Why steering clear of the Middle East is a terrible idea

Much as the United States may like to, staying out the Middle East just isn’t an option — not if security is a priority.

Last month, Jeff Stein and Jonathan Broder wrote an article at Newsweek. It’s worth reading. Defending President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the authors reference Roman strategy to suggest that America “may have to learn to live” with Middle Eastern chaos:

“As the Roman historian Tacitus wrote… ‘The Germanic tribes, left alone, would become divided again and cease to be dangerous.’ That might well be the hard lesson America has to learn.”

It’s a tempting argument, after years of war that have killed or wounded tens of thousands of Americans — and cost trillions of dollars. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in 2011, “any future defense secretary who again advises the president to send a large army into Asia or the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”

I share that sentiment.

Still, we must be cautious about caution. The prospect of security without exerting international influence is a mirage. Today, in the absence of U.S. influence, various factions in the Middle East render American interests increasingly vulnerable.

Consider America’s war against Islamic State. Here, President Obama’s strategy is openly focused on restraining the extremist organization rather than defeating it. Recognizing the political roots of its power, Obama believes defeating Islamic State won’t be accomplished without indigenous leadership. Strategist Andrew Bacevich echoes his philosophy:

“These are problems that the people in the region are going to have to figure out how to solve […] at the end of the day, they will have a better chance of solving their own problems than we will have a chance of imposing a solution on them.”

It sounds good. But this assessment has two central flaws.

First, it assumes that the conflicted factions will ever achieve compromise. Second, it limits American power to the derogatory notion of “imposed” solutions.

Unfortunately, Islamic State is not a static, localized threat. Driven by a “total war” ideology, and empowered by extraordinary self-belief, the organization is metastasizing globally, as thousands of Salafi-Jihadists now pledge loyalty to Islamic State. Moreover, embracing brutality as the standard of holy credibility, IS has catalyzed jihadist aggression in general.

And by deliberately relinquishing American influence in the Middle East, Obama has allowed others to fill the vacuum. Notably, Iran.

Undeterred by America, Iran is fueling a Middle Eastern meltdown. Pursuing its own sectarianinterest in suppressing Sunni Muslims, Iran is encouraging Sunnis to believe that groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda are necessary guardians.

Consider the chaos in Iraq’s Anbar province. Home to an array of Sunni tribes allied against Islamic State, Anbar offers a place to mobilize regional forces to defeat the fanatics. Yet because Obama fears that arming the tribes will anger Iran, he’s sacrificed a real means of defeating Islamic State.

Thus we see the weakness of the Obama-Bacevich “imposing a solution” narrative. Its over-broad interpretation of “imposing” has displaced meaningful strategic alternatives — for one, America’s possibility to act as a critical interlocutor. By deriding such thoughts as neo-conservative arrogance, Obama is enabling the politicization of sectarianism.

Of course, this isn’t to say that America can revert to old doctrines in the Middle East. Many Republicans, for example, are deeply misguided in their belief that supporting pro-American autocracies underpins U.S. security. On the contrary, U.S. support for authoritarians fuelspopular extremism. Political Islam must be moderated, but Islamists must also have avenues of expression.

Nevertheless, leaving the Middle East alone won’t drain it of chaos. This takes us back to Stein and Broder’s conclusion. The authors rightly point out that Rome preserved its power with strategic caution. But Rome’s caution wasn’t all-defining but instead calibrated to occasional, vigorous interaction. Rome forged or co-opted allies, and deterred foes in the looming shadow of its greater power.

Rightly neglecting imperial ambitions, with a mind to protecting U.S. interests, Obama should do the same.


By Tom Rogan


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