How Donald Trump Should Transform America's Middle East Policy

Disentanglement will require both farsightedness and political courage.

January-February 2017

THE OBAMA administration’s intended “pivot” to Asia was a valid statement not only about the importance of developments in that region but about the disproportionate attention and resources the United States has expended elsewhere, and especially in the Middle East. An immense share of the blood and treasure the United States has lost overseas in the past couple of decades has been in the Middle East, an expenditure that has not brought proportionate benefits. The net effect on U.S. interests has been, in many respects, negative.

America’s concentration on the Middle East has persisted for a variety of reasons, some of them reflecting the region’s special characteristics and some having more to do with domestic politics or habit. There is oil, of course, which has been a major reason for special attention ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud on an American cruiser in the Suez Canal during the closing months of World War II. As the birthplace of the world’s three great monotheistic religions, the Middle East is connected to the religiously rationalized violent extremism that has preoccupied Washington for the last fifteen years. Old habits dating from the Cold War, of viewing the region as a chessboard for great-power competition, have been encouraged by Russia’s recent activities there. And the attention feeds on itself; much of the hand-wringing over a conflict such as the one in Syria is due not only to admittedly bloody events on the ground but also to hand-wringing that already has taken place and sustains the notion that the conflict is somehow a test of U.S. mettle.

The new U.S. administration will not be able, any more than its predecessors, to formulate policy toward the Middle East from scratch, and it will be subject to the usual tyranny of the in-box. To some extent, devoting substantial attention to leftover problems is commendable. And the United States has broken a lot in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the new administration needs to return to basics and consider, with more care than most current policy debate exhibits, what in the region constitutes U.S. interests and what does not. The very extent of American involvement in the Middle East has implied many objectives (for example, deposing the president of Syria) that come to be mistakenly treated as if they were themselves U.S. interests. Moreover, responsibly devoting attention to what one has broken has too often digressed into treating sunk costs as investments to be actively worked in the hope of somehow getting a positive return—a view often taken toward Iraq, not surprising given the scale of the costs that the United States has sunk there.

A zero-based perspective would identify several important interests in the Middle East, even though collectively they are not commensurate with the U.S. resources that have been devoted to that region. Oil still matters, although in ways that have less to do with domestic consumption than with effects on the global economy. Reducing violent extremism is another legitimate interest in the Middle East, given its ability to physically harm American citizens and property. Although the connection between circumstances on the ground in the Middle East and terrorist threats in the West is routinely overstated, events in the region do inspire attacks elsewhere. The United States has an interest in the losing streak of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), to dispel any remaining winning image that would help to galvanize would-be radicals in the West.

Curbing weapons proliferation should be among the new administration’s priorities. A regional state whose nuclear program was the subject of much alarm—Iran—has had its program rolled back and any path to a nuclear weapon blocked by a multilateral agreement that went into effect in 2015. The agreement, which includes the most stringent restrictions and most comprehensive monitoring to which any state has willingly subjected its program, provides a model for further nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the region. In the meantime, however, proliferation of conventional weapons is the more serious problem, as punctuated by the scattering of Libya’s arsenal following the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The Middle East’s geographic status as a continental crossroads entails another set of interests, involving military access and transit and including uninhibited passage through the Suez Canal as an ingredient in the global projection of U.S. military power. But means should not be confused with ends. A military presence in the Middle East does not by itself have positive value for the United States—and can prove counterproductive, as reactions to American boots on the ground, with the violent consequences that sometimes have ensued, have demonstrated.