In 1920, a young Winston Churchill wrote a memorandum to the Cabinet outlining his concerns about British policy in the Middle East. Britain was, he wrote, “simultaneously out of sympathy with all the four powers exercising local influence.” The Arabs, erstwhile allies in the war, were already unhappy with the emerging postwar settlement. The defeated Turks, Britain’s traditional regional ally, were resentful and looking for new partners. The Russians, under new Bolshevik leadership, were skillfully courting Turkey and Persia. And the Greeks wanted greater British backing against Turkey.
A century later, America finds itself in a similar position. The Kurds are embittered following the U.S. departure from northwest Syria. Turkey, though a NATO ally, is indignant and aligning with Moscow. Russia is spreading its influence across the region at America’s expense. Iran is antagonistic and arming. Even our traditional alliances seem shaky. Saudi Arabia’s ties with Washington are strained by the Khashoggi affair and the war in Yemen. Israel is nervous about America’s future role and paid close attention to our handling of the Kurds. Not surprisingly, both the Saudis and Israelis spend more time talking to Moscow.
This is a remarkable turn of events for an America that, only a few years ago, seemed to occupy a dominating role across the Middle East. After September 11, 2001, America focused its foreign policy heavily on this region. We seemed poised, not only to deal decisively with the region’s threats, but to transform its states from within, in much the way that we had transformed the countries of Europe and Asia after World War II.
Less than a generation later, Americans look at the region with a mixture of fatigue and disinterest. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left the American public leery of entanglements in this region and the costs they entail. The Arab Spring and its aftermath have demonstrated the upper limits of transformation on the Western model. ISIS, the threat that emerged after Al Qaeda, is largely defeated, at least for now. And despite its prevalence in the news, Syria does not appear to involve a pressing long-term U.S. interest.
The shift in focus also has geostrategic roots. The return of great-power competition has prompted a re-assessment of U.S. strategic attention and resources. China possesses the attributes of a full-spectrum peer competitor capable of contesting U.S. economic, technological and military dominance. Russia is a significant military player capable of projecting power into Africa, the Levant and Latin America. Both powers are pursuing strategies aimed at eroding U.S. strength, diminishing its influence and undermining its alliances.
All of this has ramifications for U.S. policy in the Middle East that have not yet been fully digested in Washington. As China and Russia become more active, America will, perforce, have to devote more attention to Asia and Europe. Militarily, it will need forces that are equipped and postured for fighting wars against large land-power adversaries rather than conducting counter-insurgency operations in weak states. Diplomatically, it will need to be able to organize allied coalitions against two primary rivals and keep vulnerable states from falling into their orbits, including many we had assumed were safely within the Western fold.
These changes will inevitably entail less bandwidth for the Middle East. Some of the opportunity costs can be mitigated in an era of instant communication and air travel. But some can’t. Geography and distance impose limits on our ability to be everywhere at once. An infantry unit in Iraq can’t also be in Korea or the Baltic. A dollar of aid spent in Afghanistan can’t also be spent in Moldova or Vietnam. These limits will grow in an era when the public debt tops $23 trillion and is headed for 150 percent of GDP by 2030.
The change will be felt not only in amount of attention but in the kind of attention we can pay to the region. More and more, America will have to consider our moves in the Middle East in the context of the actions and interests of other big players. Second- and third-order effects that once seemed negligible, or were manageable with minimal effort, will have to be taken more into account. The contradictory policy patterns that are so hard to avoid in this region (like simultaneously alienating Kurds and Turks, or punishing the Saudis while trying to recruit them to confront Iran) will now have to be assessed according to the strategic openings they create for outside players.
The shift to a competitive landscape will make it more important to accurately identify—and rank—America’s interests in the Middle East. The foremost of these is to avoid this region’s domination by a hostile power or combination. The space between the Eastern Mediterranean and Hindu Kush straddles the key routes linking Europe and Asia. For this reason, Britain sought in the 20th Century to prevent an extra-regional great power (Germany or Russia), usually in conjunction with a regional power (Turkey or Persia) from gaining a commanding position there. A similar imperative applies for America vis-à-vis Russia or China, in conjunction with Iran.
A related interest is to ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil to global markets. In peacetime, supply interruptions produce instability in energy markets that affect the U.S. economy. In wartime, America has an interest in whether Middle Eastern oil continues to reach its allies and adversaries (Japan gets 88 percent of its oil from the region; China, 43 percent).
Finally, there is what, to most Americans, is our most obvious stake: preventing threats here from reaching America itself. The source of danger can be non-state groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or a state like Iran, either through its own machinations or the arming of others.
