Here is my chance to muse over something that has been distracting me from my other work, so I’d like to take that opportunity.
It seems that the United States is once again attempting to pull back – somewhat – from its role as the Sheriff (to use Colin S. Gray’s term) in the Middle East. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the history of its oscillating pattern of engagement and isolation in foreign policy over the long-term. On one hand, this is understandable, as the most powerful country in the world has a lot on its plate right now coupled with little appetite for it. On the other hand, this is not exactly the best time to be walking away from the table. This is a problem, and I’ll try to explain why I think it is a problem.
Acting out of necessity, American policymakers are re-calculating the ends, ways, and means of American statecraft. This is a normal process when formulating strategy and is not in and of itself reason to worry. However, there are many other reasons to worry and the place where many of them intersect is not at all surprising: the Middle East. This is a region that has long frustrated American security interests over preceding decades. In my view, it is about to get a whole lot worse. Here are the three main reasons why: (1) the increasing scarcity of American resources and political will to allocate them to the region’s problems; (2) the impact of more than a decade of war; and (3) the Arab Spring.
First, the Economic crisis of 2008 has increasingly constrained the resources available to the United States, both in material terms and in political will. As a result, policymakers have been forced to adjust the ways and means employed globally, with emphasis on the Middle East. The problem lies in the fact that this is being done without adjusting the ends it seeks. The result is a strategic imbalance. In other words, the United States is attempting to do a lot more with a lot less. Here are a couple of recent examples. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to “trim” the Pentagon’s budget by 450 billion over the next decade. It may be too early to decipher (however that cannot stop an aspiring strategist from speculating) the precise reasons for the decision to bring all U.S. military personnel home from Iraq by Christmas 2011, but the financial burden of supporting a sizeable military contingent in Iraq is not widely appealing. More important than the cause will be the effect of bringing home what is, in the view of many, “the glue” that has perilously held Iraq together since 2003. So much for American Imperial ambition in the Middle East! So what’s the problem? Many would see these as positive developments. Not so. Have a look at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) annual report The Military Balance 2011 and one will begin to understand the who, what, where, to some extent why, and how the United States Military is structured and deployed. Like it or not, American military hegemony is a powerful guarantor of the stability our international state system requires and the peace we often take for granted. Notably, this weekend Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared, “No one should miscalculate America’s resolve and commitment to helping support the Iraqi democracy. We have paid too high a price to give the Iraqis this chance.” So who is she referring too? Saudi Arabian Prince Turki al-Faisal has an interesting take on that. Tip O’Neil has said “all politics is local,” and this is especially so for the United States, particularly at a time of economic hardship.
Second, the American military has been at war for over a decade. Sun Tzu reportedly said something along these lines: “a long war is in no one’s interest.” This point is much harder to quantify, nevertheless there are strong indications that domestic political support for war is decreasing. As mentioned earlier, the difficult war in Iraq is ending, while the “other” war in Afghanistan-Pakistan has steadily taken a turn for the worse and is escalating. Elsewhere, the U.S. participated along with NATO allies in another military intervention (regime change) that recently wrapped up in Libya, echoing the relative ease of operations in Kosovo in 1999, but raising more important questions of governance and stability in its aftermath. In sum, the operational tempo that the U.S. military has undertaken over the past decade is staggering and unsustainable for a relatively small all-volunteer force. Not to mention the immense cost of doing business in both blood and treasure.
Third, and perhaps most importantly is the Arab Spring. U.S. policy in the Middle East has long championed stability (the status quo) as its principle goal. Stability (i.e. strong autocratic rulers in key states, Israel’s security, and the free flow of oil) worked pretty well until recently. That is until one man in Tunisia this January sparked a series of ongoing popular uprisings called the Arab Spring, which has the potential to change everything. For those keeping track, here is a recent scorecard. For those not, here are some of the key developments: the first free election in Tunisia is taking place right now; Hosni Mubarak is on trial in Egypt with elections set in coming months; and Muamar al-Gadhafi (Libya’s strongman) is dead and his regime gone. Meanwhile, Syria and Yemen have descended into deadly cycles of protest and violent state repression, while other states in the region have – in important ways but to a lesser extent – also been affected (Bahrain, Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan). U.S. policy has attempted to respond to the varied, complex, and unforeseen events sweeping the region. In May, President Obama gave an important speech which accepted the demise of the status quo: “we face a historic opportunity…there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” In the view of many commentators, this opportunity, as the President has called it, has just as much chance of realizing genuine democratic change along the lines of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, as becoming an unprecedented political opportunity for Islamists of all stripes breaking free from a long period of repression and rising to power. Given the state of historical and contemporary relations between the United States and Islamist governments (Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan) and Islamist political organizations (Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood) future prospects are not promising. Many have argued that the Arab Spring is a clear repudiation of the al-Qa’ida’s ideology and the strategies employed by violent Islamist groups to overthrow the rulers of the near enemy. I think it is much too early to tell (however that cannot stop an aspiring strategist from speculating). Perhaps the main point to be taken from the American position on the Arab Spring is that they have had to embrace the wave of uncertain change which has and will further imperil their interests in the region by default because of the very idealism on which their country was founded and from which they derive their international credibility. This is a great example of the complexity of playing “the long game.” A recent CTCWP report on the Arab Spring warns of the prospect of not embracing the popular uprisings: “The United States risks positioning itself as a Moscow watching and lamenting the fall of the Berlin wall.” So much for realpolitik.
Upon reading this (hoping someone in fact does read this) one might detect a little pessimism, which I believe is warranted but not over the top. But let’s return to the point of this muse. The United States is the most powerful country in the world, it has the most powerful military in the world, and it has played a key role in maintaining stability (the status quo which was largely beneficial to its interests) in the Middle East. That being said, the United States is facing severe economic conditions that are causing it to reassess the ways and means in which it has kept the relative peace and stability in a particularly troublesome region. In addition, it is increasingly weary of the numerous and costly military interventions it is involved in. Thus, the problem is twofold: (1) the Middle East region is in upheaval, the status quo decimated, and the prospects for conflict between any number of regional actors (state and non-state) has increased; and (2) this comes at a time when resources and the political will to allocate them have become increasingly scarce for a war weary United States.