Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Wider Middle East

Rethinking U.S. Strategy in the Wider Middle East

Thinking about civilization and not just about modernity and the state is a way for the United States to do better in this crucial and complex region.

Religion—a foundation of pre-modern societies—has been another casualty of a modernizing, state-centered strategic approach to the wider Middle East. The pervasiveness of religious sensibility in the wider Middle East does not sit easily with Western elites who consider themselves heirs to the secular Enlightenment. Neologisms such as “Islamic activism” and “political Islam” attest to a preference to describe the revival of Islam in public spheres as a political, not a religious trend. The persistence of homo religiosus in the wider Middle East has spurred determined efforts to sideline religion such as “dethroning religion as a singular and stable interpretive and policy category” and defining sectarianism as a “political project.” Modernization theory has fallen from its apogee in the 1970s in academic circles, but it persists as a strategic framework for U.S. policymaking.

The articulation and promotion of these underlying assumptions of U.S. strategy in the wider Middle East became more explicit as the United States sensed its preeminent power in the aftermath of the Cold War and sought to ground its response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The post-Cold War zeal for expanding liberal foreign policy aims was not a moniker only of neoconservative Republicans. The George H.W. Bush administration intervened in Somalia in the name of protecting civilians and the Clinton administration acted with similar reach in Bosnia after Serb atrocities against Muslims. In the 1990s, foreign policy intellectuals argued that the spread of American values was a key component of American security. The Obama administration committed military forces in Libya in 2011 to demonstrate support for a new global norm of the “responsibility to protect” civilians from their own governments. Above all, nearly two decades of bipartisan support for U.S.-led political and social change in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated that the United States has had large aims fueled by a sense of preeminent post-Cold War U.S. power and resources.

The extent of this self-referential, evangelizing American foreign policy was apparent in a draft speech I had to review several months after U.S. forces toppled Saddam in Iraq in 2003. A senior U.S. official was planning to speak of “bells of liberty” ringing in Baghdad, signaling that the United States was in Iraq bearing the freighted meaning of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. One civilization mattered most, and it was the victorious Western civilization of the twentieth century. The politically salient history that bells in the Middle East were central to the Middle East’s Byzantine Christian civilization and banned by conquering Muslims in the seventh century—because of their ability to mobilize whole towns—mattered not.

A more successful U.S. strategy for the wider Middle East hinges on thinking in new ways about the region and about the exercise of U.S. power. States will matter but not in the way they did in the twentieth century. The United States will have significant leverage to pursue its enduring interests but nothing like the relative power it enjoyed at the end of the Cold War. Liberal ideas and institutions will continue to have global appeal—including in the wider Middle East—but they will be sifted increasingly through the authority of the region’s enduring ancient civilizations.

An overly state-centered, Americanized conception of modernization—hostile to religion and dismissive of history while exalting U.S. liberal ideas and institutions—cannot sustain a U.S. strategy to secure our enduring interests. Instead, a revival and repurposing of some of the conceptual tools of civilizational analysis—shorn of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century associations with Eurocentrism, colonialism, and Western cultural superiority—can help guide our future strategic thinking.

IN THE anthropologist E.B. Tylor’s classic late-nineteenth-century definition, “Culture or Civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” As such, civilizational analysis enables U.S. strategy to see the wider Middle East through the entirety of the region’s ideas, institutions, and history rather than just through the limited prism of increasingly fragile states and their elites. To strategize with civilizational concepts is also to transcend decades-old assumptions about state-centered Western modernization and to grasp today’s wider Middle East in its own intellectual, social, and historical context.

A new U.S. strategy so empowered must first reckon with Islam as an enduring socio-political force in the wider Middle East. Islam cannot be defined narrowly as extremism or reimagined only as another form of secular politics or as private religious observance. Some, like Algeria’s Mohammed Arkoun, have argued for an Islamic humanism to transcend both a consumerist, intellectually shallow West and Islamic religious zealotry—a civilizational divide Arkoun labels “Jihad vs. McWorld.” Others, like the Turkish writer Sezai Karakoç, argue that Islamic civilization has “a particular view of state, society, culture, and economics” that is a “cure to the crisis of the modern world.” The Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi—a follower of the influential anti-Western, post-colonial scholar Edward Said—sees a new, non-Western Middle Eastern politics in the ruins of the ill-named Arab Spring. Civilization is a key part of the vocabulary of today’s Middle East.

