Is America No Longer the Middle East's Greatest Power?

Iraqi security forces passing for review. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

Russia’s intervention in Syria has won Putin a measure of grudging respect from regional leaders.

March-April 2017

WHEN RUSSIA launched a dramatic military intervention in Syria in fall 2015, it stunned the world and announced its return to the Middle East. Its move also surprised American policymakers, who had not long before worked with Russia in an effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and expressed hope that such cooperation might lead to a broader push for peace. But with its air campaign on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Moscow signaled a willingness to intervene more decisively in Middle Eastern politics than at any time since Anwar el-Sadat’s dismissal of Soviet military advisers in 1972 and the Yom Kippur War the following year. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, any attempt to resolve a festering regional conflict must take Russia’s role into account.

This outside intervention is new, but it is not limited to Russia. China has expanded its involvement in the Middle East in recent years. Even India, Japan and Europe, though distracted by crises in their own regions, have recently stepped up their Middle East roles amid perceived American disengagement. Layer on top of this the shattering of regional order in the wake of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, and the result is the Middle East’s emergence as a commons for great-power competition. As Washington searches for a Middle East strategy and debates what a sustainable U.S. presence should entail, it will increasingly need to navigate the geopolitical game played by outside powers in the world’s least stable region.

This game represents much more than just one additional factor among many that American policymakers must consider as they grapple with the region’s challenges. The United States has not had to contemplate the possibility of other external powers seeking—or even being capable of—hegemony in the region since President Jimmy Carter promulgated his eponymous doctrine in 1980. And while the outside powers remain limited in their aims and means of achieving them, a fundamental shift is occurring today: America’s long position of unchallenged Middle Eastern primacy may be reaching an end.

 

THE INVOLVEMENT of great powers—defined here as states with the military, economic and political capacity to exert influence on a global scale—is by no means new to the Middle East. China and India, for instance, have interacted with the region for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Many of the British Empire’s battles in the region were in fact fought by imperial troops from India, and Australian schoolchildren still learn about their country’s involvement in the Battle of Beersheba following the fight at Gallipoli. The Ottoman Empire’s demise saw the British and French divvy up the region and fight by proxy for regional influence between the world wars. As the British exited in the 1960s, the Soviet Union entered the Middle East, with support for allies such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria. Soviet inroads, in turn, boosted America’s strategic interest in the region, and increasing demand for energy and regional supplies of oil attracted greater external attention.

Since ramping up its Middle Eastern involvement during the Cold War, the United States has played by far the preeminent regional role among external actors, and, after the Cold War, held a nearly uncontested position. There have been minor engagements, mostly diplomatic—the EU and Russia participate in the so-called “Quartet” of powers focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and China and Germany joined the “P5+1” group negotiating with Iran—but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Until recently, Russia was consumed with domestic affairs and its “near abroad,” China focused mainly on its own region and a handful of global issues, and the European role was mostly restricted to the provision of development assistance, weapons sales and the occasional diplomatic initiative.

While other powers receded from the region, the American role expanded. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Carter administration established a joint military task force that eventually became U.S. Central Command, and the United States later sent peacekeeping forces to Sinai, Marines to Lebanon and naval forces to the Persian Gulf. The 1991 Gulf War saw a major increase in the U.S. military presence, and troops sent to protect Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein never left the region. Today the United States either has troops deployed, naval vessels stationed, or military operations underway in a wide variety of countries—Iraq, Syria, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Qatar and elsewhere.

For years, America has seemed content to assume the leading security and diplomatic role occupied decades earlier by Britain. As the world’s top consumer and importer of oil, the United States discerned a vital interest in stable energy supplies, and demonstrated repeated willingness to employ force to ensure their flow. The United States became the “hub” in what amounted to a regional “hub-and-spoke” security architecture, in which America kept troops deployed while investing in the defense, and the security forces, of allies like Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf states.

Those states prioritized their bilateral ties with the United States and made only modest efforts at multilateral cooperation, even on the economic front. And in regional diplomacy, America remained the prime mover for much that involved outsiders, including the Quartet, the P5+1, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Friends of Iraq and other configurations. Other external powers were largely content to let the United States serve as the region’s security provider of last resort—keeping maritime chokepoints open, enforcing national boundaries and fighting terrorism—while taking the lead on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Beginning within a few years of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, America’s privileged regional role began to change. That conflict, together with the Arab Spring and the eruption of civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, shattered the existing regional order. It eliminated or threatened friendly governments, shifted the balance of power and invited a new wave of sectarian politics.

