Why Stay in the Middle East?

The United States ought consider a smaller role as a balancer of last resort. 

Bashing the critics of their foreign-policy agenda as “isolationists” has become the last refuge of military interventionists and global crusaders. The tactic helps sidetrack the debate by putting the onus on their opponents—those skeptical of regime change here, there and everywhere—to disprove the charge that they want Americans to shun the rest of the world.

And now proponents of maintaining American military hegemony in the Middle East have been applying a similar technique, accusing those who call for a debate on U.S. interests and policies in that region of advocating retreat and appeasement.

Like the accusation of “isolationism,” the suggestion that a reassessment of current U.S. policies in the Middle East amounts to geostrategic retrenchment is part of an effort to shut down debate and maintain the status quo. But questioning the dominant U.S. Middle East paradigm, which assumes that Americans have the interest and the obligation to secure a dominant political-military status in the region, now goes beyond strategic and economic calculations being debated by foreign-policy wonks in Washington.

Most Americans have only basic knowledge about the Middle East and U.S. interests there, beyond words that trigger a visceral fear (“oil” and “Israel” and “terrorism”). But most of them are now telling pollsters that they want to see U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible, are opposed to new U.S.-led regime change and nation building in the Middle East, and are skeptical about the utility of Washington taking charge of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”

Indeed, you don't have to be a deep strategic thinker to conclude that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a major military and diplomatic fiasco (no more Iraqs, please); that Washington exerts very little influence on the political weather (where it’s “spring” or “winter”) in the Arab World, a place where they lost that loving feeling for America a long time ago; or that Israelis and Palestinians are not going to live in peace and harmony anytime soon, even if President Obama would spend the rest of his term engaged in diplomatic psychotherapy sessions with them at Camp David.

It is becoming quite obvious to most Americans that sustaining the foundations of the Pax Americana in the Middle East is no longer cost-effective. Especially at a time when many members of the middle class have yet to recover from the economic devastation of the Great Recession and their representatives in Washington cannot agree on how to manage the ballooning federal deficit.

Reversing the classic model of foreign-policy making (leaders decide and then the public follows), leaders and the experts in Washington have been the ones doing the catch-up when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East as they muddle through the default position of gradual disengagement. At the same time, the Washington consensus that America should always be ready to “do something” to resolve the problems of the Middle East has been shuddering. Consider President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, to go to war with Iran or jump into another Israeli-Palestinian peace exercise, or signs that the neoconservatives are starting to lose their hold over the GOP’s foreign-policy agenda. The old status quo is still alive, but kicking less frequently.

But the growing public sentiment against military interventionism in the Middle East cannot be a substitute for a debate in Washington over U.S. policy in the region. Public opinion tends to be fickle and another 9/11-like terrorist attack or a military confrontation with Tehran could reverse the current trend of disengagement.

Moreover, the current reactive policies being pursued by the Obama administration in the Middle East (not to mention the dominant Republican approach) are still based on an old paradigm that evolved during the Cold War. This strategy assumes that only U.S. military power can contain global and regional aggressors (the Soviet Union during the Cold War; Iran and Al Qaeda today). It also demands that Washington secure access to the oil markets of the Middle East and ensure the survival of Israel.

But old paradigms don’t die, and unlike old generals, they don’t just fade away. The end of the Cold War should have provided an opportunity for the United States to reassess its Middle East paradigm. There was no more a Soviet Union seeking to dominate the Middle East, and Washington’s European and Asian allies were strong economic powers that should have been ready to protect their access to oil—instead of continuing to act as “free riders” on U.S. military protection. At the same time, Israel was in the process of negotiating peace with the Palestinians (the “Oslo Process”) and transforming into a strong economic and military power.

But the power of inertia—along with with the influences of the entrenched bureaucracies and powerful interest groups like the military-industrial complex, the “Israel Lobby” and the oil companies—combined to keep the U.S. Middle East paradigm in place, triggered anti-American terrorism and drew the United States into new limited (Iraq War I) and expansive (Iraq War II) military interventions.