America’s Middle East policy must adapt to a changing region. The lack of an overarching theory of vital U.S. interests in the Middle East and of a strategy narrowly tailored to defending them has rendered U.S. policy reactive and largely incoherent. To the extent that it has coherence, it is driven by a strategy of primacy—by a complex of ideas in which active, armed American management of the region is essential for stability, in which states do not have a strong tendency to seek balance against threats, and in which increasing U.S. involvement will generally increase stability—and do so at costs acceptable to the United States. This strategy has undergirded costly choices like striking Libya, invading and occupying Iraq, putting American boots on the ground in Syria, and supporting unsavory partners against their internal opponents. This strategy faces building headwinds: public frustration, a growing national debt, and better-armed foes. Primacy comes at a growing opportunity cost: power tied up in the Middle East is unavailable to address a rising China or a more active Russia. And this strategy seems out of step with the region’s rapidly shifting strategic alignments. The time is ripe to go back to the basics, prioritizing the threats that require U.S. action in relation to the other international crises that affect vital U.S. interests, especially in East Asia and Europe.
A more measured Middle Eastern approach will necessarily find its roots in the realist tradition: eschewing not only grand ideological struggles but also attempts to build a Middle Eastern system that rests on rules out of kilter with the facts on the ground. American policymakers must look first to the interests and abilities of the region’s players and to their struggle to find security amidst regional upheaval. They must be attuned to attempts by local forces to shift their own security burdens onto the United States; humble about the effectiveness of diplomatic, economic, and especially military pressure; and cognizant of unintended consequences.
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This Article was written by:
Geoffrey Kemp, Senior Director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest
John Allen Gay, Executive Director of the John Quincy Adams Society,
and Adam Lammon, Program Assistant at the Center for the National Interest