The ensuing chaos upended the decades-old assumptions behind U.S. policy. Iraq and Iran have not balanced each other’s power since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Egypt, long considered the political leader of the Arab world and a cornerstone of U.S. cooperation, is mired in internal discord with little appetite to think beyond its borders. Borders themselves are no longer inviolable, as evidenced by the ISIS proto-state that stretches from Syria into Iraq. Israel and the United States’ once-tight political embrace diminished during the Obama administration. Israel and Sunni Arab states have made common cause in their drive to limit Iranian influence. Because of Tehran’s growing activism, Palestine has retreated as a foremost concern of the Arab world. The Arab states themselves are no longer ruled only by dictators and monarchs; in several cases they are barely ruled at all.

At the same time, American priorities have been shifting as well. The 9/11 attacks not only led to an increased emphasis on combating terrorism but to a questioning of the regional status quo that allowed extremism to fester and grow. As time passed, the disastrous results of the Iraq War—compounded by the financial crisis of 2008, America’s mounting energy self-sufficiency and the rising strategic importance of Asia—led the Obama administration to publicly question America’s presence in the Middle East and the region’s very relevance to U.S. interests.

This drift has produced a pervasive sense of U.S. disengagement. The Obama administration telegraphed its preferences by withdrawing all American forces from Iraq in 2011 and assembling no stabilization force for Libya after toppling Muammar el-Qaddafi. It fell to incessant squabbling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of Israel, and derided its Gulf allies as “free riders” who should face reality and “share” the region with their Iranian rivals. For months the United States permitted ISIS to seize territory in Iraq and Syria with minimal interference, and remained essentially on the sidelines of the Syrian Civil War. When the administration did step up its Middle East engagement—by sending troops back into Iraq, for instance, or by providing modest assistance to Syrian rebels—it generally did so incrementally and with obvious reluctance.

The result of these trends—growing regional chaos and uncertainty about America’s role—has been a double collapse: of states and institutions in the Middle East, and of the broader U.S.-led security order across the region.

Regional powers have responded to this state of affairs by taking more matters into their own hands. In general, however, these countries lack the military and diplomatic capabilities or the institutional strength necessary to carry out effective unilateral responses to regional crises or to coordinate multilateral ones. As a result, their exercise of power has had reverberations—including empowering nonstate actors, exacerbating sectarianism and producing significant civilian casualty tolls—that the United States finds damaging to its interests.

It has also prompted other external powers to become more active in the Middle East as U.S. leaders question not only America’s ability to address the region’s challenges but the wisdom of even trying. This is, in part, simply one element of a larger phenomenon: the world’s leading states have become more competitive with each other across the globe. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has remarked, “Great-power competition has returned.” With Russia resurgent and Chinese power and ambitions growing, he added, “that requires us to start thinking more globally and more in terms of competition than we have in the past twenty-five years.”

But it is also a function of America’s recent ambivalence. The United States stepping back has helped fan outside interest in playing in the Middle East sandbox—not to provide the public goods of order and security, but to safeguard national interests, create promising new ties and disadvantage competitors. The external actors have also been encouraged by partners to engage more fully. Regional states, aiming to exert leverage over Washington and to diversify their relationships, increasingly look not only to Washington but also to Moscow, Beijing and others for partnership, assistance and even military intervention. Those states may be more willing to act, in Russia’s case, or simply content to pursue mercantilist policies without promoting liberal values, as in China’s. The overall result, however, is that today it is impossible to address many key issues—relations with Iran, stabilizing Libya, resolving the Syrian Civil War and others—without taking firmly into account the role of major external actors. In short, great-power competition has returned to the Middle East.

 

RUSSIA’S RETURN to the Middle East has been dramatic. In bombing its way to renewed relevance, Moscow announced its determination to use the Middle East as a stage on which to play a global role. By applying limited military force to change the balance of power in Syria, Moscow has exercised outsized influence on the diplomacy aimed at ending the war, especially in light of Western reluctance to intervene. Russian aircraft, arms and military personnel are stationed in the country, and Moscow retains installations at Tartus and Hmeimim, giving it the ability to sway military and diplomatic events and, most importantly, to ensure that all major diplomatic initiatives on Syria run through Moscow.

