Before my son’s first trip to Buenos Aires, several Argentine acquaintances emailed him advice about the best places to visit in that lovely city. Every message ended with a warning to stick to the neighborhoods frequented by tourists. Although most folks in other neighborhoods would be harmless, and only a few dangerous, as a foreigner he would not be able to tell the difference.
A growing majority of Americans, Republicans included, are beginning to feel that way about the neighborhood we call the Middle East. An April Pew poll found that 59 percent of Americans, including 48 percent of Mitt Romney supporters, favored withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan “as soon as possible.” The month before, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans surveyed told Pew that the United States had no responsibility to stop the slaughter of civilian protesters in Syria.
The public’s frustration is understandable. Over eight years of operations in Iraq, the United States suffered nearly 5,000 military fatalities and spent nearly $800 billion to take down the country’s Sunni dictator and suppress the ensuing Sunni insurgency, only to have the successor Shi’ite government eject our troops from the bases we had planned to keep, turning into a white elephant our $750 million “mother of all embassies” in Baghdad.
After 11 years (and counting) in Afghanistan, with nearly 2,000 military fatalities and almost half a trillion dollars of U.S. taxpayer money spent, we must bear reports of our officers being gunned down by Afghan soldiers and police and of pallet-loads of hundred-dollar bills being whisked away through the Kabul airport. Having spent so much money and lost so many troops in both countries, we are left to wonder whether these sacrifices, far from winning friends and allies, have simply nurtured a new generation of foes in the Middle East.
“Middle East” is actually a misnomer for the belt of countries across North Africa and Southern Asia that are the homelands of Islamic terrorism and present the geopolitical threat that instigated our nation-building enterprises in Iraq and Afghanistan. This “Islamic Belt” includes Iran in the center, the Arab countries to the west, and the “stans” (Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.) to the east. For the past three decades, the Islamic Belt has been the world’s most dangerous neighborhood, home to political upheaval, internecine violence, and suicide bombers.
Notwithstanding widespread disillusionment with the Bush administration’s game plan for the region, no one at either end of the political spectrum has articulated a comprehensible alternative. President Obama has underscored his distaste for the mess he inherited by announcing a “pivot to the East.” But to imply a more modest role for the United States in Islamic Belt affairs without redefining that role is an empty gesture.
There is no more coherence on the president’s right. During the GOP presidential primaries, Rep. Ron Paul as usual offered the most acute understanding of the predicament, along with the most simplistic solution, jumping from candid insights—how our zest for democracy withers when the likes of Hamas or Ahmadinejad win an election—to naïve proposals “to bring our troops home” not just from the Middle East but from everywhere.
Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich, meanwhile, competed with Benjamin Netanyahu in their zeal to confront the Iranians, Santorum threatening airstrikes and Gingrich proposing to “take out their scientists.” Governor Romney promised to double down on our Islamic Belt commitments, writing in the Washington Post that he would deal with Iran by “restoring the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously” and “increasing military assistance to Israel.”
Is there a principled yet realistic—which is to say, conservative—middle ground between Paul’s strict noninterventionism and Iraq redux? I think so, but before taking a new direction, we must ask why we became entangled in the Islamic Belt in the first place. We did not stumble there unawares: our entry was deliberate, in three discrete steps, based on explicit rationales that may or may not remain relevant today.
Step 1: The Cold War. During the 1950s, the Northern Hemisphere divided itself into two heavily armed camps, the democratic, free-market West, led by the United States, and the Communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union. For the next half-century every “nonaligned” nation outside the two camps was potentially a target for Soviet expansion or a brick in the wall of containment. Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution was a “loss,” Anwar Sadat’s reversal of Egypt’s Nasserite Soviet alignment was a “win,” and we had to play the game everywhere, including in the Islamic Belt.
Step 2: The Oil Crisis. In the 1970s, the belligerent mindset of the Cold War, shaken by our defeat in Vietnam, gained a new lease on life when the Arab members of OPEC imposed an escalating oil embargo aimed at punishing America for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. While we had been obsessing about the string of Communist advances after the fall of Saigon, our dependence on Arab oil had risen to a level that empowered a handful of otherwise impotent Middle Eastern states to bring our economy to its knees. The opportunity to redirect our geopolitical energies came in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, giving Saddam Hussein control of more Middle Eastern oil than anyone other than Saudi Arabia. According to then-Secretary of State Jim Baker, the reason for America rescuing Kuwait was “jobs, jobs, jobs,” by which he meant “oil, oil, oil.” The Arab states were now more than pawns in the Cold War; they posed a direct economic threat that needed to be managed.
Step 3: The War on Terror. Our successful defense of Kuwait—and incidentally of Saudi Arabia, whose Eastern Province appeared to be next on Saddam’s hit list—cemented our relationship with the Gulf States, which proceeded to buy more of our weapons and to provide basing rights for our overseas forces. Unfortunately, one upper-class Saudi, Osama bin Laden, was so incensed by our infidel army’s presence in the Islamic heartland that a decade later he mobilized his al-Qaeda organization to launch the 9/11 attacks. Jockeying for influence among nation states may have been the right response to the threats posed by the Soviet Union and OPEC, but al-Qaeda was not a state, and 9/11 called for a different strategy. The one embraced by the neoconservatives who held the upper hand in the Bush administration’s foreign policy was to take down and rebuild the political and social institutions that nurtured terrorism in the first place. The War on Terror became a crusade.
