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Time to Ignore the Middle East?

These days, conventional wisdom in Washington, DC holds that the Iraq War has been lost, that the Bush Doctrine of promoting unilateral regime change...

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These days, conventional wisdom in Washington, DC holds that the Iraq War has been lost, that the Bush Doctrine of promoting unilateral regime change and spreading democracy in the Middle East has failed, and that the neoconservative ideologues who have dominated U.S. foreign policy since 9/11 are "out" while the realists are "in."

But the same conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t hold your breath—even if an anti-war Democrat wins the White House in 2008, don’t expect a revolutionary change in U.S. policy on the Middle East. In the best-case scenario, some U.S. troops would probably remain based in Iraq, and certainly in other parts of the Persian Gulf, as a way of demonstrating U.S. resolve to defend Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing countries in the region; Washington would still maintain its strong military and economic support for Israel and try to mediate another peace process.

If anything, the election of one of the three leading Blue candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-NY), or former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC)—all of whom have little experience in national security—might make it more likely that the United States could be drawn into a military confrontation with Iran as the new White House occupant tries to demonstrate that he or she is "tough." Hence, under either a Democratic or a Republican president, one should not be surprised to discover that the major element in the neoconservative agenda—maintaining U.S. military and diplomatic hegemony in the Middle East—will likely remain alive and well, producing the never-ending vicious circle: more U.S. military interventions, leading to more anti-U.S. terrorism, resulting in more regime changes.

A lack of change in U.S. policy could be due to the power of inertia combined with the influences of the entrenched bureaucracies and powerful interest groups, the military-industrial complex, the "Israel Lobby," and the oil companies. But although all these players have major impacts on the policies pursued by the White House and Congress, the most important factor that makes it likely that U.S. interventionism in the Middle East will continue is the survival of what could be described as the U.S. Middle East Paradigm (MEP), whose origins go back to end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. Central to the MEP was the belief that competition with the Soviet Union made U.S. involvement in the Middle East a costly but necessary way to protect U.S. interests. The United States simply had to counter to Soviet ambitions. Notwithstanding the end of the Cold War, the MEP has continued to dominate the thinking of policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits in Washington. To paraphrase the famous saying, policy paradigms don’t die, and unlike old generals, they don’t even fade away.

Three factors provided the rationale for ongoing U.S. involvement in the Middle East. The first was what were perceived as the necessities dictated by geo-strategy. The assumption was that the Soviet Union sought dominance in the region and had to be contained; consequently, the United States replaced Britain and France (which were militarily and economically weakened after World War II) in the role of protecting the interests of the Western alliance in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was an aggressive global power with a huge economic and military force and a crusading ideological disposition that was perceived to be as threatening to the West during the Cold War as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been in World War II.

The second reason had to do with geo-economics. Given the larger context of the need to counter Soviet moves, Washington figured it was worth the price to be involved in the Middle East, not only to protect U.S. access to Mideast oil, but also to protect the free access of the Western economies to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf. It seemed to make strategic sense during the Cold War to let allies have a "free ride" on U.S. military power.

Third, with the establishment of Israel as a state in 1948, the United States underscored its historic and moral commitment Israel’s survival in the Middle East by helping it maintain its margin of security as it coped with hostile Arab neighbors. Throughout the Cold War, during which the Soviet Union worked to establish a beachhead in certain Arab states, this commitment evolved, at least in the minds of U.S. policymakers, from an essentially moral commitment into a geo-strategic one, with Israel seen as the one reliable democratic partner in the region.

These U.S. policies were very costly, involving alliances with military dictators and medieval despots and covert and overt military intervention. One example is when the United States helped depose a democratically elected government in Iran and supported Saddam Hussein’s confrontation with Iran. This policy ignited anti-Americanism in the Middle East. But if one accepted the notion that, based on calculations of national interest, Washington should have been engaged in the Middle East during the Cold War, one was also willing to accept the costs involved—including anti-Americanism that produced oil embargoes, embassies held hostage, and, of course, terrorism.

This essential paradigm has been accepted not only by U.S. neoconservatives, who have dominated post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy, but also by liberal internationalists and conservative and liberal realists. There may have been disagreements about tactics and emphasis among these elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, but all agreed that Washington should dominate policy in the region, or at least serve as balancer of last resort when conflicts arose.

