The Missing Ingredient in America's Middle East Policy

"Containment [is] a...cost-effective and sustainable security strategy option for the Middle East."

The debate over technical and procedural issues of the Iran nuclear deal may have reached a ceiling. Grossly under-analyzed still is how the United States can effectively protect this strategic investment and other vital interests in the Middle East. The deal notwithstanding, the region is burning and its fires could soon consume this limited arms control accord. Washington needs a comprehensive security strategy for a part of the world whose order and stability, whether we like it or not, will continue to be indispensable for global commerce, nuclear nonproliferation, and transnational counterterrorism.

As I argued in a recent Atlantic Council report calledThe New Containment: Changing America’s Approach to Middle East Security,” U.S. policy-makers’ consideration of options for Middle East security strategy should be informed by four inescapable realities:

First, there is no lasting security and stability in the region without real political and economic development. Until the Arab world charts a path forward and starts addressing its rampant political decay, religious hubris, and economic mismanagement, regional security will remain scarce, and challenges such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, and the growth of violent extremism—to just name a few—will continue to present themselves and possibly worsen with time.

We can keep deluding ourselves that the Middle East can achieve higher levels of security without overhauling an Arab state system that has been a major source of instability in the region. Having failed since its formation in the first half of the twentieth century to garner popular legitimacy, accommodate religiously and ethnically diverse communities, and generate equitable economic growth, such a system has finally imploded. This overarching failure or weakness of governance has greatly contributed to insecurity in the Middle East for decades, leading to terrorism, insurgency, and domestic conflict.

Second, the United States neither can nor should be the agent pushing for change in the region; change—at least the peaceful and sustainable type—should almost always come from within. The disastrous U.S. experience in Iraq since 2003 provides enough warning about the consequences of U.S.-led nation-building in the Middle East. Regardless of its intentions, Washington does not have sufficient economic resources, local knowledge, or political commitment to the region to do it right. Like other civilizations in history who underwent difficult and often violent political transitions before them, Arabs will have to go through a process of trial and error aimed at building a just and viable social contract, a process that is likely to extend throughout much of the twenty-first century.

Third, change cannot happen without first addressing immediate and severe security challenges. As critical as good governance is for long-term regional stability, it will currently neither secure nor halt the disintegration of the Middle East. Indeed, even if a long-term Arab reform process were to start now, it will take years to potentially yield positive results. Therefore, it will not solve immediate security challenges such as rolling back ISIS, countering Iran’s asymmetric threat, terminating Syria’s civil war, combating terrorism in Egypt, securing Iraq, ending Libya’s anarchy, and preventing Yemen’s descent into chaos. In fact, if modern European history is any guide, democratization itself (in whatever form it may take in the Middle East) is likely to generate, at least in the short to medium term, greater insecurity and political violence, which, given its current cataclysmic conditions, the region simply cannot afford. Whether we like it or not, so long as states in the region perceive existential threats and prioritize physical security, reform will take a back seat. In today’s extremely volatile regional environment, security is a basic and necessary public good that should be pursued first, though not as an end in itself but as a necessary condition to enable change.

Fourth, the United States cannot address those security challenges alone, and it desperately needs first, regional partners, and second, global allies who have vested interests and military resources in the Middle East.

If you agree with these four realities, including the notion that in this ever more complex environment in the Middle East, there are real limitations to the United States’ ability to shape or influence outcomes, then you would most probably find containment a more cost-effective and sustainable security strategy option for the Middle East. Whatever the United States does in the Middle East, now and into the future, the basic premise and guiding principle should be unequivocal: not to try to fix unfixable problems (and end up making things worse) but to help regional partners lead this necessary period of transition with the least amount of violence and chaos.

A robust U.S. containment approach to Middle East security should have the following six pillars:

One, the prevention of Iran’s possession of nuclear arms and more broadly the spread of WMDs in the region. Nothing messes up the Middle East security puzzle more profoundly than a nuclear-armed Iran. While the historic deal that has been recently reached is not without holes and imperfections, even its most ardent critics concur that it does make it very difficult for Iran to race to the bomb for the next ten to fifteen years without getting caught. The severity of the challenge of convincing Iran to abandon the bomb after the deal expires will mostly depend on Iranian behavior in the region for the next decade.