Is the Middle East still strategically indispensable to the world in general and to the security interests of the United States in particular? Americans no longer think so. They have grown weary of the region after controversial and often inconsequential wars in Afghanistan (2001-2015), Iraq (1990-1991; 2003-2011), Libya (2011), and now again in Iraq against ISIS—and this is to say nothing of the “peace process” that has encouraged much Palestinian violence. Americans in surveys express a general uneasiness with the region. Most do not favor the proposed Iran non-proliferation deal; most do not support the Palestinians over the Israelis; and most do not favor America’s high profile in the Middle East. They oppose both military intervention in and foreign aid to almost all the countries of the region. At the same time, they have grown tired of Muslim jihadists and their barbaric violence.
In the past, five traditional considerations ensured that the region was central to Western and American interests. But are these issues predicated on timeless constants or are they growing far less relevant in the changing twenty-first century?
The Middle East since antiquity has been the commercial nexus of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Suez Canal is the only eastern exit out of the Mediterranean. Stop shipping in the canal (as happened between 1967-1975), let terrorists’ missiles disrupt commercial airspace over the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, or have Iran shutdown entry into the Persian Gulf, and much of Asian and European commerce would come to a halt. On any given day, most of the world’s tensions and fault-lines that are likely to spark wars—Shiite-Sunni, Muslim-Christian, Kurdish-Turkish, Israel-Arab, Iranian-Arab—arise in the Middle East.
America’s recent wars and major military interventions often involved the Middle East. Armed interventions initially solved perceived problems by removing the Taliban, forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, deposing Saddam Hussein, and ending the Khadafy regime. But then, murderous chaos followed murderous authoritarianism. The result of these less than successful interventions and the escalating violence of authoritarian dictators, theocracies, and terrorist movements has been a growing Western pessimism. Many westerners are concluding that the problems in the Middle East are inherent, and not contingent on the particular type of regime in power.
Doubts do not just arise because the removals of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Khadafy have not yet led to something demonstrably better; but rather because the cycles of Middle East genocide, terrorism, and atrocity remain constant, regardless of the reigning ideology de jour—from the pro-Nazi fascism of the 1930s to the Baathism and Pan-Arabism of the 1950s and 1960s to the pro-Soviet statism of the 1970s to the radical Islamism of the 1990s through to the present.
The likely Iranian acquisition of a bomb will only fuel these tensions, and be matched over the next 20 years by Sunni governments’ commensurate efforts to ensure their own nuclear deterrents. By combining the specter of nuclear arms and medium and long-range missiles with traditionally unstable regimes, tribalism, terrorism, religious extremism, and fundamentalism, the Middle East may inflict existential destruction well beyond its own borders. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky’s purported warning, you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.
Three religions collide in the Middle East: Christianity, Judaism and Islam all claim their spiritual birthplaces within a small radius. The passions of billions hinge on preserving unfettered access to Mecca, Medina, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Bethlehem, and the Wailing Wall. In the past four years, ISIS has systematically blown up or desecrated Christian churches, Shiite and Sufi mosques, and synagogues. The destruction of iconic cultural and religious sites has become synonymous with the Middle East and its peripheries—from the Taliban’s leveling of the colossal Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan to the destruction by Ansar Dine of the World Heritage Site mausoleums in Timbuktu (Mali). Who knows what sites the terrorists will target next? Nearly all of this destruction has been the work of Sunni Muslim terrorists who seek to provoke Shiites, Christians, and Jews.
But aside from the specter of outside intervention into the Middle East to save persecuted religious groups and hallowed shrines, the Middle East itself is intervening abroad. Religious and civil wars have sent millions of refugees into the West. Migrations of mostly Middle Eastern men into Europe, and to a lesser extent into the United States and the United Kingdom, are now unstoppable; ceaseless internecine violence promises to send millions of migrants to follow the first wave of many hundreds of thousands that have flooded into Europe. The West will have to reenter the Middle East to provide safe zones and military protection, or it will have to refashion its own porous borders into veritable bastions, or it will have to radically change its multicultural attitudes that allow in waves of migrants without much audit—or some combination of all three.
