The Middle East: Goodbye to All That

Will conflict fatigue and a domestic energy boom bring an end to the U.S. obsession with the Middle East?
Photograph by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

The typical Ron Paul speech is shot through with paranoia, grandiosity, and omnibus weirdness, but America’s No. 1 libertarian extremist moves in from the margins when he talks about the country’s current aversion to foreign entanglements. “Somebody said the other day on the Internet, if those Paul people had been in charge, Osama bin Laden would still be alive,” Paul told an adoring crowd of fringe Republicans in late August. “But you know what I think the answer is? So would the 3,000 people on 9/11 be alive!”

The statement is, of course, historically clueless. The attacks of Sept. 11 were set in motion by Islamism’s sense of theological supremacy, by its loathing of modernity, and also by revulsion at the American presence on the Arabian Peninsula—a presence that was deemed by U.S. policymakers, correctly, to be vital to a functioning world economy. And yet Paul’s simplistic isolationism also reflects a broad desire for a clean break from the Middle East.

When Americans look at the belt of countries stretching from Libya and Egypt to Afghanistan and Pakistan, they see a scarlet red landscape of tribalism, autocracy, upheaval, and religious fundamentalism—unbroken by anything except Israel, which for years has played the role of America’s neurotic, if plucky, Jewish friend, but which has now become a source of anxiety for Americans who would prefer to avoid a war with Iran. Americans are also cold to the idea of intervention in Syria, they are happy to have already forgotten about Iraq, and they would like to begin to forget about Afghanistan as soon as humanly possible.

This weariness has reached the top of both parties’ tickets. Mitt Romney was the first Republican candidate for president since 1952 to make no mention of war in his convention acceptance speech. (He didn’t even mention the tens of thousands of U.S. troops currently in harm’s way.) And Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East is mainly to ignore it and hope that the next catastrophe, whatever it may be, erupts no sooner than Nov. 7. To some extent, this desire to be rid of the nation’s commitments in the region reflects a strain of isolationism that dates back to America’s founding. Recent trends, too, have made the Mideast seem less relevant to the U.S.’s national security: The boom in domestic energy production and the prospect of the U.S.’s weaning itself from foreign oil; the killing of bin Laden and the apparent decline of al-Qaeda; and the argument that the U.S.’s attentions and resources would be far better spent dealing with a rising China in the Pacific.

More than a decade since Sept. 11, the logic of putting the Middle East and all its dysfunction behind us may seem irresistible. But it’s a dangerous fantasy. There are compelling reasons why the region matters to the U.S., and these reasons will stay compelling for decades to come.

When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was unhealthily obsessed with the Arab world. “When we came in we thought we were overweighted in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq,” the deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, said in an interview. “While the U.S. was preoccupied in Iraq, we had the dramatic rise of China and other Asian powers and we weren’t paying sufficient attention. If you looked at the resources, and at the time and attention of senior policymakers, it was overwhelmingly Middle East.”

The president and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, began to shape a policy meant to contain China (though the administration would never frame it in so confrontational a way), a “pivot” toward Asia. The Obama administration has firmed up its alliances across the Asian continent: Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan all comprise a united front ringing China, which, by contrast, has only North Korea in its camp. Since the end of World War II, 60 percent or so of American naval assets have been based in the Atlantic, 40 percent in the Pacific. Now it’s an even 50-50 split. And in a highly symbolic move, the U.S. initiated a plan to base as many as 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin in northernmost Australia as a means of projecting American influence into the South China Sea.

When I asked Rhodes if the administration’s pivot toward Asia explains, at least in part, the U.S.’s unwillingness to take the lead in resolving the crisis in Syria, he said, “It is certainly the case that we don’t want developments in these countries to cause us to significantly raise the amount of resources we devote to them.” Rhodes also argued that direct American intervention in the Middle East “is often not the best way to respond to the Arab Spring.”

It’s inarguable that Asia is crucial to America’s economic future. “China already represents the most important national security issue we face,” says R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state for political affairs. Yet Burns, like others, regrets the Obama team’s use of the term “pivot,” which “implies a turn away, that we were going to leave NATO and Europe and our Middle East allies behind.”

The U.S., however, has turned away. The Obama administration has put no emphasis on Mideast peacemaking; America’s allies in the region see its position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions as ambiguous; and in Afghanistan, the administration is looking for the exit at a hurried pace. Obama “led from behind” in Libya and has resisted calls to push more actively for the ouster of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This effort to de-emphasize the region represents a significant departure in U.S. strategy, according to Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution. “After the entire collapse of international order and security 70 years ago, the way we established order and security was to take responsibility for three regions—Asia, Europe, and the Middle East,” Kagan says. “That is what the definition of a superpower is. We consciously adopted a global role.”

And that’s why the U.S.’s current retreat from the Mideast will only be temporary—which is a good thing. America has at least four core interests across the greater Middle East, and each one requires constant monitoring and a readiness to intervene. The first is energy. The notion that America will ever be truly energy-independent is chimerical. Even if the U.S. soon manages to produce all the fossil fuel energy it needs for itself, the world economy would be devastated if South Korea, Japan, and China were suddenly cut off from Mideast oil. So the U.S. will need to continue safeguarding the security of the Persian Gulf, barring one unlikely development: “The only thing that could change this would be burden-sharing with China with respect to keeping open the Strait of Hormuz,” says Andrew Exum, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security. “When you see Chinese ships protecting trade routes through the Strait, maybe we can stop worrying as much.”

The second interest is the security of Israel. “There are broad domestic constituencies for support for Israel, and no politician can ignore that,” Exum says. Nothing on the horizon suggests that America will be radically scaling back its relationship with Israel. Quite the opposite: Next year could be the year the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program reaches a boiling point (if it doesn’t before November).

Which brings us to the third concern: nuclear proliferation. Israel is a nuclear power; Iran is seeking to become a nuclear power; and Pakistan, at the edge of the greater Middle East, is a particularly unstable nuclear power (and one that could easily transfer nuclear technology to other states in the region that are fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or could simply lose control of its nuclear arsenal). The primary foreign policy task of an American president in the post-Sept. 11 era is to prevent jihadist organizations from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. It’s therefore impossible to ignore a region in which this acquisition would most likely take place.

As for terrorism, the threat to the U.S. posed by the central al-Qaeda organization (currently headquartered in territory controlled by our ostensible ally, Pakistan) is dramatically lower than it was 11 years ago. Yet contrary to what Ron Paul might claim, no counterterrorism expert believes that a comprehensive American withdrawal from the Mideast would bring about an end to anti-American jihadist terrorism. There will be no ground invasions of Muslim countries in the near future; Iraq and Afghanistan have immunized the U.S.—its people and its government—against that level of interventionism. Yet it’s naïve to think that abandoning American responsibilities in the region would lead to anything but the further empowerment of radical ideologues.

The Middle East is a continual source of woe. There is something seductive about the notion of pivoting away from it toward … well, anything, really. Yet it will be a terrible mistake for the U.S. to avert its eyes simply because what it sees constitutes nothing but trouble.

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