Moscow’s Syria intervention has spurred a deeper alignment within the region’s Iran-led “axis of resistance,” of which the Assad regime remains a key part. Russian bombers briefly flew sorties out of Iran’s Hamadan air base, marking the first time since the 1979 revolution that Tehran has permitted foreign military forces to operate from its bases. Russia’s air defenses in Syria and its tacit collaboration with Hezbollah have also sparked serious concern in Israel, which relies on air strikes to deter the Lebanese Shia militant group and counter its arms buildup. Russia and Israel have thus far managed to deconflict their operations thanks to their longstanding and friendly relations as well as visits to Moscow by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The reality, however, is that Lebanon, southern Syria and even parts of Israel now sit under a Russian air-defense bubble, and Israeli deterrence now depends in part on Moscow’s goodwill.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Russian influence has been scant but is growing. The region is a major purchaser of Russian weapons. Lukoil has invested in Iraq, and Russian companies are seeking new contracts in Iran. Diplomatically, Moscow was a key participant in the negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear agreement, and has sought to position itself as a postsanctions partner for Iran. Russia has cultivated a warm relationship with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Washington has kept him at arm’s length, leading the Egyptian president to suggest that Russia host peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a role generally reserved for the United States.

Russia and Turkey have made amends following a period of heightened tension over Syria and the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter aircraft that entered Turkish airspace. In the wake of the rapprochement, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim went so far as to suggest that Russia could fly sorties out of Incirlik Air Base, where U.S. forces—and nuclear weapons—are stationed.

Russia’s intervention in Syria—unpopular with Arab states opposed to Assad and his Iranian friends—has won Vladimir Putin a measure of grudging respect from regional leaders due to its boldness and, at least initial, effectiveness. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who together with the Iran-backed Houthi movement controls large swathes of the country, offered “all facilities,” including airports and ports, to Russia so that Moscow could help the Houthis’ governing council “fight terrorism.”

For Moscow, a greater role in the Middle East offers potential dividends beyond enhanced global status and a seat at regional tables. Russia seeks to demonstrate its commitment to partners like Bashar al-Assad, drawing a not-so-subtle distinction between its doubling down on the Syrian president and the U.S. withdrawal of support for Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Kremlin’s intervention in Syria also demonstrated not just its determination but its capacity to thwart what Moscow sees as the United States’ tendency to encourage “color revolutions,” and to contest American primacy in a region where Soviet influence was once widespread. Finally, by making itself indispensable in Syria and in negotiations with Iran, Moscow helped avoid comprehensive diplomatic and economic isolation as a result of its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine.

 

THE EXPANSION of China’s role in the Middle East has been less noted than Russia’s, yet over time may prove more comprehensive. In February 2011, Chinese military officials made an announcement that represented a historic first for their country. The frigate Xuzhou, previously deployed to the Gulf of Aden for antipiracy operations, was redirected to the shores of Libya to support the evacuation of thirty-five thousand Chinese nationals fleeing the war there. This represented not only China’s first major expeditionary naval operation in modern times, but also saw its first use of long-range military transport aircraft for humanitarian purposes.

It was the sort of thing the United States has done many times over, but for China it hinted at newfound power, and even had a tincture of drama—three thousand Chinese workers reportedly proved their identity at a checkpoint by singing their national anthem in unison. Chinese ships helped evacuate non-Chinese nationals from Libya, and its navy later reprised the operation in Yemen. The episode undoubtedly demonstrated to Chinese leaders the utility of forward-deployed naval assets, which have long been employed by the United States and other global powers. It may also have helped influence their subsequent decision to establish China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti, an installation that may ultimately house up to ten thousand military personnel.

In a pattern long followed by emerging powers, Chinese troops and sailors arrive in the Middle East behind a flow of capital, traders and workers. Trade between China and the Middle East has risen by more than 600 percent in the past decade to $230 billion in 2014. Beijing’s thirst for energy has made it more dependent on Middle Eastern supplies; currently, more than half of Chinese oil imports come from the Gulf. Chinese investment in the Middle East totaled more than $10 billion between 2006 and 2013, and on his January trip to the region, Xi Jinping pledged an additional $55 billion in investment and loans. In addition, Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” initiative aims to build infrastructure for land and maritime routes from China through Central Asia and the Middle East and on to Europe.

