Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

A zero-based assessment of U.S. interests and policies in the Greater Middle East is long overdue. The new geostrategic map of the region, the legacy of failures, and the imperatives of great power competition require a new mindset.

Yet it is almost inevitable that Iran’s non-nuclear military power will increase over time. This is especially true if recent reports of an emerging strategic pact between Iran and China prove enduring. It remains in our interest that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons. To do so is to trigger a regional proliferation scenario with the likely acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Saudis, and perhaps by Turkey and possibly Egypt. Put simply, GME oil and gas infrastructures can be rebuilt after a precision non-nuclear missile attack. That same industry will not survive the consequences of a two or multi-sided nuclear bombardment campaign.

To persuade Riyadh to forego the nuclear weapon option will require a winding down of proxy wars, curbing regional arms races, and moves toward Saudi/GCC-Iranian detente. It may require the United States to provide an extended deterrent commitment through the heavy reliance on air and naval power in the near term. Further, the United States should address the question of whether a deeper engagement by China in the GME is contrary to our strategic interests. Given that 85 percent of Gulf oil is exported to China, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, one alternative response to this challenge might be creative diplomacy, encouraging India as a regional counterweight, with overlapping interests with China, Japan, and other East Asians to safeguard the free flow of petroleum and natural gas at non-inflationary prices out of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

Dealing with Iraq

The U.S. approach to Iraq should be guided by our overall strategy of dealing with the possible resurrection of isis. What is our long-term relationship with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria? They remain a linchpin to our anti-Salafist-jihadi campaign. Do we remain a player in the upper region of the Persian Gulf? Do we maintain a military presence in Kuwait? What is the configuration of that presence? There are few U.S. strategic interests in Iraq beyond counter-jihadism and stability. Currently, there is a rotational brigade combat team and substantial preposition stocks to affect the rapid reinforcement of that ground force. Trump’s decision to withdraw two thousand troops may presage further retrenchment. The Iraqi Parliament has passed legislation asking the United States to leave. If Iraqi troops are not sufficiently capable after seventeen years of training, there is a serious political problem that any U.S. force posture might be irrelevant to fix. As Bush and Cheney were told in 2002, a Shia majority regime in Iraq would inevitably lead to Iranian influence.

More broadly, we should try to encourage the Iraq regime and the Kurdistan Regional Government to begin a serious effort to invest in the use of natural gas and renewables to generate electric power as transition away from the export of petroleum as the primary source of government income. 

Dealing with Israel

The rapprochement between Israel, the GCC states, and other Sunni states signals the emergence of a realignment of strategic, economic, and technological interests between Israel and the KSA/GCC to contain and counterbalance, if not prepare to go to war, with Iran. It also reflects generational change, with new Saudi and GCC leaders tired of ethnoreligious wars and interested in investing in post-oil, knowledge economies for which Israel, a global tech innovation leader, is an ideal partner. The price Israel has had to pay is to defer if not take off the table the annexation of the Jordan River Valley basin, perhaps leaving a sliver of hope for a two-state solution. Overall, Israel’s strategic circumstance has greatly improved with a fragile, struggling Iraq and Syria destroyed as viable nation-states at least in the near-term. It has now become a prospective hydrocarbon exporter due to the massive undersea natural gas finds in its territorial waters. As noted above, Israel possesses an advanced twenty-first-century high technology economy that gives it clear military superiority over its potential regional opponents. Israel’s cutting-edge tech innovation capacity is another asset attracting interest among the GCC states, particularly the UAE, preparing for post-petroleum, knowledge economies. On the other hand, it has and will have to reconcile with or adapt to its ongoing rivalry with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean while sustaining its peace agreements with Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE. The recent military collaboration between Turkey and Israel in support of Azerbaijan’s war against Armenia may suggest a route to that rapprochement.

These radically changed geostrategic circumstances suggest that the de facto alliance between the United States and Israel is unlikely to lead to a major change other than the fact that Tel Aviv may have even greater freedom of maneuver. In turn, the United States may decide that expending substantial political and diplomatic capital to affect a formal two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian quasi-state is no longer worth the effort. Whatever the outcome in this regard may now be in the hands of Israel and its Arab neighbors and regional partners. Put simply, the resolution of the Palestine problem is an important but not vital interest of the United States. 

