The Obama Administration has been tactically inept in the Middle East since the President’s early days in office, rarely anticipating the implications of rhetorical flourishes and prone to make idle demands. In his June 2009 Cairo speech, the President stated, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It’s time for these settlements to stop.” They haven’t. Fast forward to President Obama in 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” And in 2013, the President again said, “Assad must go.” He remains in place. Again in 2013, “I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.” It has not.
Five years into the Obama presidency, every major issue in the Middle East—Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Arab-Israeli peace—has become more challenging. To be fair, these are not problems that can be laid uniquely at the Obama Administration’s doorstep. They are painful reminders that unaddressed or poorly handled problems can worsen and metastasize over time. Deeply authoritarian leaders, who in some cases benefitted from U.S. support, finally exceeded the tolerance levels of their societies. In Syria, death and destruction have grown on Obama’s watch, such that today 140,000 or more are dead and roughly eight to nine million people out of a population of 22 million are now in refugee status, internally or in neighboring countries. Moreover, the al-Qaeda threat has grown, with Syria and Iraq now being prime staging areas for violent extremists. The risk is growing that these well-trained killers will spread their violence to Europe and beyond. During the George W. Bush Administration, Iran had a few hundred centrifuges; today it has in excess of 19,000. Further, the Israeli settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has more than doubled since the Oslo Peace agreement in 1993, increasing the Israeli political constituency that opposes territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
I am not suggesting that different policies in successive U.S. administrations would have necessarily resulted in different outcomes. One can certainly speculate about whether the Bush Administration might have achieved a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2003, negotiating with the benefit of an impressive U.S. military force in Iraq. Instead, President Bush labeled Iran, in a rhetorical flourish of his own, as part of the “Axis of Evil”, effectively removing that possibility.
Rather, I mean to say that the agenda of problems in the region is huge, and the potential demands on America’s energies and resources are significant. Moreover, these demands coincide with the painfully slow U.S. emergence from the worst financial crisis since the depression of the 1930s, the winding down of two deeply unpopular wars, the disturbing challenge being posed by Russia in Ukraine, and the visible emergence of the Asia-Pacific as the region with the greatest growth potential and biggest strategic challenges going forward. It is worth adding, in this context, that the emerging energy revolution in the United States, which promises to make the United States self-sufficient in natural gas and which guarantees growing domestic oil production, is also changing the U.S. calculus about being tethered to Middle East problems.
The responsibility falls to this President, or indeed to any President, to develop policies that encompass the totality of U.S. interests. However, if President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address is any indication, a certain complacency has taken hold in the White House. The President’s speech gave scant mention of the region that the Administration supposedly intends to rebalance or pivot toward: the Asia-Pacific.
President Obama is trying to reorient America’s strategic focus. Clearly, he does not want to repeat what he views as the overcommitment of his predecessor to the Middle East. He appreciates, more than most, that China’s rise may be the most consequential geopolitical challenge of the first half of the 21st century, with broad implications for global security, resources, and economics. The recent National Intelligence Council report, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds”, argues that, “in a tectonic shift, by 2030, Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power, based on GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.” China, and India to a lesser degree, are at the heart of this shifting locus of global power.
The wise analyst knows that there are many potential breaks that can yet occur in this trajectory. Nonetheless, Asia’s potential is huge. It holds a quarter of the world’s population and its second and third largest economies. It is, moreover, a region where state to state relations matter. The strategic guidance issued by the Secretary of Defense in January 2012 says specifically, “While the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” U.S. trade negotiators are busy trying to conclude a massive new trade agreement in the region: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Senior Administration officials travel regularly to the region; the President plans two trips there in 2014.
Nothing is risk-free. Comparisons between Europe’s descent into war in 1914 and rising tensions in Asia are not entirely misplaced. China is a rising power with rising aspirations that pose explicit challenges to the status quo in Asia. Its leaders are testing limits in the East and South China Seas. Sino-U.S. relations have, for the past forty years, combined cooperative with competitive elements, but many analysts anticipate that the competitive features of the relationship will become more pronounced and dangerous with time. Close U.S. allies, Korea and Japan, are consumed by their sharply conflicting historical narratives. The young leader of North Korea is proving to be dangerously unpredictable. Pakistan is on the road toward becoming a nuclear failed state.
There are plausible scenarios in which the United States gets sucked into a regional conflict not of its own choosing. Thucydides’ observation, in the 5th century BCE, that men go to war out of “honor, fear, and interest”, remains valid today and certainly captures prevalent impulses in the Asia-Pacific.
Critics say a great power should be able to lead simultaneously in multiple regions. In theory that is right, but in practice senior policymakers can only manage a finite number of issues. Indeed, the crisis in Ukraine is a stark reminder that unanticipated contingencies can disrupt the wisest strategic intentions. Asians point to the continued preoccupation of the United States with the Middle East. They recognize that they have a direct interest in a continuing role being played by the United States in safeguarding the smooth flow of energy from the Persian Gulf region to Asia. But they also know that policy is made at the top of the bureaucracy, and they know that the number of leadership meetings in the White House on the Middle East and South Asia far outweigh those on East Asia, as indeed was the case in the last Administration. They witness first hand where Secretary Kerry’s enthusiastic interest is focused, despite multiple trips to Asia. Moreover, they understand that President Obama is being dragged backward by the dysfunctional politics of contemporary Washington. This pattern was broadcast in technicolor when the President was unable to participate last fall in very important meetings in Asia due to the government shutdown. They fear that he may not be able to push a completed TPP trade agreement through a divided Congress—or even within his own Democratic Party.