Civilizational concepts not only offer U.S. strategy access to politically salient ideas about religion and modernity but also to the region’s equally salient ancient history. The governments of Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, for example, are heirs to pre-Islamic civilizations that inform contemporary national identities and aspirations for regional spheres of influence. Egypt’s fading bid for leadership of the Arab world, Syria’s decade-long defense of its Eastern Mediterranean littoral, Turkey’s strategic tilt from Europe to the Middle East, and Iran’s determination to project influence into the Eastern Mediterranean all echo the underlying identities and the territorial reach of ancient antecedent empires.

Familiarity with the region’s ancient civilizational past can also reframe contemporary political challenges in geographically useful ways. Rebuilding social compacts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, for example, will depend on binding disparate ancient communities who remain in conflict within these modern state boundaries. In Libya, the divide between Benghazi and Tripoli dates to ancient Greece and Phoenicia. The political and cultural divide between Yemen’s highlands and lowlands and Syria’s Eastern Mediterranean and upper Tigris-Euphrates areas has similar ancient roots. The geography of Iraq’s Sunni-Shia distinctions dates to the earliest days of Islam. The Kurdish presence in the north is even earlier.

The return of civilizational analysis in academic circles can help pave the way for its incorporation into a new Middle East strategy for the United States. The decoupling of civilizational analysis from the Eurocentrism of its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practitioners is also well underway and can continue in policy and intelligence circles. 

U.S. strategy can use civilizational ideas to grasp history as seriously as the region’s inhabitants do and to understand non-Western expressions of political and religious identity. American confidence in the global benefits of scientific and technological innovation, trade, international law and norms, as well as the safeguarding of the rights and freedoms of individuals can go in tandem with a respect for non-Western civilizations and the unique ways they will choose to encounter the West’s values. 

Civilizational thinking can succeed in shaping a new U.S. strategy by drawing upon and integrating the expertise of the policy and intelligence communities. As the twentieth-century French historian Fernand Braudel observed, “To define the idea of civilization requires the combined efforts of all the social sciences,” which are well represented in the national security and foreign policy establishment. Braudel belonged to a French group of thinkers who argued that history should not be primarily about the study of individual leaders, diplomacy, and war—topics that also preoccupy state-centered U.S. strategists. Instead, members of the Annales School argued that history was about long-term trends in geography, economics, and the cultural orientation of peoples (their mentalités). This data-driven and interdisciplinary historical method has already made inroads into contemporary national security thinking, notably in the series of Global Trends reports produced by the National Intelligence Council.

THE EMERGING consensus that the United States, even as it shrinks from the wider Middle East, must safeguard a range of enduring interests offers an opportunity to harness civilizational analysis for a new U.S. regional strategy. Officials at the National Security Council, the Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy are among those who will be charged with this strategic task. They are likely to work in the shadow of a realist tradition infused with liberal ideals, an inflated sense of U.S. capabilities, and the presumption of the state as the driver of Western-oriented modernization. Without the separate infusions of religion, ancient history, geography, and other long-term trends that civilizational analysis offers, the effort will falter like the strategies of the past two decades.

Counterterrorism. Preventing politically-motivated violent attacks against U.S. persons and interests across the wider Middle East will continue to require identifying and mitigating specific threats. The effort will also continue to include alliances with like-minded states, opposing state sponsors, and denying sub-state actors sanctuary within state boundaries.

A civilizational analysis of Islam as a socio-political force that either constrains or enables violence against the United States will be needed to supplement this traditional U.S. strategy. Islamic scholars and political leaders from a broad spectrum of the faith will need to further demonstrate the religious impermissibility of killing innocents. A consensus within Islam that the concept of jihad should be interpreted as a nonviolent religious quest will need to spread. Advancing these notions will require a recovery of a more centralized religious leadership and authority—or at least a broad consensus—with which the United States can engage.