E ven during the Cold War, this MEP led to contradictions that required delicate balancing by U.S. policymakers. Most of the oil-producing states, especially Saudi Arabia, seemed reliably anti-Soviet, but they were hardly pro-Israel, and from time to time they faced internal opposition that could upset their relationship with the United States and the West. So Washington had to appear to be always "doing something" to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to keep the Arab oil-producing states on board.

At the same time, Washington seemed to see no alternative but to tolerate the extremely conservative, militant version of Islam, known as Wahhabism, which was dominant in Saudi Arabia. The Saud family considered it important, to maintain its power at home, not simply to tolerate Wahhabism, but also to promote and subsidize its spread overseas. Osama bin Laden was a product of or at least heavily influenced by this branch of Islam. And both the United States and Saudi Arabia believed it was in their interest to encourage and subsidize the essentially militant Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. Hence, thousands of guerrilla fighters were trained in that conflict and, at least implicitly, encouraged to believe that once Soviet power in Afghanistan had been neutralized it was legitimate to look to a wider mission, which led eventually to blowback in the form of 9/11.

Within the Middle East, under the old MEP Washington not only had to safeguard Israel, but also to placate Arab states by pressuring Israel to come to some kind of a negotiated peace settlement. Thus various U.S. administrations—Bush I and Clinton—applied pressure delicately on Israel to make concessions, all the while proclaiming their underlying loyalty to the idea of Israel as an independent Jewish state. This has proven to be a difficult job; despite Camp David meetings and the Oslo process, a peaceful resolution seems further away than ever. The Israelis and the Palestinians assume that Washington should reward them for making concessions that are perceived as "favors" for the Americans. At the same time, Arab and European governments reject responsibility for trying to help resolve the conflict.

During the Cold War, all these and other costs seemed to be justifiable because of the need to counter or neutralize Soviet influence. With the end of the Cold War, however, that factor receded in importance. But U.S. policymakers did not reassess the MEP for U.S. policy. Instead, during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Washington took advantage of the Soviet collapse and the lack of competition from other global powers and emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East, including through the containment of Iraq and Iran, the extension of U.S. military power to the Persian Gulf, and the efforts to mediate peace between Israel and Arab states. As a result of the emergence of a unipolar system with no checks-and-balances on U.S. power, the Middle East Paradigm survived and U.S. policy aimed to achieve strategic dominance in the Middle East.

Indeed, from Gulf War I to Gulf War II there has been an effort to maintain that U.S. hegemony. Under Presidents Bush I and Clinton, this was done through a "cost-free" Pax Americana that included the dual containment of Iraq and Iran and creating the impression that Washington was trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But this ignited more anti-Americanism and led to the Second Intifada and perhaps 9/11, demonstrating that if you want hegemony, you pay for it. From this perspective, 9/11 should have been seen as a challenge to U.S. dominance in the Middle East. But again, no effort was made to reassess the MEP; in fact, the policy paradigm was the framework within which the U.S. response was fashioned. The neoconservatives simply offered a different strategy to achieve U.S. regional supremacy—through regime change and the direct occupation of Arab countries, instead of through the more diplomatic strategy and indirect military approach embraced by earlier administrations.

The costs of following neoconservatives’ advice have become apparent. But most critics of the Bush administration still fail to offer anything other than different strategies to achieve U.S. hegemony in the region; they prefer to maintain the current MEP instead of replacing the bankrupted policy paradigm by challenging the need for U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

Indeed, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that the main rationale for U.S. intervention in the Middle East—the Soviet threat—has long since disappeared, and that U.S. military intervention in the region only ignites anti-Americanism in the form of international terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. economy is not dependent on Mideast oil; 70% of U.S. energy supplies do not originate in the Middle East. The United States is actually more dependent on Latin American oil than it is on Saudi and Persian Gulf oil. And the notion that U.S. policy in the Middle East helps give Americans access to cheap and affordable oil makes little sense if one takes into consideration the military and other costs—including two Gulf Wars—that are added to the price that the U.S. consumer pays for driving his or her car.