In all of these respects, it should now be obvious but bears stating that developments in the Middle East matter primarily insofar as they intersect with the actions of another non-regional great power. The region’s geography endows it with significance vis-à-vis the balances of power in Europe and Asia. The region’s natural resources matter in their capacity to augment the power of large rivals. Military threats emanating from the region take on their greatest significance when a great-power rival is brought into the equation. Iran on its own is a problem for the United States; Iran in conjunction with Russia (including Russian military technology and nuclear know-how) is a very serious problem.
It is through this prism that options for U.S. strategy should be evaluated. Viable strategies for this region are those that secure our interests while preserving freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis the European and Asian theaters; good strategies are those that position the United States to leverage developments in the Middle East as a source of advantage in those other regional contests.
The transformative policies of the recent past meet neither criterion. Setting aside whether an attempt at changing the internal structures of Middle Eastern states and societies could ever succeed, it is no longer within the physical and political capacity of the United States to effect. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost $6 trillion and 14,700 American lives. Two consecutive U.S. administrations have been elected on planks of regional divestiture.
The countervailing option—retrenchment—is also unviable as it would effectively cede the region to other large powers. The speed with which vacuums were filled when America pulled back from the Kurds is a foretaste.
The template that recommends itself is to maintain a regional balance of power. This is not new; it has been used in the past by the United States and was the formula that Britain arrived at a century ago. Again quoting from Churchill’s memo: British policy should ensure that “if we have some opponents we have also at any rate some friends.” Such a strategy is logical for America given the greater importance of other regions and our growing debt loads, both of which argue for U.S. economy-of-strength in the region. To work, it would require two things.
First, a level of force that is not so overwhelming as to detract from Asia and Europe but enough to deter Iran from attacking our closest friends. In Churchill’s time, Britain struck this balance by building a string of ports and aerodomes from Cyprus through the Canal Zone to the Red Sea. These were backed by a within-the-horizon presence of the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea, which could surge to key points in a crisis.
An analogous posture for the United States is not hard to picture; indeed, a map of U.S. positions today, with air and sea nodes rimming the Arabian peninsula, would overlay neatly with that of Britain a century ago. The key point however is that this network would be used to support lower overall troop levels than in recent years. The current ledger—roughly 70,000 troops in the Middle East compared to around 65,000 in Europe and 80,000 in Asia—will have to shift over time as resources move from CENTCOM to PACOM and EUCOM.
A smaller military footprint only works if combined with onshore allies and proxies. This points to a second, diplomatic prerequisite for the strategy: that America needs to be seen as keeping its word. America will need allies in inverse proportion to the amount of military strength it can concentrate in the region. The immediate object of relationships with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and Israel is to contain Iran, which has spread its influence from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Israel. Unlike in the recent past, the fact that Russia and China are more present in regional equations means that our allies will have alternatives to U.S. patronage and will watch for indicators of Washington’s intentions. It is in this context that the divestment from the Kurds and the recent U.S. ambivalence about Saudi Arabia matter strategically. Whatever the political reasoning for these moves, from a geostrategic standpoint they will make it harder going forward not only to contain Iran but to motivate allies generally.
Finally, as great-power competition intensifies, the United States will need to broaden its geographic aperture for this region. Like Britain, America will need to anchor its position on the Eastern Mediterranean at one end and Arabian Sea at the other. It makes sense for us to cultivate deeper strategic ties with Greece, normalize the security relationship with Cyprus, and encourage India’s growing naval power as an interposing force along China’s maritime oil routes.
None of this is incompatible with America standing for democracy and favoring it where possible in regional outcomes. Indeed, sea-power, alliances and democracy have long been deeply connected. But in an era in which rivals which can offer certain goods (Russia: arms and production coordination with OPEC; China: money), America will not be able to insist on large-scale democratic outcomes. It will have to actively compete for positive influence.
A balance-of-power strategy is not only the most viable one for America in the Middle East, in some ways it is the only option. Much of the conceptual foundation is already in place in the form of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. But the implementation has been impeded by the focus on Syria and Iran. The latter is an important threat but not a peer or would-be peer like China or Russia. The danger is that, having declared its intention to prioritize those larger threats, America will continue in practice to prioritize Iran and, in trying to do all three, do none particularly well. And that perceptions of U.S. policy will become defined by ad hoc adjustments like the one that just occurred with the Kurds.
This can still be avoided. Britain, too, abandoned the Kurds in an earlier era. But for all of its mistakes, it was able to bounce back because of a flexible strategy that enabled Britain to hold its position throughout an interwar period in which it faced rising competitors in Europe and Asia and far greater budgetary pressures than America today. This ensured that, when war finally came, the Middle East’s pivotal real estate and massive resources would accrue to the advantages of the West rather than its adversaries.
That should be our goal today as well.
* A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at the Marathon Initiative and the former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs. The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government.