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