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Rethinking the U.S. Role in the Middle East

The U.S. doesn't get "sucked back in" to the region, but chooses again and again to interfere in things that don't matter to our security.

Martin Indyk realizes that the U.S. doesn’t have many interests at stake in the Middle East after all:

Today, however, with U.S. troops still in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan and tensions high over Iran, Americans remain war-weary. Yet we seem incapable of mustering a consensus or pursuing a consistent policy in the Middle East. And there’s a good reason for that, one that’s been hard for many in the American foreign-policy establishment, including me, to accept: Few vital interests of the U.S. continue to be at stake in the Middle East. The challenge now, both politically and diplomatically, is to draw the necessary conclusions from that stark fact.

It has been clear for a long time that the U.S. has few interests in this region, and the few interests that it has had in the past are less important to the U.S. than they used to be. Advocates of restraint and non-intervention have been shouting this from the rooftops for most of the last thirty years, so it is interesting to hear a well-known fixture of the foreign policy establishment reach what seems to be a similar conclusion.

On the closer inspection, however, Indyk isn’t really in favor of disentangling the U.S. from the region. He has realized that the U.S. doesn’t have many interests at stake there, but he can’t let go of conventional assumptions about the intrusive U.S. role. Indyk still insists on seeing Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s regional influence as problems for the U.S. to solve:

Curbing Iran’s nuclear aspirations and ambitions for regional dominance will require assiduous American diplomacy, not war.

If the U.S. has so little at stake in the region, why does the U.S. need to preoccupy itself with thwarting Iran? If the U.S. would end the economic war and support the original agreement with Iran, the nuclear issue would once again be under control. The belief that Iran has “nuclear aspirations” that need to be curbed and that it is our responsibility to curb them has helped to create the Iran obsession that has taken us to the brink of war more than once in the last year. Not only is there little evidence to support that belief, but it also fuels hostility towards Iran that gives their government added incentive to reconsider their past commitments to keep their nuclear program peaceful. Iran’s “ambitions for regional dominance” are exaggerated, and no matter what their government’s ambitions might be they do not have the ability to dominate the region. U.S. policy towards Iran is driven by excessive and unfounded fear of Iran as a would-be regional hegemon, and that has led us to the current crisis. The U.S. doesn’t get “sucked back in” to the region, but chooses again and again to interfere in things that don’t matter to our security because our government consistently inflates threats from the region and commits too many U.S. resources and too much manpower to counter the exaggerated threats.

Indyk also cannot break out of the “war on terror” framing that has defined so much of U.S. policy in the region ever since 2001. He repeats the mantra “what starts in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East,” which effectively serves as a justification for a permanent militarized counter-terrorism mission. The first step in reducing the large U.S. military footprint in the region is to recognize that the threat to the U.S. from terrorism is small and manageable. Addressing that manageable threat does not require open-ended deployments and ceaseless warfare across at least half a dozen countries. The U.S. has few interests in the region, and it arguably faces even fewer real threats.

Prior to the major expansion of America’s military presence in the region beginning in 1990, the U.S. did not have a significant problem with terrorist groups originating in this part of the world. Our government’s heavily militarized response to the 9/11 attacks and to the emergence of other jihadist groups during and after the Iraq war has not led to a reduction in the number of terrorist groups or terrorist attacks. On the contrary, there are more groups active now than ever before, and continued U.S. military involvement guarantees more of the same until we recognize the failure of the “war on terror” and give up on a militarized response that has served mainly to destabilize other countries and to kill many innocent people in the process. That will take a more radical rethinking of U.S. foreign policy overall, and it requires us to face up to the major, costly failure that the “war on terror” has been for more than 18 years.

Indyk’s conclusion that the U.S. should “eschew never-ending wars and grandiose objectives—like pushing Iran out of Syria, overthrowing Iran’s ayatollahs or resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—in favor of more limited goals that can be achieved with more modest means” is a good start, but I submit that even his “limited” goals go beyond what U.S. interests require. To get to a “more realistic assessment of our interests,” we need a more sober and accurate assessment of foreign threats, and Indyk’s essay shows us that we still have a long way to go before we get there.



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