U.S. military force is quite likely not necessary to maintain access to Persian Gulf oil, either for the United States, Western Europe, or Japan. The oil-producing states have few resources other than oil, and if they don’t sell it to somebody, they will have little wealth with which to maintain their power and curb domestic challenges. They need to sell oil more than the United States needs to buy it. If political and military influence is required to keep the oil flowing to Western Europe and Japan and increasingly to China, the countries that are truly dependent should be the ones to bear the cost.

The time has come, therefore, to bid farewell to the old MEP and try to draw the outlines of a new U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is a need for a long-term policy of U.S. "constructive disengagement" from the Middle East that will encourage the Europeans and other global and regional players to take upon themselves the responsibility of securing their interests in the region.

With the demise of the Soviet threat, continued U.S. intervention in the region serves mainly to promote anti-Americanism and terrorism. If a balancer of last resort is needed, let the European Union (EU), with its geographical proximity to and economic and demographic ties in the Middle East, do it. Likewise, the main threat to Israel’s survival is not a lack of U.S. assistance, but Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians. U.S. support for Israel now creates disincentives for a settlement. The prospect of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, and of a lower diplomatic profile in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, should produce incentives for both sides, as well as for the Arab states and the EU, to deal with it.

O f course, the necessary condition for constructive disengagement from the Middle East is a larger U.S. reconsideration of the idea that Washington should be the final arbiter in disputes in the region and throughout the world, which would mean not only tolerating but also welcoming activity by the EU and other players. In that context, the foreign policy establishment in Washington would have to recognize that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is now in the process of being "de-internationalized," transformed from a major regional conflict with enormous global ramifications for the United States and other global players, into a more "localized" affair that Washington, at the start of the 21st century, will be able to treat with certain benign neglect.

Benign neglect of the Middle East? Detachment was certainly not the kind of frame of mind with which intellectual Washington’s foreign policy elites and the U.S. public were conditioned to approach the Middle East for much of the Cold War. Hence, the notion of abandoning the MEP would certainly not be an easy process for U.S. policymakers and pundits. It’s difficult to say goodbye to old friends. Just ask some of those veteran Cold Warriors in Washington. "Enemy deprivation syndrome" has been identified by psychiatrists as a common cause of anxiety among Washington’s wonks.

Consequently, it is more likely that Washington will eventually pull back from its dominant role in the Middle East not through a responsible rethinking of U.S. engagement, but through a series of mounting costs and disasters that eventually lead to a "destructive disengagement" from the region that will look like—and to a great extent will be—a U.S. defeat and retreat. This is exactly what seems to be happening now.

But in case the next president does decide that the time has come to re-examine U.S. policy in the Middle East, here are a few pointers for a new Middle East Paradigm:

  • Creating a new Congress of Vienna system—a concert of Great Powers, a Northern Alliance that will include also the European Union (EU) and Russia, and eventually also China and India—will help contain instability and terrorism. The United States doesn’t have the military power and economic resources to do that job alone. Washington needs to replace the concept of a U.S. Monopoly with that of a U.S.-led Global Oligopoly.
  • In that context, Washington should encourage Europe to play a more activist role in the Middle East, which is, after all, its "strategic backyard." Besides the geographic proximity, Europe is also tied to the Middle East through demographic ties in the form of immigrants. European economies—not U.S. economies—are dependent on the energy resources in the Middle East. It’s time for Washington to stop giving Europe a "free ride" in the Middle East and create incentives for them to start paying the costs of maintaining their geo-strategic and geo-economic interests in the Middle East. The deployment of the French and Italian peacekeeping troops in Lebanon is a step in the right direction.
  • A new paradigm should shape incentives for the formation of regional balance of power systems that include Turkey, Israel, the leading Arab states, and Iran. Indeed, Washington needs to begin adjusting to the reality that Iran will become the hegemon in the Persian Gulf and that its nuclear military power will be counterbalanced by Israel.
  • Adopt a policy of benign neglect toward the many tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts in the Middle East. Washington needs to understand that it doesn’t have the power to resolve or control all of them, and should engage in the Middle East through trade and investment and providing support to those who want to be allies. But by trying to force a U.S. mind-set and values on the nations of the Middle East, Washington will only erode its power and produce more anti-Americanism.

Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and contributor to Right Web (www.rightweb-online.org), is author most recently of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (2006). He blogs at globalparadigms.blogspot.com.



Leon Hadar, "Time to Ignore the Middle East?" Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, June 7, 2007).

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