These days, conventional wisdom in Washington,
DC holds that the Iraq War has been lost, that the Bush Doctrine of promoting
unilateral regime change and spreading democracy in the Middle East has failed,
and that the neoconservative ideologues who have dominated U.S. foreign policy
since 9/11 are "out" while the realists are "in."
But the same conventional wisdom says you shouldn't hold your breath
even if an antiwar Democrat wins the White House in 2008, don't expect a revolutionary
change in U.S. policy on the Middle East. In the best-case scenario, some U.S.
troops would probably remain based in Iraq, and certainly in other parts of
the Persian Gulf, as a way of demonstrating U.S. resolve to defend Saudi Arabia
and the other oil-producing countries in the region; Washington would still
maintain its strong military and economic support for Israel and try to mediate
another peace process.
If anything, the election of one of the three leading Blue candidates, Sen.
Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-NY), or former Sen. John Edwards
(D-NC) all of whom have little experience in national security
might make it more likely that the United States could be drawn into a military
confrontation with Iran as the new White House occupant tries to demonstrate
that he or she is "tough." Hence, under either a Democratic or a Republican
president, one should not be surprised to discover that the major element in
the neoconservative agenda maintaining U.S. military and diplomatic hegemony
in the Middle East will likely remain alive and well, producing a neverending
vicious circle: more U.S. military interventions, leading to more anti-U.S.
terrorism, resulting in more regime changes.
A lack of change in U.S. policy could be due to the power of inertia combined
with the influences of the entrenched bureaucracies and powerful interest groups,
the military-industrial complex, the "Israel Lobby," and the oil companies.
But although all these players have major impacts on the policies pursued by
the White House and Congress, the most important factor that makes it likely
that U.S. interventionism in the Middle East will continue is the survival of
what could be described as the U.S. Middle East Paradigm (MEP), whose origins
go back to end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. Central to the
MEP was the belief that competition with the Soviet Union made U.S. involvement
in the Middle East a costly but necessary way to protect U.S. interests. The
United States simply had to counter to Soviet ambitions. Notwithstanding the
end of the Cold War, the MEP has continued to dominate the thinking of policymakers,
lawmakers, and pundits in Washington. To paraphrase the famous saying, policy
paradigms don't die, and unlike old generals, they don't even fade away.
Three factors provided the rationale for ongoing U.S. involvement in the Middle
East. The first was what were perceived as the necessities dictated by geostrategy.
The assumption was that the Soviet Union sought dominance in the region and
had to be contained; consequently, the United States replaced Britain and France
(which were militarily and economically weakened after World War II) in the
role of protecting the interests of the Western alliance in the Middle East.
The Soviet Union was an aggressive global power with a huge economic and military
force and a crusading ideological disposition that was perceived to be as threatening
to the West during the Cold War as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been
in World War II.
The second reason had to do with geoeconomics. Given the larger context of
the need to counter Soviet moves, Washington figured it was worth the price
to be involved in the Middle East, not only to protect U.S. access to Mideast
oil, but also to protect the free access of the Western economies to the energy
resources in the Persian Gulf. It seemed to make strategic sense during the
Cold War to let allies have a "free ride" on U.S. military power.
Third, with the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, the United States
underscored its historic and moral commitment Israel's survival in the Middle
East by helping it maintain its margin of security as it coped with hostile
Arab neighbors. Throughout the Cold War, during which the Soviet Union worked
to establish a beachhead in certain Arab states, this commitment evolved, at
least in the minds of U.S. policymakers, from an essentially moral commitment
into a geostrategic one, with Israel seen as the one reliable democratic partner
in the region.
These U.S. policies were very costly, involving alliances with military dictators
and medieval despots and covert and overt military intervention. One example
is when the United States helped depose a democratically elected government
in Iran and supported Saddam Hussein's confrontation with Iran. This policy
ignited anti-Americanism in the Middle East. But if one accepted the notion
that, based on calculations of national interest, Washington should have been
engaged in the Middle East during the Cold War, one was also willing to accept
the costs involved including anti-Americanism that produced oil embargoes,
embassies held hostage, and, of course, terrorism.
This essential paradigm has been accepted not only by U.S. neoconservatives,
who have dominated post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, but also by liberal internationalists
and conservative and liberal realists. There may have been disagreements about
tactics and emphasis among these elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment,
but all agreed that Washington should dominate policy in the region, or at least
serve as balancer of last resort when conflicts arose.
