The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Middle East: Thinking Long Term

“The Involvement in the Middle East requires a stabilizing influence, not kinetic solutions.”

Frederick W. Axelgard | January 29, 2016
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A Map of the Middle East meant to highlight some of the tension and anxiety regarding that area of the world.



Late last year, Foreign Affairs magazine published an insightful and useful article entitled “The End of Pax Americana: Why Washington’s Middle East Pullback Makes Sense.” It bears reading for two reasons: the Middle East remains a vital and unstable region of the world, and failed U.S. attempts to address this instability have led to questions about the U.S. role in the world. Moreover, it is already clear that debate about U.S. Middle East policy will occupy a central position in the American presidential campaign, although the discourse in that campaign is unlikely to rise to the level of thoughtfulness and wisdom found in the Foreign Affairs article.

The article’s main point comes right up front: the Obama administration’s unwillingness to deploy large numbers of troops to Iraq or Syria is “not so much a withdrawal [from the region] as a correction – an attempt to restore the stability that had endured for several decades thanks to American restraint, not American aggressiveness.” What the authors[1] are saying is that the U.S.’s sweeping use of military force since 9/11 is not how we have done business in the Middle East historically. This point, and the poor results of large-scale U.S. intervention, provides a reason to pause and think about what we have done versus what we are doing in this region.

U.S. forces played no role in any of the Arab-Israeli wars that took place in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973

Looking back, it bears remembering that U.S. forces played no role in any of the Arab-Israeli wars that took place in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The same was true of the long and destructive Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. Yes, U.S. forces did help drive Iraq out of Kuwait in the 1990-91 Gulf war, but they did so as part of a broad coalition. Indeed, the painstaking way President Bush and Secretary of State Baker went about forming that coalition speaks directly to the long history of American reticence to intervene in the Middle East militarily.

It also speaks to the fact that historically, the key U.S. contributions to Middle East stability have been diplomatic and economic, not military in nature. The cornerstone of whatever stability and security exist in the Middle East remains the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, negotiated under U.S. auspices and signed at Camp David in 1979. This achievement has been sustained by ongoing U.S. assistance to these two countries in the decades since Camp David. One can come to appreciate the importance of this treaty by trying to imagine what the region would look like if Egypt and Israel were still at war, and then add on top of that the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, Dayesh[2], Sunni-Shi’ite tension, etc. Without Camp David, each of these developments would have been seen as a much more serious threat to the security interests of the United States and its allies.

Another year-end article makes an important, parallel point with respect to Dayesh. James Stavridis, formerly the commander of NATO’s naval component, makes a surprising (for an ex-military commander) and strong argument about the limits of military force. Stavridis emphasizes that even when dealing with “an apocalyptic cult that believes in burning, drowning and torturing its victims,” real victory simply can’t be won by military means alone. A long-term “smart power” campaign is needed, one that involves a genuine international effort (think coalition rather than go-it-alone); forging a ‘strategic narrative’ that depicts positive options for living life in ways that are in keeping with Islamic values; and promises realistic, constructive economic changes.[3]

The blueprint for U.S. success in the Middle East does not lie in this recent history

The points made in these articles are important and timely. Nuanced public debate on international affairs doesn’t happen often in presidential election years, when a premium is placed on posturing, swagger and simple (usually kinetic) solutions to complex problems. Voters should remember that, just a few years and thousands of deaths ago, the United States was spending close to $1 billion a day on highly kinetic involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The blueprint for U.S. success in the Middle East does not lie in this recent history. It lies in the stabilizing influence that resulted in earlier eras when American power meant a combination of things, including coalition-building, diplomacy and economic leverage.


[1] Steve Simon, who co-authored this article, is a former State Department colleague. We didn’t and don’t see eye-to-eye on all issues, but his analysis here is superb. Students and serious followers of U.S. foreign policy would do well to stay in touch with his writings.
[2] Dayesh is what the Arab press calls ISIS. I prefer it for the same reason they do, because it refuses to recognize the group’s specious claim of being an Islamic state.
[3] James Stavridis, “Killing the Islamic State Softly,” Foreign Policy online, December 28, 2015.