Editor’s note: In early August, The National Interest organized a symposium on American foreign policy in the Middle East under the Biden administration. A variety of scholars were asked the following question: “Given Joe Biden’s recent decisions in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the president right to be reducing the U.S. military presence in the Middle East?” The following article is one of their responses:
Recent news of Taliban threats to Afghanistan as the United States withdraws its troops is upsetting. It seems President Joe Biden’s military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq will make the United States look weak in the short run. Two decades of extensive military and civil intervention by the world’s major power will have failed to defeat anti-liberal theocracy in Afghanistan or hold together Iraq as a stable democracy and ally.
Still, the nearly trillion-dollar reminder of Washington’s inability to build a government at the point of a gun may be an opportunity for policy change that could help national interests in the future. Decreased American reliance on Middle Eastern oil upends the security calculus in the region. American interests in today’s Middle East include alliances and cooperation to boost our economy, broaden U.S. political credibility to help global goals, and lower threats to national security. These can be advanced through policies that are more regional in scope and connected to democratic values, such as human rights and economic improvement.
The costly projection of military power in far-flung countries has not worked to increase American influence, prosperity, or global stability. Among the reasons that Washington’s reliance on hard power in the Middle East failed are that it strengthens the repressive powers of authoritarians and forces U.S.-built governments like Afghanistan and Iraq to depend on ongoing American military presence to sustain them.
Moreover, a military-heavy policy leaves little to distinguish the United States from authoritarian powers, whose influence is growing and whose militarism can be steadier than in a government with democratic accountability.
The contemporary Middle East is a hotbed of inequality and includes the world’s largest collection of non-democratic governments, refugees, and victims of war, particularly between Syria and Yemen. Most Middle Easterners appreciate the United States but dislike American policy in the region. For Washington to have useful influence and long-term stable benefits, a foreign policy that confronts regional problems and highlights benefits of democracy can distinguish the United States from its authoritarian rivals, whose efficiency and, in China’s case, economic capacity are, frankly, appealing to many Middle Easterners.
In short, the United States can increase its soft power and international respect by doubling down, in terms that relate to Middle Easterners’ own ideas and experiences, on its comparative advantages. This is hardly simple when the benefits of representative democracies can feel elusive. We see this with the current existential crisis to the Arab world’s only truly elected government, after Tunisia’s president seized extraordinary powers and shuttered the legislature. Tunisia’s democratic decade did not head off one of Africa’s worst Covid-19 crises, nor has it improved the economic challenges that drove the 2011 uprisings in the first place.
A posture change can resemble Biden’s domestic initiatives in seeking to do big things that might nudge major change in the region as a whole. To demonstrate vision, Washington should ask questions about what approaches might realize a less violent, more prosperous Middle East. For example, could decreasing hostility between Israel and Arab states be the foundation of global efforts to establish a regional diplomatic grand bargain that might address the Palestinian issue and the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia? Could a massive worldwide financial and political effort to establish training, jobs, and aid for Middle Eastern refugees help the Fertile Crescent region stabilize and prosper, reducing with it the threat of radicalization and terrorism from disgruntled victims of failed states and civil war?
To address large regional questions credibly, the Biden administration could redirect some savings from reduced military expenditures towards foreign aid and offer specific support for rights and democratic norms in a manner that is targeted to region-wide issues. True support for liberal values, rather than muddling this with military intervention, would distinguish the United States from global rivals.
If this seems unrealistic, it bears emphasis that the Middle East’s current anarchy and authoritarianism serve the U.S. national interest poorly. Anarchy creates refugees and impoverished malcontents by the millions; authoritarianism buttresses the relevance and prevalence of strongmen leaders globally.
We know that modern democracies don’t wage war on one another and have been at the core of a contemporary system that prioritizes predictable rules and mutual economic benefit. American help with Middle Eastern economic and infrastructural challenges, and more consistent fealty to inclusive values and legalism, offers hope to address human security and well-being and will revitalize respect for Washington. Moreover, a generous, more regional policy posture that is sensitive to popular economic and stability concerns can address larger collective challenges like climate change that imperil the Middle East and world alike. This is also in the U.S. national interest.
David Mednicoff is the Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.