Even during the Cold War, this MEP led to contradictions that required delicate
balancing by U.S. policymakers. Most of the oil-producing states, especially
Saudi Arabia, seemed reliably anti-Soviet, but they were hardly pro-Israel,
and from time to time they faced internal opposition that could upset their
relationship with the United States and the West. So Washington had to appear
to be always "doing something" to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian
peace in order to keep the Arab oil-producing states on board.
At the same time, Washington seemed to see no alternative but to tolerate the
extremely conservative, militant version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, which
was dominant in Saudi Arabia. The Saud family considered it important, to maintain
its power at home, not simply to tolerate Wahhabism, but also to promote and
subsidize its spread overseas. Osama bin Laden was a product of or at least
heavily influenced by this branch of Islam. And both the United States and Saudi
Arabia believed it was in their interest to encourage and subsidize the essentially
militant Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the
1980s. Hence, thousands of guerrilla fighters were trained in that conflict
and, at least implicitly, encouraged to believe that once Soviet power in Afghanistan
had been neutralized it was legitimate to look to a wider mission, which led
eventually to blowback in the form of 9/11.
Within the Middle East, under the old MEP Washington not only had to safeguard
Israel, but also to placate Arab states by pressuring Israel to come to some
kind of a negotiated peace settlement. Thus various U.S. administrations
Bush I and Clinton applied pressure delicately on Israel to make concessions,
all the while proclaiming their underlying loyalty to the idea of Israel as
an independent Jewish state. This has proven to be a difficult job; despite
Camp David meetings and the Oslo process, a peaceful resolution seems further
away than ever. The Israelis and the Palestinians assume that Washington should
reward them for making concessions that are perceived as "favors"
for the Americans. At the same time, Arab and European governments reject responsibility
for trying to help resolve the conflict.
During the Cold War, all these and other costs seemed to be justifiable because
of the need to counter or neutralize Soviet influence. With the end of the Cold
War, however, that factor receded in importance. But U.S. policymakers did not
reassess the MEP for U.S. policy. Instead, during the administrations of Presidents
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Washington took advantage of the Soviet collapse
and the lack of competition from other global powers and emerged as the dominant
power in the Middle East, including through the containment of Iraq and Iran,
the extension of U.S. military power to the Persian Gulf, and the efforts to
mediate peace between Israel and Arab states. As a result of the emergence of
a unipolar system with no checks or balances on U.S. power, the Middle East
Paradigm survived and U.S. policy aimed to achieve strategic dominance in the
Indeed, from Gulf War I to Gulf War II there has been an effort to maintain
that U.S. hegemony. Under Presidents Bush I and Clinton, this was done through
a "cost-free" Pax Americana that included the dual containment of
Iraq and Iran and creating the impression that Washington was trying to resolve
the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But this ignited more anti-Americanism and
led to the Second Intifada and perhaps 9/11, demonstrating that if you want
hegemony, you pay for it. From this perspective, 9/11 should have been seen
as a challenge to U.S. dominance in the Middle East. But again, no effort was
made to reassess the MEP; in fact, the policy paradigm was the framework within
which the U.S. response was fashioned. The neoconservatives simply offered a
different strategy to achieve U.S. regional supremacy through regime
change and the direct occupation of Arab countries, instead of through the more
diplomatic strategy and indirect military approach embraced by earlier administrations.
The costs of following neoconservatives' advice have become apparent. But most
critics of the Bush administration still fail to offer anything other than different
strategies to achieve U.S. hegemony in the region; they prefer to maintain the
current MEP instead of replacing the bankrupted policy paradigm by challenging
the need for U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
Indeed, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that the main rationale for U.S.
intervention in the Middle East the Soviet threat has long since
disappeared, and that U.S. military intervention in the region only ignites
anti-Americanism in the form of international terrorism. Moreover, the U.S.
economy is not dependent on Mideast oil; 70% of U.S. energy supplies do not
originate in the Middle East. The United States is actually more dependent on
Latin American oil than it is on Saudi and Persian Gulf oil. And the notion
that U.S. policy in the Middle East helps give Americans access to cheap and
affordable oil makes little sense if one takes into consideration the military
and other costs including two Gulf Wars that are added to the
price that the U.S. consumer pays for driving his or her car.
