U.S. strategy in the Middle East (unclassified)

On December 4, I spoke at a new forum devoted to articulating a “grand strategy” for Israel, led by former Israeli National Security Adviser Uzi Arad. The day was devoted to understanding the strategies of other states, and I drew the assignment to characterize U.S. strategy. What follows is description, not prescription.

Let me begin with an observation which may seem paradoxical, given the amount of attention we lavish on the Middle East and the fact that I’m a Middle East expert. The Middle East is not a region of overriding U.S. interest. The value of what it produces, excluding oil, is small, and its militaries are largely weak and ineffectual. This limits both the promise and the danger inherent in the region, which traditionally figured somewhere in the middle or lower end of U.S. strategic concerns. The United States was prepared to expend much blood and treasure to put Europe and the Pacific rim on the track to peace and stability. It has never accorded the Middle East the same worth, and the usual approach has been to try to preserve U.S. interests in the region on the cheap.

The United States has four core interests in the Middle East: the free flow of oil, the security of Israel, countering terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction—weapons that would allow Middle Eastern pathologies to spill over and endanger the world. On occasion, some have tried to add the promotion of human rights or democracy to this short list of interests. When that has happened, under the impetus of a Jimmy Carter or a George W. Bush, it’s lasted for a few years, and then dropped off. Democracy and human rights are nice-to-haves for the United States. They are not need-to-haves.

Some might imagine that it is (or should be) a U.S. objective to keep all other powers out of the Middle East. In fact, at no point has the United States believed that upholding the four core U.S. interests requires the exclusion of other powers. Europe, Russia, and China dish out aid, do business, sell arms, and support clients. The United States tolerates their presence, because its own presence is so dominant, and because considerable parts of the Middle East aren’t worth the costs of competing.

To preserve its four core interests, the United States has traditionally adhered to four basic strategies. I’ve given them names for the sake of convenience, but they are my names, and you won’t find them in any American document. They are: delegating, delinking, pairing, and flipping. I’ll explain each one in turn, but what they all have in common is that they are meant to achieve U.S. objectives at the lowest possible cost.

Delegating. Most great empires that have dominated the Middle East had to do so by putting boots on the ground—or, if you want to go all the way back to antiquity, sandals on the ground. The Romans, the Ottomans, and the British—to name a few—incorporated the region in their imperial systems by garrisoning it. The United States has traditionally preferred a different and more economical approach, seeking to dominate the region through allies, clients, friends, and proxies. The United States sells arms, conducts diplomacy, shares intelligence, runs some special ops, launches cruise missiles (and now drones)—everything short of landing the American soldier in full battle gear. When that soldier has been deployed, it has been in extraordinary circumstances, and has had the character of an aberration. The 1958 intervention in Lebanon, the 1982 dispatch of Marines to Beirut, the 1991 Gulf war—these were all short-lived interventions with narrow purposes.

The 2003 Iraq war, along with the Afghan war, were dramatic deviations from the norm—uncharacteristic attempts at nation-building. 9/11 broke the continuity of the American approach, culminating in George W. Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” He openly acknowledged that it constituted a sharp departure from traditional U.S. policy, and we are now in the midst of a reversion to the norm. The usual American approach has been to back its friends from a distance, to provision them to fight battles on their own, and to use its technological advantages to deal with threats at a distance. What is the right distance? I commend to you the article in the current GQ entitled “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.” The ideal distance, it turns out, is a hangar somewhere in Nevada. That’s the American way, and it becomes ever more attractive as technology advances.

The bedrock of these U.S. ties is now cooperation in the “war on terror.” 9/11 demonstrated that mass-casualty terrorism against Americans could shift U.S. opinion, distorting cost-benefit analysis in decisions to use force. To avoid a slide back into the region, the United States does everything necessary to keep Al Qaeda wannabes on the run and on their heels. Whenever the United States puts this one boot in, it is precisely in order to keep the other boot out.