However painfully, the Obama Administration is seeking to reduce U.S. commitments in the Middle East and to extricate itself in whole or in part from the two wars that so consumed our energies for the past 12 years. President Obama identified his regional priorities in his September 2013 UN General Assembly speech: free flow of energy, chemical weapons in Syria, Iran’s nuclear weapons, Arab-Israeli peace, and dismantling terrorist networks. But he also said that the “United States had a hard earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries.” Practically speaking, U.S. policy has come a long way since George W. Bush declared in his Second Inaugural Address in 2005, “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
On balance, President Obama’s limited agenda in the Middle East makes strategic sense—the disturbing images that emerge daily from Syria notwithstanding. However, all too often, unintended effects of choices prove to be more consequential than the intended ones. Getting sucked into yet another Middle East conflict would not serve U.S. broader strategic interests, but there are also costs associated with the diminished U.S. posture in the Middle East. For example, simply funneling weapons to the Syrian opposition is unlikely to fundamentally change realities on the ground. That conflict is likely to go on for the indefinite future.
Finding a Better Balance
The United States has moved progressively from a strategy of threat containment (1940s to 1980s), to a strategy of threat resolution (1990s to 2008), to a current strategy that we might describe as threat management, with a focus on vigorous diplomacy. (It remains to be seen whether diplomacy without the threat of force can succeed in Syria, when the other side practices diplomacy reinforced by brutal force.)
“Threat management” is not sexy, nor is it in keeping with the aspirations of a people who consider themselves “exceptional.” However, such a strategy is very much in keeping with where popular American opinion seems to be. (A recent Pew Research study found that more than half agree the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”) It is most certainly in keeping with the congressionally imposed dysfunctionality that constrains the exercise of national power. It is fair to ask: Can the United States remain a global leader while operating under continuing resolutions, with arbitrary sequestration cuts replacing sound decision-making? Many of our closest friends have reason to ask themselves this question.
This is not to excuse Executive Branch lapses. The Iraq War and the 2007–09 financial crisis badly tarnished the U.S. reputation around the world. More recently, the personnel selection process in this White House in President Obama’s second term also deserves to be called “dysfunctional”; it is slow in the extreme and seemingly oblivious to the reality that second-term administrations have limited windows in which to act. Ambassadorial selections from the ranks of campaign “bundlers” reek of a spoils system of the worst sort. (Obviously, Senate obstructionism and foot-dragging aven’t helped.)
Nonetheless, U.S. power, in all its dimensions, will remain strong going forward—unmatched at a global level by any country or collection of countries. However, it is also clear that U.S. room for maneuver has diminished in a world of diffuse and diffusing power, mounting challenges from below the state level, and accelerating dangers from fundamental global challenges such as climate change, resource depletion, and weapons proliferation. Moreover, at home the United States faces mounting challenges, with 76 million Baby Boomers headed into retirement. This translates into 10,000 Americans every day, on average, becoming eligible for Social Security and Medicare, driving up the costs associated with these programs.
The United States has embarked on ambitious diplomatic ventures in the Middle East with Iran, with the Palestinians and Israelis, and over Syria’s future. It may be that none of these efforts succeeds, which could leave the region with continuing conflict in Syria, Israel in permanent control of a territory filled with resentful Palestinians, and Iran closer to a nuclear breakout. Secretary Kerry is to be applauded for his efforts. He is operating in America’s diplomatic sweet spot, but from a base of diminished U.S. credibility and weight. Success on any of these three negotiating fronts would foster significant new regional dynamics. The Saudis, for example, fear U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. However, it is unlikely that Tehran will shelve its nefarious activities throughout the Middle East even if a nuclear agreement is signed. Middle East demands on the United States will remain huge but hardly more consequential for its interests than the momentous shifts underway in the Asia-Pacific.
There is a contradiction between the judgments that problems left untended can grow worse, and the judgment that the United States is over-invested in the Middle East. The former would have us do more, and the latter would have us do less. But both judgments are true. Three issues (Syria, Iran, and Arab-Israeli peace) offer little short-term promise but virtually guarantee long-term risk if we ignore them. That said, addressing these issues need not and should not require a militarized policy, except in very extreme cases. The problems of the rest of the region pose less long-term danger for the United States, though it is painfully clear that extremist political Islam will be a continuing challenge hardly diminished by the death of Osama bin Laden. We should therefore “go broad” in the issue areas that have the potential to make serious trouble and “go narrow” in those that do not. This will allow this Administration and its successor to find a proper and sensible balance between our Middle East interests and those in other important regions. Failure to find such a balance could lead not just to a regional reversal for the United States, but possibly to a global one.