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.

The fight against terrorism in the wider Middle East will also depend on what kind of Islam infuses the renewal of social compacts from Tunisia to Afghanistan. Key questions will revolve around how Islamic law can complement Western sources of law, whether republican forms of government can draw legitimacy from Islam’s sacred texts, and how individual freedoms can be understood and legitimated in an Islamic religious context.

A U.S. strategy to achieve these aims will need to grasp increasingly fragmented schools of Islamic jurisprudence, pathways of ideological exchange across state boundaries, and the competing claims to leadership of the Islamic world from Iran and Saudi Arabia. These insights can come from taking religion and history seriously within the rubric of an Islamic civilization extending from “Nile to Oxus,” in Marshall Hodgson’s enduring definition.

Deterring Regional Hegemons. The ability of the United States to prevent a power hostile to American interests from dominating the region will continue to depend on the projection of U.S. naval and air power, the breadth and depth of U.S. regional alliances, and the ability of the United States to deter Russia and China globally. This strategy will fall squarely within the posture of classical realism.

Civilizational analysis, however, strengthens and complements such a strategy with historical insights on patterns of regional state behavior. The strategic intentions of powers such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey must be understood in the context of their imperial histories from ancient times. These histories can provide insights into the modern definition of state interests and on the motivation for state action in an increasingly fluid regional environment. Porous state boundaries and the absence of an external power or powers capable of dominating the regional state system mean historic memory and national myths now have greater room to assert themselves. Without civilizational perspectives, U.S. strategy will be less equipped to anticipate threats and seize diplomatic opportunities among regional states acting on their civilizational pasts.

The ability of a new U.S. strategy to identify the contours of the emerging regional state system and project U.S. power effectively in it also will hinge on knowledge of the region’s civilizational past. The century-old transition from a unipolar Ottoman state system to a still-emerging multipolar system follows a pattern of breakup and consolidation that has persisted from the time of Achaemenid Persia and Alexander the Great. The United States now finds itself immersed in a period of regional fragmentation with ancient precedent.

Since the breakup of imperial Rome, an underlying geographic architecture has consisted of Western Europe (and now also the United States), the southern reaches of the Mediterranean (the Arab world), the Anatolian Plateau (Turkey), and Iran. Particularly helpful for the United States will be to appreciate that Iran’s role has been oriented both westward to the Middle East and eastward toward Afghanistan and Central Asia, making Iran a strategic bridge in the wider Middle East. A U.S. strategy that perceives only the modern era’s tenuous state borders and privileges history beginning in the nineteenth century will lack the understanding newly assertive regional actors possess of the region’s persistent strategic geography.

Constraining Iranian Nuclear Ambitions. A U.S.-led strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability will likely remain grounded in the international judgment that Iran’s revolutionary regime, regional ambitions, and hostility to U.S. and Western interests—including Gulf Arab allies and Israel—disqualify it from having such a capability. The recent election of a hardline conservative to Iran’s presidency is likely to confirm this longstanding U.S. strategic approach to Iran. 

A civilizational perspective can give U.S. strategy toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions a broader framework than Iran’s 1979 revolution to gauge Iranian strategic aims. Iran’s pretensions to leadership of the Islamic world, for example, rest in part on the historic reality that Sasanid Persia infused Arab Islam with much of the knowledge that led to the flowering of Islamic civilization during the medieval Abbasid era. Iran’s 1979 revolutionary aims in the region rest also on centuries of Persian imperial conquests from Egypt to Afghanistan.

A civilizational perspective can also help U.S. strategy identify useful precedents for diplomatic engagement. The United States should recall that Iran’s current antipathy toward the United States and other Western powers belies more collaborative ancient precedents. In politics, for example, Persia was deeply involved in the affairs of ancient Greece after the Peloponnesian War. In another often-overlooked precedent, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire eventually evolved into an unprecedented political and cultural exchange between Persian and Greek civilizations. Iranian negotiators will be likely to know this history and so should their U.S. counterparts.

A RECKONING with the failures of the last two decades of U.S. strategy in the wider Middle East is upon us. 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. More nuanced religious ideas and a firmer grasp of the past must leaven our present thinking.

As overly confident U.S. strategists born of the Cold War era were mapping our failed strategic ambitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, sparing a thought for how Alexander the Great’s Greek cultural footprint dissolved in Afghanistan and how ancient Rome reached its eastward limit in Mesopotamia (Iraq) might have informed and tempered ambitions. A geography limited to the modern state, an idea space limited to Western-driven modernization, and a dismissal of the region’s vast and enduring past must yield to larger and more effective U.S. strategic thinking.

Andrew S. Gilmour, a retired senior CIA analyst, is author of A Middle East Primed for New Thinking: Insights and Policy Options from the Ancient World and a Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.

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