Delinking. This second strategy seeks to separate the two areas of endemic conflict, the Israel-centered system and the oil-centered system. After 1948, the Saudis would regularly threaten that U.S. support for Israel could damage U.S. relations with Arab oil producers. Despite this, the United States managed to keep both Israel and the Saudis in tow. But in 1973, in response to an Arab-Israeli war, the Arab oil producers imposed an oil embargo on the United States, driving prices sky high, forcing the United States to ration gasoline, and prompting a recession.

Since then, a basic principle of U.S. strategy has been to delink the Israel-centered and the oil-centered systems, in order to block any chain reaction across the Middle East. It achieved that, first, deliberately, by brokering an Egyptian-Israeli peace that made another big Arab-Israeli war unlikely; and second, inadvertently, by standing by while Khomeini overthrew the Shah, leaving the Saudis and others no choice but to shelter in America’s bosom. Remember that delinking assumes linkage—that the link is real and so has to be broken. The average U.S. policymaker believes in linkage, and many of them think that the fastest way to delink the two systems is progress toward “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians. Even a process that doesn’t produce a final agreement has the ongoing effect of lowering the profile of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the oil-centered system.

Pairing. This consists of finding two adversaries whose rivalry is destabilizing, and knocking their heads together or plying them with incentives to bring them under one American umbrella. Until the Iranian revolution, the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, perennial rivals, constituted the “two pillars” of U.S. influence in the Gulf, which Washington kept in careful balance. After 1979, Israel and Egypt constituted the stabilizing duo in the Eastern Mediterranean. By definition, pairing means creating an unnatural alliance of wary partners—creating a triangle in which the United States forms the long side. A well-constructed triangle will leave the outsider twisting in the wind. The Egypt-Israel pair did that to Syria, and the Saudi-Iranian pair once boxed in Iraq.

The Iranian revolution broke up the crucial pairing in the Gulf, and one of the endemic problems of U.S. strategy has been the difficulty of forging an alternative. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and Iraq paired against Iran, but that ended disastrously when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in the 1990s left the Saudis isolated. The removal of Saddam was supposed to make Iraq amenable once again to pairing with the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs. But a Shiite-dominated Iraq was destined to remain aloof from Saudi Arabia, and open to the influence of Iran. Absent a pairing for the Saudis and Gulf Arabs, the United States has had to play the role of the other half, in a costly way.

Flipping. Which brings me to the fourth strategy. Flipping involves engaging an adversary and turning him around. The classic instance was Egypt, which had been a militantly pan-Arab, stridently anti-American Soviet client state, and which the United States flipped into its own orbit. The idea is to focus on that state which is most disruptive of your interests, and slowly drive it to the conclusion that it can’t afford to remain outside the American tent. Why flipping? Containment is hard to preserve against erosion, and it tends to punish peoples more than their rulers. Regime change is risky and fraught with unintended consequences. Flipping isn’t easy, but when it works, it’s regarded as the most economical of all outcomes.

Much fog surrounds the Iran plan of the Obama administration, but the United States could be trying to solve its endemic problem in the Persian Gulf by flipping Iran. The nuclear deal could be an opening to a wider dialogue with Iran, which would bring Iran into some sort of strategic relationship with the United States, on terms no one can predict. In this scenario, the United States would seek to repeat the flipping of Egypt—this time, without a war to facilitate the last stage. Flipping presumes that for every Nasser there is a Sadat (read: Ahmedinejad, Rouhani), and that everyone has their price. It also presumes that the United States can drive down the price by a mix of incentives and threats. No one in the Obama administration dares hint today that this is the longer-term strategy, but it’s no doubt hiding in the back of many minds.

On the basis of what I’ve just outlined, it is useful to think of the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East not as a retreat (or “appeasement”) but as an effort to get back to what worked for the United States in the past. It is a nostalgic project. And as we know from public opinion polling, that is just what Americans want. They wish to go back to the good old days, when a few clever people in pinstripe suits and a few well-placed intel assets could keep the Middle East on the back burner where it belongs.

There is much to be said for the argument that American obsessing about the Middle East has been a distraction from more important agendas. But preserving the four key interests I mentioned earlier requires an ongoing and determined effort to play a skilled game. The United States claims it intends to remain engaged in the Middle East. As it repositions itself, the credibility of that claim is sure to be tested.