Can the United States ‘control’ the Middle East? (Nope)

I normally like a lot of Anthony Shadid’s reporting, but one odd line leapt out of this story, which I read online in Hanoi this morning. He was discussing the turbulent political situation in Lebanon, and offered this unremarkable observation: It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

I normally like a lot of Anthony Shadid's reporting, but one odd line leapt out of this story, which I read online in Hanoi this morning. He was discussing the turbulent political situation in Lebanon, and offered this unremarkable observation:

It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched -- seemingly helplessly -- as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control."

Shadid is obviously right, but the observation itself is banal in at least two senses. First, even a country as powerful as the United States doesn't "control" an awful lot of events in world politics, and especially the internal maneuverings and struggles of a country like Lebanon. And the sooner that Americans dispense with the notion that we can reliably control events in far-away places, the better off we'll be.

I normally like a lot of Anthony Shadid’s reporting, but one odd line leapt out of this story, which I read online in Hanoi this morning. He was discussing the turbulent political situation in Lebanon, and offered this unremarkable observation:

It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly — as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control."

Shadid is obviously right, but the observation itself is banal in at least two senses. First, even a country as powerful as the United States doesn’t "control" an awful lot of events in world politics, and especially the internal maneuverings and struggles of a country like Lebanon. And the sooner that Americans dispense with the notion that we can reliably control events in far-away places, the better off we’ll be.

Second, it is hardly surprising that the United States has steadily lost influence (note: not control) in the Middle East. We’re hamstrung by the "special relationship" with Israel, which reduces our freedom of maneuvers, makes our rhetoric about justice and democracy and human rights look hypocritical, and angers millions of people around the Arab and Islamic world. We foolishly invaded Iraq and then bungled the job, which made us look both aggressive and incompetent. We continue to follow a failed policy toward Iran, which only seems to make Ahmadinejad stronger. And we help prop up authoritarian regimes that are deeply unpopular, favoring democracy only when the candidates we like win.

And then we wonder why we aren’t able to "control" political events in Lebanon, and we’re surprised that more honest brokers are acquiring greater influence? The mere fact that this trend seems surprising is itself quite eloquent testimony to the brain-dead nature of our Middle East diplomacy.

The only good news in this sorry tale is that the United States does not really have to "control" the Middle East. Our only vital strategic interest there is to ensure that oil continues to flow to world markets, and reliable access to oil only requires that the region not be controlled by a single hostile power. We don’t have to control it; we just need to make sure that nobody else does. Our inability to dictate events in places like Lebanon may be inconvenient, but it’s neither especially surprising nor even all that worrisome. But if you’d like the United States to have more genuine and lasting influence, then you’d better come up with an approach to the region that looks rather different than the one we’ve been following for as long as I can remember.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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