Our ascent to captaincy of the Islamic Belt’s “Neighborhood Watch” evolved over these three distinct periods with three distinct motives. Given widespread disillusionment with the role we now play, it is fair to ask whether those motives, assuming they were valid in the first place, are sufficient in 2012 to warrant continuing our present policies. I think they are not.
The Cold War is long over, and there is no longer any way in which our security hinges on whether one or even many Islamic Belt states align with Russia or any other country. To the contrary, the only great power that holds itself out as our rival is China, and replaying the Cold War with the Chinese—surrounding them with our bases, fleets, and client states—does not enhance our security. It exacerbates the risk of a war that we could not possibly win. (Call it paranoia, but according to Wang Jisi, dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies, China’s leaders view the United States as a declining power that lands “on the wrong side of history” by fighting to disrupt the rise of Chinese economic and military might.)
If enormous expenditures on Islamic Belt nation-building and base-construction are no longer needed to maintain the balance of power against Russia or any other geopolitical rival, can these costs nevertheless be justified by our dependence on foreign oil and our exposure to Islamic terrorism? Again, I think not. The Islamic Belt is surrounded by some pretty tough neighbors—Russia to the north, China to the east, India to the south, and Europe (including Turkey) to the west—and these neighbors have far more at stake than the United States.
Except for Russia, which exports oil and gas, each of these neighbors is more dependent on Arab and Iranian oil than the United States is. Europe relies on Arab/Iranian oil for 12 percent of its domestic needs, China for 25 percent, and India for a whopping 40 percent. The United States, in contrast, relies on imports from the Middle East for only 7 percent of its oil consumption. In fact, thanks to hydraulic fracturing and other new extraction technologies, the United States will soon be able to dispense with Arab oil altogether.
Terrorism sponsored or nurtured within the Islamic Belt may remain a threat for decades. But Islamism has been far more of a danger to the Islamic Belt’s next-door neighbors than to us. The United States has a relatively small population of Muslim immigrants, most of whom came legally and are middle class. The perpetrators of 9/11 were all nonimmigrant aliens, most of whom would have been kept out or kicked out if the government had troubled itself to enforce the immigration laws.
Europe, in contrast, has a much larger and less assimilated Muslim population, including many poorly-educated illegal immigrants. European Islamists, unlike their American counterparts, seem to have enough encouragement and support within their own communities to organize cells and plan violence against buses, trains, and subways.
Russia, China, and India face even graver risks. Their Muslim populations are not recent immigrants; they are native separatists who aim to tear apart the states in which they reside. In 2004, Islamic separatists from Chechnya massacred 334 Russian hostages, including 186 school children, in Russia’s North Ossetia province. In 2005, the so-called Islamic Revolutionary Front claimed responsibility for bomb blasts that killed 62 people in Delhi, India’s second largest city. In 2009, rioting by Muslims in China’s Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region left at least 192 people dead.
The Islamic Belt’s closest neighbors possess the means as well as the motives for keeping the region under control. Although India, China, and Russia all suffer widespread poverty, they are economic superpowers in comparison to any combination of Islamic Belt economies. According to the World Bank, the gross domestic product of the entire Middle East is less than $1.1 trillion, compared to $1.5 trillion for Russia, $1.7 trillion for India, nearly $6.0 trillion for China, and more than $16 trillion for the European Union. Each of these neighbors, moreover, is armed with nuclear weapons. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that India has almost 100, China has over 200, Europe has over 500, and Russia has at least 10,000.
Given the economic strength and military might of Europe, India, Russia, and China, their much greater dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and their much greater exposure to Islamic terrorism, we should ask ourselves why imposing order on their dangerous neighborhood is a task for us rather than for them. Europe, perhaps, may be too disunited and delicate to play the tough cop, but we can be sure that Russia, India, and China will be ruthless in responding to economic and military threats. And we should not overlook Turkey. While not a nuclear power, it is mightier than any other Islamic Belt state. It has shown some willingness to help put a lid on the violence in Syria, and the role it plays in that unfolding drama may position the country for a broader regional peacekeeping role.
Notwithstanding their grumblings about U.S. interventionism, these regional powers find it convenient to leave the dirty work of policing the Islamic Belt to Uncle Sam, as opposed to collaborating with each other to maintain regional stability, which would not be easy given their arbitrary internal politics and quarrels with each other. The United States is still so immensely powerful that our machinations in the Islamic Belt are of greater interest to the neighbors than the local events we are trying to manipulate. Russia, for example, appears to be more concerned about the implications of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war than about the outcome of that war. Were the United States to step back, these powers might focus more on the need for regional stability than on the need to resist U.S. hegemony.
While I view as wishful thinking his proposals on many topics, in framing the issue of U.S. policy towards the Islamic Belt, no one says it better than Ron Paul: “The smartest thing we could do is admit we don’t know all the answers to all the world’s problems … . Other nations around the world find our interference in their affairs condescending, and it is very dangerous for us. We may think we have much to gain by inserting ourselves in these complex situations, but on the contrary we suffer from many consequences… ”
Nobody asked us to become captain of the Islamic Belt’s neighborhood watch; we are free to resign whenever it suits us. The time has come to let the neighbors watch the neighborhood.
William W. Chip is an international lawyer in Washington, D.C.