Joe Biden has made clear that he wants America “back at the head of the table” to “rally the free world to meet the challenges facing the world today. ... No other nation has that capacity.”
While it is essential for the United States to restore U.S. leadership and credibility on issues that are vital to national security and prosperity—most notably, global health cooperation, combating global warming and pushing back on China’s predatory trade practices—there is one region that simply isn’t as important as it used to be: the Middle East.
No matter who wins the White House in November, it is important to recognize that in recent years, the turbulent Middle East—where more often than not American ideas go to die—has become decidedly less important to American foreign policy and to our interests. The change reflects not only new regional dynamics and U.S. domestic priorities but the changing nature of American interests there.
American leadership and exceptionalism cannot fix a broken Middle East or play a major role in leading it to a better future. The U.S. still has interests there to protect but America needs to be realistic, prudent and disciplined in how it secures them. If we can learn to act with restraint, we’ll avoid the overreach, arrogance and self-inflicted wounds that have caused us and many others so much unnecessary misery and trouble.
If the past two administrations were wary about overcommitments in the Middle East pre-pandemic, Washington should be downright allergic to any unnecessary involvement in the time of Covid. Domestic priorities will and should take precedence over any Middle East adventures likely to absorb large resources or the president’s time. The next administration will confront the greatest challenge of national recovery since the 1940s—and it won’t have a world war that energized the U.S. economy and left America as the dominant power abroad. Add to that crisis domestic unrest driven by severe polarization along class, racial and political lines and a loss of confidence and trust in our governing institutions. Pressures from growing debt and deficits will impose severe fiscal constraints on pursuing anything but vital American interests abroad.
A glance at the daily headlines underscores just how much U.S. strategic priorities have shifted away from the Middle East over the past few years: The coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on American lives and livelihoods and our credibility around the world; extreme weather events—raging forest fires in California, Hurricane Laura ripping into the Gulf Coast, a summer of unusually repressive heat—linked to climate change; an adversarial China flexing its muscles throughout the Asia-Pacific region and an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry for military, economic and technological supremacy; Russia’s continued rogue behavior (see: the recent poisoning of Putin’s chief domestic opponent Alexei Navalny) and the Kremlin’s continued interference in the U.S. presidential election; and the rise of homegrown white-nationalist terrorism.
All these challenges have assumed far greater significance than the declining terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland emanating from the Middle East. The last thing this country needs is to throw good money after bad in a futile search for opportunities to reform, let alone transform, the dysfunctional Middle East.
During the Cold War, America’s quest to dominate the Middle East was driven largely by the need to ensure the uninterrupted flow of its energy resources to America and its allies. Throughout most of this period, the Persian Gulf constituted a disproportionate share of global oil reserves and U.S. oil imports. Ancient history. With the growth of nonfossil energy sources, the discovery of large oil and natural gas deposits outside the Persian Gulf and increased domestic U.S. oil and natural gas production, the Middle East’s vast energy resources are of declining strategic significance to the United States. The price of oil has dropped significantly in recent years despite continued turmoil in major oil producing countries like Iraq, Iran and Libya, which together have removed billions of barrels of oil from international markets. Moreover, roughly 85 percent of Persian Gulf oil exports are bound for China, India, Japan and South Korea.
Still, oil production in the Gulf still accounts for about 20 percent of world oil output, and roughly one-third of total seaborne oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz. Thus, maintaining stable global oil prices still depends in part on preventing significant interruptions in oil exports from the Gulf that would create a sudden and dramatic spike in the price of oil that markets would have difficulty adjusting to in the short term. This threat can be mitigated by maintaining the U.S.’s modest naval presence in Bahrain and timely release of oil from national stockpile reserves. Simply put, the United States now has the capacity to respond rapidly to price swings through market mechanisms; Middle Eastern crises don’t have the impact on oil prices that is generally assumed; and all the oil producing states, including a disruptive Iran, have an interest in getting their product to market.
Afghanistan and Iraq—the two longest wars in American history—are trillion-dollar social science projects that serve as poster children for the limitations of American power. The standard for victory in these conflicts was never: Could we win?—if winning meant building stable, peaceful pro-American polities—but rather: When could we leave? No amount of rationalization can justify the sacrifices made by Americans, Afghans and Iraqis given the paucity of the returns.
It is magical thinking to believe that a less militarized foreign policy—one that relied more heavily on diplomacy, aid and democracy-building programs rather than the use of military force—could have secured better endings. Sectarian, ethnic, regional and tribal rivalries; the dearth of leadership, rule of law, and basic freedoms; poor governance and weak institutions; the lack of transparency and respect for human rights and gender equality; and rampant corruption have created a broken and dysfunctional region beyond the capacity of America to ameliorate, let alone repair. These are challenges that need to be owned and resolved primarily by those who live in the neighborhood.
The U.S. faces a conundrum in the Middle East: It’s trapped in a region it can neither transform nor leave because it has interests, allies and adversaries there. The key to survival and success is not only understanding the limits on American influence but also distinguishing between vital and peripheral interests. We believe vital interests are those that directly impact our security, prosperity and way of life, and on whose behalf a president is prepared to deploy force, risk war, expend serious resources and invest America’s prestige and credibility.
None of this means that Washington should ignore the myriad challenges that beset the region, especially the humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen. But we cannot and should not invest heavily, especially given the other crises America confronts, in hopeless causes, in issues that don’t relate directly to America’s vital interests or problems where local actors aren’t ready to do most of the heavy lifting themselves. The seemingly endless pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace is a classic example.
It’s our view that the U.S. has three truly vital interests in the region: limiting terrorism, protecting the flow of oil and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Before the Trump administration withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal, the U.S. was doing pretty well in safeguarding them.
Since 9/11, there has been only a single successful attack seemingly directed by a jihadi terror organization at the continental United States. Indeed, the cruel irony is that, according to one authoritative estimate, the United States has spent over $6 trillion since 9/11 on countering that threat only to ignore the threat of a pandemic that’s killed more than 180,000 Americans and wrecked an economy. More to the point, we don’t need thousands of American combat forces permanently stationed in foreign lands. We can minimize the threat to the homeland by using offshore assets and small numbers of special forces in country to kill terrorists that want to do harm to the United States.
We may be weaning ourselves off Arab hydrocarbons. But the rest of the world isn’t—yet. A serious and sustained disruption of the flow of Persian Gulf oil could have devastating impact on the world’s economy and obviously ours as well. Iran may be able to close the Strait of Hormuz for a short period of time, but it lacks the military capability and likely the interest to keep it closed indefinitely. The U.S. can protect its energy interests in the Middle East without a significant increase in military or economic investments.
Iran, a minority Shia and Persian regime in a dominant Sunni Arab world, isn’t 10 feet tall. Iran is currently constrained by crippling sanctions, Russia, Israel, a healthy respect for American military might, and its own self-inflicted wounds of gross economic mismanagement and corruption. Clearly a better alternative to keep Iran further away from acquiring nuclear weapons would be a return to some sort of agreement on the nuclear issue. And an incoming administration ought to test the waters with Tehran to see what’s possible, keeping in mind that some grand bargain with Iran to significantly erode its influence in the region or its ballistic missile program is pie in the proverbial sky.
The Middle East will remain a mess for years to come. It is, of course, an unpredictable region that could offer up crises when America least expects it. But we don’t need to set ourselves up for failure by chasing unrealistic ambitions, acting imprudently, and looking at the region the way we want it to be rather than the way it really is. Memo to the Biden administration: It’s no one’s region. And no single power inside or outside the region can dominate it. Indeed, the U.S. is no longer the top dog in the Middle East neighborhood. And it doesn’t need to be.