U.S. military force is quite likely not necessary to maintain access to Persian
Gulf oil, either for the United States, Western Europe, or Japan. The oil-producing
states have few resources other than oil, and if they don't sell it to somebody,
they will have little wealth with which to maintain their power and curb domestic
challenges. They need to sell oil more than the United States needs to buy it.
If political and military influence is required to keep the oil flowing to Western
Europe and Japan and increasingly to China, the countries that are truly dependent
should be the ones to bear the cost.
The time has come, therefore, to bid farewell to the old MEP and try to draw
the outlines of a new U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is a need for a
long-term policy of U.S. "constructive disengagement" from the Middle
East that will encourage the Europeans and other global and regional players
to take upon themselves the responsibility of securing their interests in the
With the demise of the Soviet threat, continued U.S. intervention in the region
serves mainly to promote anti-Americanism and terrorism. If a balancer of last
resort is needed, let the European Union (EU), with its geographical proximity
to and economic and demographic ties in the Middle East, do it. Likewise, the
main threat to Israel's survival is not a lack of U.S. assistance, but Israel's
control over the West Bank and Gaza and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians.
U.S. support for Israel now creates disincentives for a settlement. The prospect
of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, and of a lower diplomatic profile
in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, should produce incentives for both sides,
as well as for the Arab states and the EU, to deal with it.
O f course, the necessary condition for constructive disengagement from the
Middle East is a larger U.S. reconsideration of the idea that Washington should
be the final arbiter in disputes in the region and throughout the world, which
would mean not only tolerating but also welcoming activity by the EU and other
players. In that context, the foreign policy establishment in Washington would
have to recognize that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is now in the process
of being "de-internationalized," transformed from a major regional
conflict with enormous global ramifications for the United States and other
global players, into a more "localized" affair that Washington, at
the start of the 21st century, will be able to treat with certain benign neglect.
Benign neglect of the Middle East? Detachment was certainly not the kind of
frame of mind with which intellectual Washington's foreign policy elites and
the U.S. public were conditioned to approach the Middle East for much of the
Cold War. Hence, the notion of abandoning the MEP would certainly not be an
easy process for U.S. policymakers and pundits. It's difficult to say goodbye
to old friends. Just ask some of those veteran Cold Warriors in Washington.
"Enemy deprivation syndrome" has been identified by psychiatrists
as a common cause of anxiety among Washington's wonks.
Consequently, it is more likely that Washington will eventually pull back from
its dominant role in the Middle East not through a responsible rethinking of
U.S. engagement, but through a series of mounting costs and disasters that eventually
lead to a "destructive disengagement" from the region that will look
like and to a great extent will be a U.S. defeat and retreat.
This is exactly what seems to be happening now.
But in case the next president does decide that the time has come to reexamine
U.S. policy in the Middle East, here are a few pointers for a new Middle East
- Creating a new Congress of Vienna system a concert of Great Powers,
a Northern Alliance that will include also the European Union (EU) and Russia,
and eventually also China and India will help contain instability and
terrorism. The United States doesn't have the military power and economic
resources to do that job alone. Washington needs to replace the concept of
a U.S. Monopoly with that of a U.S.-led Global Oligopoly.
- In that context, Washington should encourage Europe to play a more activist
role in the Middle East, which is, after all, its "strategic backyard."
Besides the geographic proximity, Europe is also tied to the Middle East through
demographic ties in the form of immigrants. European economies not
U.S. economies are dependent on the energy resources in the Middle
East. It's time for Washington to stop giving Europe a "free ride"
in the Middle East and create incentives for them to start paying the costs
of maintaining their geostrategic and geoeconomic interests in the Middle
East. The deployment of the French and Italian peacekeeping troops in Lebanon
is a step in the right direction.
- A new paradigm should shape incentives for the formation of regional balance
of power systems that include Turkey, Israel, the leading Arab states, and
Iran. Indeed, Washington needs to begin adjusting to the reality that Iran
will become the hegemon in the Persian Gulf and that its nuclear military
power will be counterbalanced by Israel.
- Adopt a policy of benign neglect toward the many tribal, ethnic, and religious
conflicts in the Middle East. Washington needs to understand that it doesn't
have the power to resolve or control all of them, and should engage in the
Middle East through trade and investment and providing support to those who
want to be allies. But by trying to force a U.S. mind-set and values on the
nations of the Middle East, Washington will only erode its power and produce
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