Enough About the Middle East Already

For Years, Washington Has Obsessed Over a Single Volatile Piece of the Globe. Enough is Enough.

The United States has lost its bearings in the world. Our foreign policy clings to a host of antiquated assumptions and no guiding strategic vision. It’s a bipartisan confusion, judging by this week’s foreign policy debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. The two men may have gotten personal in their sparring, but neither questioned the other’s assumptions about the places that matter most to Washington.

More than a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States—our foreign policy establishment, to be specific—remains obsessed with the Middle East and the broader Islamic world. It takes a warped worldview to produce a foreign policy debate in which Iran is mentioned 47 times; Israel 34; Afghanistan 28; and Pakistan 25; while so many other important nations and issues garner zero mentions. The omissions included NATO, Japan, climate change, the U.N.’s tarnished system of collective security, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, the development of sub-Saharan Africa, the future of the European Union, the former Soviet republics that broke away from Russia … and so on. The media—in this case, debate moderator Bob Schieffer—only contribute to our distorted approach to the world.

Certainly, it was a strategic imperative to take on Al Qaeda and its Taliban collaborators in Afghanistan after 9/11. There are moral and strategic reasons to ensure the security and territorial integrity of Israel. Nuclear proliferation remains a serious concern. And we should work in concert with allies to maintain a system of collective security that bars one country from invading another, as we did in the first Gulf war. But at this point, American foreign policy confuses the urgent with the important. Our nation’s myopic focus on crises on one slice of the planet has diminished our engagement elsewhere.

We have yet to hear a convincing rationale for intervening militarily in Libya but not doing so in Syria. But then, we never heard a convincing rationale for why doing so in Libya was in America’s national security interest in the first place. Nor is it clear to most people why a decade after dislodging Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, we remain mired in that nation.

In Monday’s debate, Governor Romney said our objective in Syria should be “to replace Assad and put in a place a government that is friendly to us.” Where has he been this past decade to assume we can pull off the second half of that equation? Has he not noticed Iraq (now essentially a vassal of Iran), Egypt (led now by the Muslim Brotherhood), or the Palestinian territories (the election victory of Hamas)?

In one of the more revealing and convoluted formulations of the Boca Raton debate, President Obama rattled off this list of items that he said should frame our relations with Middle East countries:

One, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel’s security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region. Number three, we do have to make sure that we’re protecting religious minorities and women, because these countries can’t develop unless all the population—not just half of it—is developing. Number four, we do have to develop their economic capabilities. But number five, the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions.

That’s quite an ambitious checklist, leading up to the but-no-nation-building disclaimer. The inherent contradiction speaks for itself.

The “standing by our interests in Israel’s security” benchmark underscores another core problem in our Middle East engagement—our desire to both take sides and play honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Resolving it has long been the Holy Grail for American foreign policy mandarins, many of whom have been capable lawyers who ought to know better than to take on such a glaring conflict of interest. You can’t state that the United States is Israel’s unconditional ally on the one hand, and the honest broker in this dispute on the other. We need to pick one or the other. And for a number of historical, cultural, and political reasons, that probably means we will continue bankrolling and siding unconditionally with Israel. Let’s just stop being hypocritical about it.

One of the most enduring and wildly exaggerated conventional wisdoms is that if only we could help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Muslim world would see America and the West in a different light, as we would have removed the primary source of the grievances. Never mind that Osama bin Laden was radicalized by the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia or that in his celebratory video in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he invoked the “tragedy of Andalusia,” referring to the 15th century expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula.

Many of us look back at George W. Bush as a Wilsonian neocon who foolishly ignored any and all constraints on America’s ability to refashion the Middle East in our image. What’s forgotten is that prior to the 9/11 attacks, Bush, acting on a pledge to conduct a more “humble” foreign policy, announced he was getting out of the business of trying to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians. Foreign policy elites gasped in horror. But why shouldn’t we step back and tend to other matters? There are other nations better suited to play the role of mediator.

In the last decade, the United States has waged full-fledged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; unleashed its power to unseat another despotic regime in Libya; and, more subtly, nodded its assent to the removal of Egypt’s long-ruling dictator. The five top current recipients of foreign aid are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, Iraq, and Egypt. Perceived threats to our national security factored into our decision-making in some of these instances, but the real connective thread has been a well-intentioned, if ultimately naïve, desire to help pull the Islamic world into the modern world.

What are we getting as a return on our investment? Take a look at the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project polling for 2012. You’ll find that 19 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the United States. For both Jordan and Pakistan it’s 12 percent. To put these numbers in context, the same survey found that 69 percent of Poles, 72 percent of Japanese, 74 percent of Italians, and 56 percent of Mexicans hold favorable views of the United States. Those Muslim countries we keep trying to woo are just not into us. It’s time for us to stop the courtship.

The alternative to our current levels of involvement in that part of the world needn’t be full disengagement. We can, and should, issue Israel a security guarantee (as we do with Taiwan) and advocate for moderation by all sides in resolving differences. But let other nations and multilateral bodies play honest broker in that quarrel.

The United States can protect its legitimate security interests with a far lighter footprint in the region. As we double down on drones and special force deployments as instruments of foreign policy, there is no confusion as to America’s determination to strike against any terrorist groups seeking to attack U.S. interests.  We can also continue to make clear that the international community will not condone any one nation’s unprovoked attack on another or any interference with international shipping lanes. But this vigilance doesn’t require a grand effort to reform Islam, build democracies across the Middle East, or assume primary responsibility for resolving all regional disputes and ending all atrocities. It is tragic that millions of people live under oppressive regimes, but it cannot be a categorical imperative of U.S. foreign policy to deploy our military to liberate people from such a fate. No nation, not even ours, has that much capacity.

Those who aren’t driven by humanitarian interests or fear of terrorism often raise two more reasons for a heavy American footprint in the Middle East and South Asia: nuclear proliferation and oil. But neither of these interests require the current level of engagement, either.

Nuclear proliferation is certainly a serious threat, but the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington—at odds with the rhetoric on the campaign trail—is that no determined nation can be denied nuclear capabilities in the long run, and that a nuclear Iran would remain a rational actor, one that could still be deterred, much like every other nuclear power has been, including Pakistan. In any case, guarding against nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia or in the Middle East is best pursued as a multilateral effort.

As for the matter of oil, there is little evidence to suggest that the region’s oil exporters have more long-term leverage than their customers do. Iran’s flow is largely cut off these days because we, its customers, have imposed sanctions, not because it is holding back. What’s more, alternative sources of oil—in Africa, the North Sea, and, most promisingly, our own hemisphere—are rapidly making the Middle East oil sources less important. By 2020, experts believe, 82 percent of the crude oil the United States consumes will come from our own hemisphere (with half of what we consume being domestically extracted).  Even today, no Middle Eastern or South Asian nation ranks among our top five trading partners, and only Saudi Arabia ranks in the top 10.

Washington has always had trouble focusing on several priorities at once, and these are times of finite resources when we’d receive a higher return on our investment by devoting ourselves to foreign affairs that are more relevant to our economic performance: multilateral efforts to address global warming; the global competitiveness of North America; a relationship with India that isn’t all about Pakistan and Afghanistan; a more mature relationship with China; and the future of NATO.

And if those aren’t sufficiently compelling alternative priorities to the Middle East, there’s always the home front. Because, as President Obama also pointed out this week, one reason we need to cease nation-building in the Middle East is that we need to start doing more of that back home.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a vice president at the New America Foundation.
Primary editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.