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December 14, 2018

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American Strategy in the Middle East Is on Its Last Legs

2018/08/19, 05:47


American Strategy in the Middle East Is on Its Last Legs

TruthNGO-The security environment in the Middle East may be the most complex on earth, with an intricate, volatile and sometimes shifting mixture of destabilizing forces and hostilities. There are deadly power struggles within and between nations. And behind it all is the Middle East’s massive oil production, on which the global economy depends.

TruthNGO-The security environment in the Middle East may be the most complex on earth, with an intricate, volatile and sometimes shifting mixture of destabilizing forces and hostilities. There are deadly power struggles within and between nations. And behind it all is the Middle East’s massive oil production, on which the global economy depends.


As written by Steven Metz on Worldpoliticsreview, the United States first ventured into the Middle East early in the Cold War and has remained heavily involved, particularly since the 1970s. Over the decades, America’s policies and partnerships in the region have evolved, but the basic elements of U.S. strategy and its central rationale remained consistent. Now, though, the strategy is on its last legs.


The U.S. always pursued two objectives in the Middle East: helping defend Israel and preventing a hostile power from using the region’s petroleum reserves as a weapon. For many decades, the Soviet Union was the only adversary that had the capability to exert enough control to manipulate Middle Eastern oil flows. Later, the U.S. feared that Saddam Hussein or the theocratic regime in Iran might try. That this fear of a hostile hegemon weaponizing oil was implausible did not matter. Assuring the free flow of oil from the Middle East became a central pillar of America’s global strategy and one of the major rationales for sustaining a vast U.S. power projection capability even after the demise of the Soviet Union.


To prevent an opponent from dominating the Middle East and maintain enough stability to keep the oil flowing, the U.S. used direct applications of military power when necessary but relied heavily on local allies, from Egypt to the Gulf states, bolstering them with security assistance and weapons sales. All that America asked of them was to keep their internal repression as low-profile as possible, to encourage regional stability by any means necessary, and to oppose first the Soviets, then Saddam’s Iraq and theocratic Iran, and later transnational jihadism. As often happens in statecraft, American strategy was more a matter of accepting lesser evils than of engineering optimal outcomes.


Now the core assumptions of American strategy in the Middle East are collapsing. Even with Russia and China more active in the region, Iran’s continuing malfeasance, the malignancy of jihadism, a collapsing U.S.-Turkish relationship and an assertive Saudi Arabia little concerned with what Washington wants or recommends, there is no chance that a hostile power will control the region and wield petroleum as a weapon. All the region’s players, with the possible exception of jihadist movements like the Islamic State and al-Qaida, need global economic stability and hence the free flow of Middle Eastern oil as much as the U.S. does. In fact, as America becomes increasingly energy independent, they may need it more. Petroleum will not be weaponized.


The U.S. military should be extricated from the Middle East and either shifted to Asia or brought home.


The threat from jihadist movements was overinflated all along. Al-Qaida or the Islamic State will never control a nation that could not be shattered by American military power. Iran is brittle and the appeal of its ideology is limited. It can generate persistent instability but cannot dominate the Middle East. Russia’s re-emergence in the region is a nuisance at best. Chinese involvement would be more worrisome but may not come to pass. The threats to Israel remain but do not require a large-scale American military presence in the region, much less U.S. military action.


Yet the U.S. still clings to its longstanding, military-centric Middle East strategy even while its underlying assumptions become invalid and its central rationale fades. Today, American strategy is less a reflection of a central purpose than a search for one. That’s why U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, particularly military disengagement, makes sense.


The idea is not new. The Obama administration considered some degree of disengagement and talked of a “rebalance” of American military power from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. But then it looked like the Islamic State might conquer Iraq and Syria, so the rebalance was abandoned or at least postponed. Now that threat has passed and is unlikely to return, so the U.S. military should be extricated from the Middle East and either shifted to Asia or brought home.


Beyond military redeployment, it is time to rethink America’s basic approach to the Middle East. The method today that seems most likely to synchronize costs and risks while promoting American national interests is what is called “offshore balancing.” This would involve continuing to rely on regional allies and providing them some support, but only applying American power directly if a hostile hegemon emerged. Nothing else would justify direct military involvement. The aim of offshore balancing, as political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have described it, “is to remain offshore as long as possible, while recognizing that it is sometimes necessary to come onshore. If that happens, however, the United States should make its allies do as much of the heavy lifting as possible and remove its own forces as soon as it can.”


Offshore balancing would represent a dramatic shift in American strategy. It would not be easy—fundamental change never is. But America’s Middle East strategy is falling apart, with its assumptions. The type of military-driven activism abroad that made sense in the 1970s or 1990s no longer does. Now is the time for the United States to move offshore and focus its strength where the threat of a hostile hegemon is more realistic.

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American Strategy in the Middle East Is on Its Last Legs

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