Since the early twentieth century, the big powers of the West have tried to get their hands on Middle Eastern oil. Now an ascendant oil-hungry Asia is entering the region and replaying the role of the United States in the 1950s. North America may well become energy independent by 2020, but Europe, China, and most of Asia will probably need lots of imported energy sources for the foreseeable future. Moreover, petrodollars will continue to fund armies and terrorists. In fact, the less that Middle-East oil and natural gas factor into American strategic thinking, the less likely U.S. military forces will maintain their half-century high profile in the region—and the more likely Russians, Chinese, and Iranian interests will intervene, collide with each other, and provoke Sunni responses from Turkey to the Gulf monarchies.
It is rarely appreciated that since the 1960s, American warships and bases have largely ensured that all countries had access to Middle Eastern oil and maintained the ability to ship it safely out of the Persian Gulf or Mediterranean. With the eclipse of America’s guardian role, it is likely that other powers will not be so internationally inclined, and tension over energy will only increase.
Rich and Poor
Nowhere in the world are the oil rich and the abject poor so proximate. All the nations of the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, are unstable, partly due to the absence of consensual government, and partly because tribal, authoritarian, and statist societies discourage middle class prosperity. The resulting rich/poor divide transcends individual nations and has transcontinental implications. Europe has learned that its riches and socialism lure in the dispossessed from the Middle East and North Africa, while its postmodern piety and an absence of military force render it—like the Rome of the late fifth-century AD—unwilling or unable to protect its own borders from mass migration.
The radical implosion of the Middle East from 2009 onward reminds us of how volatile the region is, and how unforeseen and poorly understood are its particular violent strains and contours. There are similar areas of poverty in Africa and Latin America, but not so juxtaposed with such opulent displays of wealth in the hands of a tribal and monarchial few, whose claim on natural riches is neither consensual nor at times even explicable. Poverty will continue and it will remain a catalyst for mass migration away from the Middle East, internal instability, revolution, terrorism, and insurgency—all in the context of hating the West in general and the United States in particular.
The U.S. support for Israel after 1945, and its de facto alliance with the Jewish state after 1967, likewise makes the region key to American interests. But the world beyond the United States is also invested in the Israel-Arab tensions. Before the oil and gas bonanza of North America and the huge gas finds within Israel, the Palestinian cause was unquestionably favored by most of the states of the United Nations. Israel’s liberal Western identity was not seen as enlightened and exceptional, but as proof that it is an aggressive Western interloper in a postcolonial region where it does not belong.
Changing energy realities may win Israel more international support but not necessarily in the short term and not in the eroding strategic landscape in which the Arab nation state disappears and it becomes unlikely that Israel will remain the only nuclear power in the area. The value of unique U.S. backing for Israel will only increase, as growing Muslim populations in Europe weaken public support for the Jewish state, and Israel’s various enemies gain new and more dangerous weapons.
Yet, despite all of these persistent strategic considerations, the United States remains discouraged after a quarter-century of interventions into the Middle East. American animus toward radical Islam has remained strong since 9/11 and the many subsequent Islamic-inspired attacks in North America and Europe against Western and Jewish interests. Growing energy independence, mounting national debt, worries in Asia over Russian and Chinese aggressive behavior, and cuts in the defense budget all point to one conclusion: that the Middle East is growing far less critical to U.S. interests. Hence, the Obama administration has gradually withdrawn from the region.
Yet, the same factors that historically engaged the United States in the Middle East are still relevant today: geography, religion, history, the position of Israel, and oil wealth. And these considerations may explain why we are drawn back to the Middle East even though we want to disengage from such an unpleasant place. The unspoken corollary of the often heard “America go home” is now either “And take us with you” or “But now come back.”