China’s expanding economic interests and security activism have prompted a broader look at the region as a strategic opportunity for Beijing. And Iran may prove central to those plans. In 2010, Chinese fighter jets refueling in Iran became the first foreign warplanes to do so since 1979. Chinese naval vessels have paid port calls in Iran. President Xi Jinping became the first world leader to visit Iran after the nuclear deal, and used the opportunity to announce a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Tehran. Their defense officials have vowed to expand cooperation.

Tehran and Beijing share a desire to see the emergence of a regional and global order less dominated by the United States, and closer ties allow them to collaborate with each other and third countries (including Russia) toward this end. Iran was a founding member of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and is an observer of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran is also the only country on the Gulf littoral not allied with the United States, and the only one that presents a straightforward land route to China—both key to reducing the vulnerability of Chinese energy supplies during a military contingency. For China, Iran is not merely a Middle Eastern partner, but the western terminus of a string of burgeoning relationships that includes the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as China’s increasing security role in Afghanistan.

Chinese interests stretch beyond Iran, however. Throughout the region, it has performed a delicate balancing act and sought to cultivate good relations with everyone—Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others—simultaneously. Even as China has proclaimed “noninterference” in an effort to stay out of the region’s conflicts, in recent years it has become far more proactive. Beijing has not only appointed a special envoy for the Syria crisis, but clearly taken sides: it joined with Russia to veto numerous U.S.-sponsored UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, sent defense officials to Damascus and has even reportedly provided limited military assistance to the Assad regime.

Beijing has ramped up its activity in other areas as well. It released an “Arab policy paper” in January 2016 that articulated a vision for Sino-Arab relations, including political cooperation, investments and social-development projects. Chinese diplomats became increasingly involved in the P5+1 talks as they progressed, and went from vocally supporting the Palestinian cause during the Arafat era to cultivating close relations with Israel and adopting a relatively conventional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. In December 2015, China passed legislation permitting its military forces to conduct counterterrorism operations overseas; while it did not specifically designate the Middle East, the law could pave the way for future interventions focused on jihadist groups linked to terrorism in China.

 

WHILE RUSSIA and China are likely to be the non-U.S. powers most active in the Middle East over the coming years, India, Japan and Europe have also stepped up their involvement in important ways.

India’s sense of itself as a great power has grown in recent years, and it accordingly seeks greater weight in the Middle East, a region Indian bureaucrats still refer to as “West Asia.” Several million Indian workers live in the Middle East, and the Gulf Cooperation Council is India’s largest trading partner. India has increasingly purchased energy from the Middle East and even adopted a rupee-based payment mechanism in order to skirt sanctions that prohibited purchases of Iranian oil made in dollars. In 2015, President Pranab Mukherjee became the first Indian head of state to travel to Israel, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has already traveled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates—could become the first Indian PM to visit Israel later this year.

Indian interests are dominated by economic and security concerns, but also by geopolitics. Pakistan blocks Indian access to Central Asia, and Sino-Pakistani economic cooperation, including the development of a major Chinese-operated port at Gwadar, is seen as a threat. New Delhi has responded by seeking closer ties with Tehran, whose Chabahar port is a short distance down the coast from Gwadar and which has already received significant Indian investment. Chabahar also offers an embarkation point for a land route to Afghanistan, allowing India to bypass Pakistan and China entirely.

Economics has been the key driver of Tokyo’s increased interest in the region. The March 2011 tsunami devastated Japan’s nuclear industry, which generated a full quarter of the country’s energy needs. Following the disaster, Japan has emerged as the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas, and Saudi Arabia alone now supplies more than 30 percent of Japan’s oil imports. Postsanctions Iran, with the world’s largest or second-largest gas reserves, has prompted significant Japanese interest, and this year Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make the first trip to Tehran by a Japanese leader in thirty-nine years.

Abe wishes Japan to become a more serious global geopolitical player, and the Middle East fits into his government’s agenda. Under a revised interpretation of constitutional restrictions, Japanese Self-Defense Forces can now join peacekeeping operations and engage in collective security, and Abe has boosted defense spending to match the growing will to act. Tokyo has pledged billions of dollars in assistance to the region and committed funding to the anti-ISIS fight as well. In addition, Tokyo is using trade and diplomacy to demonstrate that Japan makes for a better partner than China—one that is more trustworthy and more supportive of regional order.