Israel will continue to be an important U.S. partner. Emphasis should be on joint development of advanced technology with military applications and supporting Israeli R&D on emerging tech. Interestingly, U.S. and Israel national security collaboration may shift away from the traditional forms of warfare toward dealing with threats through cyberspace and the emergence of the next-generation threat of a pandemic. Israel will likely be an important part of emerging U.S. technology policies to forge a network of trusted economic and intelligence partners to counter China.

MORE BROADLY, a zero-based assessment of U.S. interests and policies in the GME is long overdue. The new geostrategic map of the region, the legacy of failures, and the imperatives of great power competition require a new mindset. There is a striking contrast between the new geo-economic and strategic realities reshaping the Greater Middle East landscape, and the seeming inert continuity of U.S. policy.

The core policy assumptions about energy dependence and the security of Israel have been turned on their head, shifting U.S. interests. The Saudi monarchy is now an oil competitor rather than a vital U.S. supplier, yet the seventy-five-year-old oil-for-security bargain is little changed. Israel is a dynamic, self-reliant, knowledge economy, increasingly integrated into the region, and may soon be a gas-exporter, yet the U.S.-Israel relationship remains a constant. The risks of both partners “wagging the dog” in conflicts where few vital U.S. interests are at stake are ill-considered. Two decades after 9/11, there has been a learning curve in how to manage jihadi terrorism, one area that suggests more continuity than change.

Against the backdrop of these new realities, the current predicament in the GME is largely borne of the consequences of failure: the hubris of primacy in U.S. wars of choice, failings of Iran’s religious state experiment and pursuit of regional hegemony, and not least, political and economic failures of Arab systems of governance. For the United States, the situation reflects a stunning lack of self-examination, a failure to understand the limits of power. It also underscores how counter-productive an over-militarized and under-employed diplomatic response to problems that principally require political, economic, and diplomatic solutions.

The emerging new political/strategic realignment has both positive and negative implications. The Abraham Accords have shifted the balance of forces in the Israeli and U.S. direction. However, the efforts to fill the vacuum created by U.S. retrenchment—real and perceived—has led to nineteenth-century contention for influence among Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Saudi/GCC states, and perhaps China fought with twenty-first-century weaponry. The good news is these off-setting forces render hegemony unlikely and a multipolar balance more possible. The bad news that absent a changed security environment and a movement toward a new balance of power, it could lead to a chain of nuclear proliferation—Iran-Saudi Arabia-Turkey.

Our judgment is that this all nets out with new logic and possibilities for the United States to disentangle itself from the region in a prudent manner. While difficult to measure, our estimate is that there is a growing sense of exhaustion and a rising trend of generational change reflected in the Abraham Accords. We may be now approaching a ripeness for negotiated outcomes, a proposition that requires testing. This will require agile diplomacy, applying U.S. leverage in concert with regional partners and extra-regional actors (e.g.; EU and Japan) to evolve a new balance of power. China’s and India’s reluctance to get drawn in the regional quagmire suggests possible overlapping of interests worth exploring. Achieving a new balance will, in turn, require a trajectory toward détente, of both the United States and the Sunni Arab states with Iran.

While many of the ideas outlined herein still lie at the margins of both political parties and the foreign policy elites, there is likely a strong receptivity from an American public feeling that the costs of U.S. failed wars far outweigh the benefits. They seek to prioritize addressing grave domestic problems. Polling data suggests that Americans generally favor a more participatory world in which governments, reflecting popular will, also treat their people well. But they also want other nations to share the burdens of responsibility for world order. The burdens of U.S. deficits, economic recovery from Covid-19, and war-weariness means adjusting U.S. goals to align with means—a more solvent policy. This requires Europe to step up—after all, the Middle East is in their neighborhood—but also requires Arab partners to do more than buy U.S. weaponry.