The American public has grown war weary, with no enthusiasm to return to a grand agenda for the Middle East. This reluctance is the major constraint on future policy, and it has multiple causes. Foremost among them is the length of the war in Afghanistan and the costs in lives and resources. Add to that the recalcitrance of the problems in the region. Israel and the Palestinians give us a never-ending story, and the human suffering in Syria is enormous, while Lebanon remains mired in corruption, not to mention all the other problems that stretch across the region. There is no policy that can promise a definitive victory, a V-E day in the Middle East, and this prospect of interminability contributes to the lack of public enthusiasm for this post-modern war, with no straight-forward narrative and no resolution in sight.
Yet it is not only the nature of the region that produces a desire to be done with it. We should face up to a reason closer to home, the failure of the political class to make a consistent and compelling case. At least since 9/11, the foreign policy establishment has swung wildly between extremes, from extensive support for the full-on invasion of Iraq to the promise of regional withdrawal, which was always the hidden meaning of a “pivot to Asia.” That whiplash oscillation has been exacerbated by utopian schemes, from the Bush era illusion that toppling Saddam would lead to a wave of democratizations, to the Obama administration’s bizarre embrace of the Iranian regime. We lack a stable foreign policy consensus, and the public is therefore reasonably resistant to shouldering additional cost.
That political atmosphere helps understand President Trump’s inclinations to limit the American footprint: his refusal to respond to Iranian provocations with major military action, and his clear aspirations to reduce the American role in Syria and Afghanistan. These dovish initiatives have only met with bitter resistance from many on both sides of the aisle in Congress and from the defense establishment. It is an understatement to point out that there is no bipartisan Middle East policy.
Two points follow. First, without strong public support, the scope of any future American engagement in the regime will necessarily be limited. After the enormous costs of the COVID spending initiatives, we will not have the budget to pursue grand ambitions. More generally, the public no longer wants to participate in, to use a phrase from another era, “the arrogance of power.” What America does in the future will have to be more modest and require fewer resources.
Second, even a strategy with more modest ambitions requires that the public be persuaded that there are valid reasons to project American power into the region. What is at stake in the Middle East that is worth even more American lives and treasure? What argument can still convince a skeptical public?
The traditional explanations—counter-terrorism, oil and democratic values—have lost some, although not all of their credibility. Fighting wars in the Middle East in order to prevent domestic terrorism made sense after 9/11, but with the progress against ISIS, this argument has become less compelling. Similarly, with the shifts in the world energy economy, protecting the shipping lanes for oil alone probably does not provide sufficient political motivation to justify major American operations. Finally, the commitment to democratic values has lost ground, in part due to cynicism about the region, but also thanks to the garden-variety multicultural suspicion of universalism, leading to a refusal to measure other polities in terms of our own values.
However, the 2017 National Security Strategy provided the new framework of great power competition, and public awareness of this threat, especially with regard to China, has grown rapidly. For China, the Middle East is not only a source of oil for its industry; it is also vital for its Belt and Road network, given the region’s geostrategic location at the intersection of Asia, Europe and Africa. Meanwhile Russia—a by far weaker competitor than China but nonetheless an irksome and successful revanchist power eager to reestablish its influence in the Mediterranean—has returned in force to the Middle East, in Libya and Syria, while driving wedges between Turkey and the West. China and Russia ultimately have some divergent interests, but they are in synch with each other in their common goal of reducing and eliminating American influence everywhere in the eastern hemisphere. The Middle East is currently vital as the theater in which the great power competition is coming to a head: if our competitors defeat us there, China will be encouraged to force us out of East Asia, and Russia will proceed with its campaign to subvert NATO and drive us out of Europe.
Winning the great power competition in the Middle East means blocking China’s Belt and Road network and at least containing, or even rolling back Russian intrusion. Yet as noted already, our resources are limited, due to subjective public disinterest and objective budget constraints. To make the case for engagement, political leadership not only has to explain the geostrategic stakes but also present strategies that are affordable. Such strategies are available but require some rethinking of standard practices: fewer big ticket items, more smart policy.
First, the United States can provide leadership, but success in the region requires regional actors to take on more responsibility. That is easier said than done, as the persistent reluctance of some European partners, notably Germany, to pay for its defense has shown. Nonetheless, we need to invest diplomatic capital in building a network of allies for stability. The primary candidates are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and potentially Iraq. There are obvious tensions between these countries, genuine obstacles to cooperation; it should be the mission of our diplomacy to help solve them. The Sunni Arab states and Israel are already collaborating with each other, without broadcasting it. We need to encourage this alliance. Turkey is a more difficult case; the wrong-headed policy of the Obama administration to ally with the Kurdish YPG has poisoned relations between Washington and Ankara. The result has been a tragic destabilization of our relationship with a major NATO ally. To be sure, Erdogan is no easy partner, but on the YPG question, he represents a point of view widely shared in Turkey, including among his opponents. In order to build an effective Middle East network of allies—and to preserve NATO in which Turkey is vital—this piece of US foreign policy needs a serious course correction.
Second, the future role of the US in the region should be envisioned as relying on a minimal number of US forces. Americans can provide vital training and intelligence, but real fighting should not be our responsibility. The stakeholders who have skin in the game have to take on that role. In effect, this shift has been underway already in Afghanistan. The point is to find a way to remain engaged in the region, providing backup support and political leadership, while relying on regional actors to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden as a rule, and not as an exception. European allies are unlikely to play much more than a marginal role.
Third, the population of the Middle East is young and increasingly forward-thinking. Instead of understanding great power competition primarily in terms of hard power confrontations with our opponents, we need to place greater emphasis on soft power projection—in order to promote a positive attitude toward the U.S. at a considerably lower cost than conventional military approaches to security. Russia is proceeding, in this region and elsewhere, with ambitious disinformation campaigns against the U.S., while we have largely abandoned this sort of communication agenda, which played such an important role during the Cold War. We need to revitalize an information campaign strategy, now not only in traditional media but also online.
Similarly, in the arena of soft power, the U.S. should be in the forefront of human rights promotion in its Middle East foreign policy. The young generation—the future of the region—is oriented toward rights, and the U.S. has much to offer, with regard to support for free speech, especially online, and with regard to the protection of women, particularly against forms of domestic violence and so-called “honor killings” (جرائم الشرف); there is particular attention to this topic currently in Jordan, for example. Add to that the American tradition of religious liberty as grounds to criticize China’s persecution of Muslims in Xinxiang and Russia’s complicity in the devastation of Syria’s Sunnis: our great power competitors are the real Islamophobes. We should be willing to call them out on this point, but we should also hold up the banner of religious liberty by defending minorities in the region, such as Egypt’s Copts and the remaining Christian communities elsewhere. We can be confident that neither China nor Russia will take up the banner of human rights in their foreign policies. It is in this terrain, consistent with American values, that we can win the competition in the Middle East, if we partner with regional allies and limit direct military involvement.