Finally, Europe’s major powers—primarily Britain, France and Germany—have stepped up their regional involvement in the face of refugee flows, terrorist attacks traced back to Syria and concern over humanitarian conditions in key countries. The United Kingdom and France led the charge for Western intervention in Libya, and France was widely reputed to be the hardest-nosed of the Western parties to the P5+1 talks on Iran, with the former foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, threatening on more than one occasion to scuttle the entire process over concerns about the weakness of U.S. negotiating positions.

Both France and Britain have embarked on new military deployments in Iraq, Syria and the Gulf, and both inaugurated new Gulf military facilities, marking a return of sorts to the region after more than half a century’s absence. Even Germany, the most hesitant of the major European powers to engage in overseas military ventures, has in recent years participated in anti-ISIS support missions in Iraq and Syria as well as a military advisory mission in Iraqi Kurdistan, which, while modest, nevertheless represent a milestone in the country’s postwar foreign policy.

 

AMERICAN OFFICIALS might be tempted to view increased Russian and Chinese involvement in the Middle East with optimism—if they wish to take on greater burdens in this most intractable region, after all, why not simply let them? Such a perspective, however, overlooks the way in which the Middle East is increasingly a commons for their competition with the United States.

Russia’s intervention in Syria, for instance, aimed to prop up the beleaguered Assad, whom President Obama had insisted must step aside, and directly targeted groups receiving material support from the United States. Russian air defenses in Syria, and the missiles and air sorties it has directed from Iran and the Mediterranean toward Syria, constrained the U.S. military’s freedom of action.

Acting together to circumscribe American power, Russia and China collaborated to prevent the passage of UN Security Council resolutions that would have increased the pressure on Assad, and literally joined forces to conduct naval exercises in the Mediterranean—widely viewed as a message to the United States and the West about their ability to project power. Moscow and Beijing, despite broadly cooperating with the United States during the Iran nuclear talks, also used their presence in the P5+1 to dilute and delay UN resolutions targeting Tehran.

Great-power activity in the Middle East is not only focused on the United States. India’s presence in the region is prompted at least in part by Delhi’s concern at being outflanked by China in Pakistan, and Japan and other Asian states that depend on Middle Eastern oil imports view warily China’s growing naval presence in the region. China and Russia, despite working together at times to balance the United States, are strategic competitors in Central Asia and may find themselves similarly competing for influence in Iran and elsewhere across the Middle East.

During the Obama administration, U.S. policy neither adapted to the resurgence of great-power politics in the Middle East nor reflected the reality that no return to the regional status quo ante was on offer. The key features of that order—a succession of relatively stable autocrats stretching from Morocco to Iran; American preeminence driven by interests in oil, counterterrorism and Israel; quiescent external powers hunting commercial deals if anything at all—have been transformed, likely irreversibly. Any sustainable regional security order that emerges from the ashes of its predecessor will need to feature a restored leadership role for the United States, but it will also have to factor in the increasing role of external actors.

The new administration will need a Middle East policy that aims to retain U.S. primacy and freedom of action in the region, forges great-power cooperation where possible, and prevents or mitigates damaging competition where necessary. A regional strategy with this objective should include four lines of action.

 

FIRST, THE United States should seek to deter Russian and Chinese actions that challenge American interests in the region. For example, Moscow’s presence in Syria has not merely hindered a resolution to the conflict there. It represents a broader strategic threat by empowering Iran and Hezbollah and posing a serious potential risk to U.S. forces based nearby. More vigorous U.S. pushback against Iranian forces and their proxies can drive home to Moscow the risks and limits of this alliance and widen any gap between Russian and Iranian interests, while minimizing the risk of a direct confrontation with Moscow.

More broadly, the best way to address such conflicts with other great powers is to prevent them in the first place. The lesson that American policymakers should draw from Syria is less that Russia is eager to confront the United States in the Middle East than that other forces will inevitably move to fill the vacuums created by absent American leadership. Washington should minimize the opportunities for further Russian and Chinese inroads by shoring up its own relationships with allies like Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf states. The United States retains a significant advantage over other external actors in capabilities, capacity and willingness to assist, and has broad potential influence across the region. The appetite for greater American engagement among most Middle East countries is high, and Washington has both plenty to offer, and real leverage over, regional partners.

