This Caravan provides a compelling map of the significant challenges the US faces in the region as well as the opportunities to pursue a strategy to reestablish and maintain preeminence. Whatever the outcome of this extraordinary presidential election may be, the next administration will face significant challenges, especially in the Middle East.
America’s view of the Middle East today is shaped by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise and reach of ISIS, a grinding conflict in Syria, the region as a source of wider ranging terrorism and staggering outflows of refugees that is changing the political calculus in Europe. As our strategic role in the Middle East began with a meeting on the water so, too, are consequential changes there taking place at sea – the domain in which the U.S. has enjoyed unfettered access and dominance for over seventy years.
Since the introduction of airpower as a military force just over 100 years ago, it has played a key role in shaping the geopolitical posture of the Middle East. The first example is the success of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in exerting strategic control by the use of aircraft over regions of British interest in Mesopotamia in the 1920s. A handful of RAF squadrons and a small force of troops successfully subdued rebellious tribes in Iraq.
Anybody who follows foreign affairs and social media has likely seen some version of a chart entitled “A Guide to the Middle East Relationships.” The graphic shows a hopelessly tangled web of arrows illustrating the often contradictory strategic associations in the region, i.e. the United States and Iran support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war while fighting on the same side in Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS); Turkey opposes Bashar Assad’s regime yet attacks the Kurdish militias fighting his army; Saudi Arabia and Qatar both support Syria’s Sunni rebels yet hold diametrically opposing views on Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, et cetera.
Do not write off states as power brokers in the Eastern Mediterranean maritime arena just yet. It is easy to do so. Great powers (past, present and aspiring) as well as non-state actors seem to have eroded the centrality of regional state actors in shaping the region’s maritime security environment in the last few years.
The goal of this Caravan has been to provide an account of the strategic underpinning of the challenges the US faces and which the next administration—whoever occupies the White House—will have to address. Five distinguished experts have explained how the historical preeminence of American military power in the region cannot be taken for granted. It can be maintained only through a clear strategic vision and the political will to act on it.