The debate over technical and procedural issues of the Iran nuclear deal may have reached a ceiling. Grossly under-analyzed still is how the United States can effectively protect this strategic investment and other vital interests in the Middle East. The deal notwithstanding, the region is burning and its fires could soon consume this limited arms control accord. Washington needs a comprehensive security strategy for a part of the world whose order and stability, whether we like it or not, will continue to be indispensable for global commerce, nuclear nonproliferation, and transnational counterterrorism.
As I argued in a recent Atlantic Council report called “The New Containment: Changing America’s Approach to Middle East Security,” U.S. policy-makers’ consideration of options for Middle East security strategy should be informed by four inescapable realities:
First, there is no lasting security and stability in the region without real political and economic development. Until the Arab world charts a path forward and starts addressing its rampant political decay, religious hubris, and economic mismanagement, regional security will remain scarce, and challenges such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the region, and the growth of violent extremism—to just name a few—will continue to present themselves and possibly worsen with time.
We can keep deluding ourselves that the Middle East can achieve higher levels of security without overhauling an Arab state system that has been a major source of instability in the region. Having failed since its formation in the first half of the twentieth century to garner popular legitimacy, accommodate religiously and ethnically diverse communities, and generate equitable economic growth, such a system has finally imploded. This overarching failure or weakness of governance has greatly contributed to insecurity in the Middle East for decades, leading to terrorism, insurgency, and domestic conflict.
Second, the United States neither can nor should be the agent pushing for change in the region; change—at least the peaceful and sustainable type—should almost always come from within. The disastrous U.S. experience in Iraq since 2003 provides enough warning about the consequences of U.S.-led nation-building in the Middle East. Regardless of its intentions, Washington does not have sufficient economic resources, local knowledge, or political commitment to the region to do it right. Like other civilizations in history who underwent difficult and often violent political transitions before them, Arabs will have to go through a process of trial and error aimed at building a just and viable social contract, a process that is likely to extend throughout much of the twenty-first century.
Third, change cannot happen without first addressing immediate and severe security challenges. As critical as good governance is for long-term regional stability, it will currently neither secure nor halt the disintegration of the Middle East. Indeed, even if a long-term Arab reform process were to start now, it will take years to potentially yield positive results. Therefore, it will not solve immediate security challenges such as rolling back ISIS, countering Iran’s asymmetric threat, terminating Syria’s civil war, combating terrorism in Egypt, securing Iraq, ending Libya’s anarchy, and preventing Yemen’s descent into chaos. In fact, if modern European history is any guide, democratization itself (in whatever form it may take in the Middle East) is likely to generate, at least in the short to medium term, greater insecurity and political violence, which, given its current cataclysmic conditions, the region simply cannot afford. Whether we like it or not, so long as states in the region perceive existential threats and prioritize physical security, reform will take a back seat. In today’s extremely volatile regional environment, security is a basic and necessary public good that should be pursued first, though not as an end in itself but as a necessary condition to enable change.
Fourth, the United States cannot address those security challenges alone, and it desperately needs first, regional partners, and second, global allies who have vested interests and military resources in the Middle East.
If you agree with these four realities, including the notion that in this ever more complex environment in the Middle East, there are real limitations to the United States’ ability to shape or influence outcomes, then you would most probably find containment a more cost-effective and sustainable security strategy option for the Middle East. Whatever the United States does in the Middle East, now and into the future, the basic premise and guiding principle should be unequivocal: not to try to fix unfixable problems (and end up making things worse) but to help regional partners lead this necessary period of transition with the least amount of violence and chaos.
A robust U.S. containment approach to Middle East security should have the following six pillars:
One, the prevention of Iran’s possession of nuclear arms and more broadly the spread of WMDs in the region. Nothing messes up the Middle East security puzzle more profoundly than a nuclear-armed Iran. While the historic deal that has been recently reached is not without holes and imperfections, even its most ardent critics concur that it does make it very difficult for Iran to race to the bomb for the next ten to fifteen years without getting caught. The severity of the challenge of convincing Iran to abandon the bomb after the deal expires will mostly depend on Iranian behavior in the region for the next decade.
Two, the deterrence of large-scale military conflict and, if deterrence fails, military intervention on the side of U.S. partners. That is an old U.S. security objective that should continue. Simply put, war is domestic development’s worst enemy and biggest distraction. The United States’ preponderant military presence in the Gulf, its ability to effectively project military power and quickly transfer military assets from other regions, and its willingness to use force should continue to help deter the occurrence of large-scale interstate war in the Middle East. Since the risk of major Arab-Israeli war is much reduced in today’s regional environment, the more likely scenario of interstate war in the Middle East is currently one in which Iran and its allies go to arms with its adversaries—be it Egypt, Israel, or some Arab Gulf states. Many have argued that Obama damaged U.S. credibility when he decided not to take military action against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, despite drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons.
Credibility is essential to deterrence effectiveness, and U.S. deterrence did take a hit following the Syrian episode, but one should not exaggerate its significance or conclude that it caused Iran to feel that it now has license to attack its neighbors. A rational actor more often than not, Iran understands the language of deterrence and knows better than to provoke the United States—the most powerful military on earth. In short, aside from more effective diplomacy, there is little the United States can add to its conventional military deterrent posture in the Middle East to make it more robust.
Three, the stopping of escalation in the event of another war between Israel and Hezbollah, and Israel and Hamas. Since 1991, all high-intensity military conflicts in the Middle East have involved a state and a nonstate actor—a trend that is likely to continue into the future, given the increasing influence of militant non-state actors. Israel’s successive wars over the past few years with Hamas and with Hezbollah have caused a tremendous amount of death and destruction, and could flare up again due to lingering tensions and unresolved issues.
The United States has always urged all parties to preserve the peace, but the reality is that it cannot deter potential conflagrations and specifically stop any side from initially resorting to violence. What the United States can do, once bullets start flying, is actively prevent escalation by taking concrete diplomatic action to stop Israel from using excessive force against Lebanon and the Palestinian people.
Tactical successes notwithstanding, none of Israel’s military operations against Hezbollah and Hamas achieved strategic objectives or enhanced Israel’s security. On the contrary, Hezbollah, and perhaps less so Hamas, rebounded and became stronger after each Israeli military campaign. This does not imply that Israel should ignore or dismiss the military threat posed by Hezbollah or Hamas. However, it does suggest that effective policies of containment against Hezbollah, in consultation with the United States, would work better than military policies that lead to escalation. Hezbollah and Hamas, despite their aggressive rhetoric, are nowhere near capable, by any objective standard, of challenging the existence of the state of Israel.
Four, the reduction of the scope and severity of civil wars.The United States’ military interventions in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq strongly weaken the case that Washington can successfully resolve civil wars. Although not impossible, it is highly unlikely. That Washington has vowed not to intervene in Syria’s ongoing civil war, therefore, should come as no surprise. A U.S. strategy of civil war containment may lack morality or political resoluteness, but in most cases it provides a less costly and more effective option for the United States, local antagonists, and the region.