Second, Washington should begin establishing a formal, multilateral regional security architecture for the Middle East. Such a structure could help set the regional agenda, deter misbehavior by both regional actors and external powers, broker differences among American allies, promote intraregional economic ties and provide outside actors an “address” for constructive multilateral engagement in the region. An effort to build such a structure would benefit from the newfound interest in multilateralism evident among the region’s key players and could leverage Europe’s experience with such groupings. Crucially, networking American alliances in this manner would magnify their value and diminish regional partners’ incentives to “shop around” in Russia and China for a better security arrangement.

Third, even as Washington seeks to manage its relationships with Russia and China in the region, the United States should actively promote the involvement of India, Japan and the major European powers (as well as allies like Australia and others) in regional diplomatic, economic and security affairs. This means encouraging such partners to increase their contributions to the financial and military costs of stability, security and development in the region, in return for a greater say in regional diplomacy.

To cite one example among many, these states could use their bilateral ties with Tehran to encourage a more constructive regional role—and provide Tehran with alternatives to an exclusive strategic relationship with Russia or even China. While the United States should continue diplomacy with Tehran, the prospects for any meaningful breakthroughs are highly limited by Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region as well as the need to prioritize rebuilding key American alliances.

Fourth, Washington and its partners should look for opportunities to engage Beijing and Moscow in the Middle East. While Russia has sought to reestablish itself as a power to be reckoned with globally by intervening with increasing frequency and aggression along its frontiers, its activities in the broader Middle East are likely to be limited by constrained resources and competing priorities. Moscow’s regional interests and those of Washington converge infrequently, and their methods of advancing those interests even less so. However, the United States has often found it more constructive—as in the case of the Quartet and the P5+1—to provide Russia with a seat at the table rather than risk its role as an external spoiler.

While far from perfectly aligned, U.S. and Chinese interests in the region broadly overlap: ensuring the free flow of energy and commerce, countering terrorism and promoting regional stability factor high in both countries’ calculations. This commonality of interests can breed either cooperation or competition, and the United States should strive to ensure the former prevails. There is much to criticize in China’s Middle East policies, including its role in WMD proliferation, yet Washington and Beijing nonetheless have a modest record of regional cooperation, including on the Iran nuclear file and antipiracy operations. Washington should explore the potential to coordinate on other issues, including economic development in Egypt and regional infrastructure. Given the likelihood that the United States and China will remain at loggerheads in East Asia for the foreseeable future, the Middle East could represent an important arena in which to lower bilateral tensions and demonstrate that the otherwise highly competitive relationship need not be zero-sum.

 

A PRINCIPAL lesson of the Bush administration is the danger of overcommitment; the Obama administration taught the perils of inaction. American disengagement from the Middle East is likely to increase great-power competition rather than dampen it, and leave in its wake problems more severe than even today’s daunting challenges. The alternative is for the United States to exercise its traditional leadership role in untraditional ways, in a region that is anything but static. Washington should pursue a strategy that advances American interests and deters challenges to them, yet does so in a way that is not hostile to the reasonable interests of other powers.

Above all, this requires reversing the prevailing perception that, at the precise moment when other great powers are increasing their involvement in the Middle East, the United States has tired of its leadership role and is looking for the exit. While this sense is not always commensurate with America’s still-active role, the perception of disengagement is nevertheless widespread within the region and beyond. Telegraphing that American leaders see the region as a gathering of free-riding distractions from the real game in Asia compounds the problem. The Middle East is and will remain a region of strategic importance to the United States.

A century after Sykes-Picot, the lines drawn by British and French diplomats are under pressure like never before. So too is the traditional Middle Eastern model of governance, stability and prosperity. America’s response to the Middle East challenge should aim not to redivide the Middle East, nor to dominate or depart it. As states outside the region increasingly discern interests there, and generate the will and capacity to pursue them, the resurgence of great-power politics in the Middle East will transform American strategy.

As this process plays out, there will remain one irreducible reality. The United States alone retains the unique ability to forge partnerships among these actors to advance not just parochial, short-term interests but the broader security, stability and prosperity needed to prevent the region’s further collapse. It is time to start the endeavor.

Richard Fontaine is president of the Center for a New American Security. Michael Singh is managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Image: Iraqi security forces passing for review. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force