Five Reasons Americans Should be Happy (In a Very Unhappy Middle East)

Cheer up. It's really bad. But all's not lost.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Bad news abounds. The purveyors and prophets of doom and gloom proclaim the broader Middle East to be Dickens on steroids: It’s the worst of times squared.

In Iran, the centrifuges spin ever closer to acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In Egypt, Islamists crowd out the liberals and the Google generation. In Syria, the Assads maintain their bloody grip on power, defying the international community and the will of their own people. As for the Israelis and Palestinians, well … they don’t even pretend there’s a negotiation in sight, let alone an end to their conflict.

And in the middle of this muddled mess sits the United States. Like some modern-day Gulliver, America seems tied down by small powers whose interests are not its own, and tied up by its illusions.

I’m here to tell you: Cheer up. It’s really bad. But all’s not lost. Without too much whistling past the graveyard, here are five reasons Americans can smile — at least for a while — in a region where things usually get worse before they get worse.

1. We’re out of Iraq and soon out of Afghanistan.

It’s not pretty, but America is out or getting out of its untenable combat role in the two longest wars in its history, neither of which now seems worth the terrible price we have paid in American lives, crushing traumatic injuries, resources, and credibility.

Winning — defined as two cohesive stable countries with legitimately elected and accepted governments, the end of sectarian violence and a semblance of respect for democratic principles, human rights, transparency, etc. — was never possible.

But leaving is. Staying in Afghanistan in significant numbers beyond the decent interval for extrication President Barack Obama has created makes little sense. Honor those who made the sacrifice and respect the good fight they waged. Don’t rush for the exits. But do not let anymone guilt you into believing that the current glide path toward the exits will fundamentally betray the Afghans or diminish our credibility.

The notion that we’ll be less secure if we don’t stay longer is absurd logic. We can’t fix Afghanistan — not in a year or 10. The future of this so-called graveyard of empires will be determined less by anything we’ve done while there, and far more by events after we depart. But who ever thought otherwise?

The tipping point for extrication has been crossed. The American public rightly senses all too clearly — as evident in recent polling — that we can’t win or even tie there. The purpose, urgency, and clarity of this war disappeared long ago. The president wants out, and even the Republicans increasingly sense that the game is up. We should be looking forward to the day when no more brave Americans need be killed or injured there, and be happy that soon America will be freed from the consummate great-power conundrum of the past decade: being stuck in places we can neither fix nor leave.

2. America and Middle East oil: the way of the dodo?

Don’t say it too loudly: We don’t want to jinx it, but the United States is slowly weaning itself off Arab oil.

That doesn’t mean we’re not still drunk on liquid hydrocarbons. (I have two SUVs, and am still trying to figure out why.) And even if we can free ourselves from Middle East oil, there’s still the problem of energy security. For all practical purposes, the price of oil is determined in a single market, vulnerable to global disruptions; nor can we afford all those Middle East reserves falling into unfriendly hands.

But I’ll take what I can get. In 2011, the United States imported 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from 60 percent just 6 years earlier. As energy guru Daniel Yergin points out, a new oil order is emerging. And for America, that means the rise of Western Hemispheric energy at the expense of the Middle East. Between new oil in Brazil, oil-sands production in Canada, and shale-gas technology here at home, by 2020 we could cut our dependence on non-Western hemisphere oil by half. Combine that with the rise in national oil production and greater focus on fuel efficiency and conservation, and the trend lines are at least running in the right direction.

Don’t get too excited: It’s not time to pack up the bases and troops in the Persian Gulf quite yet. But as we become less dependent on Arab oil, those who still are (China, Japan, South Korea, the Europeans) ought to shoulder more of the financial burden for keeping that area stable and secure. Lucky for our fledgling economic recovery that the Arab kings and oil producers, namely the Saudis, have (so far) fared much better than the Arab presidents in weathering the Arab Spring and Winter.

Oil still reigns supreme. But at least be happy that Middle East oil is slowly being dethroned. If we’re dedicated, disciplined, and lucky, it will be become less of a lubricant for why we act in this region. And hopefully as a result our own relationships and diplomacy will become a little less greasy too.

3. The Arab Spring did America a big favor.

I have many worries about the Arab Spring, which, in places like Bahrain, Syria, and even Egypt looks too much like winter.

But there’s one thing we should be celebrating. In taking to the streets, Arabs did something for us we’d never be able to do for ourselves: Break the devil’s bargain we cut with Arab authoritarians decades ago.

Don’t get me wrong: Those deals — you support our policies and we’ll support you (and look the other way on bad governance and human rights abuses) carried American policy quite far. We got some Arab-Israeli peace agreements, continued access to Arab oil, sold a lot of military hardware, and procured stability.

But it proved a false stability. Like so much in the world of power politics, these arrangements were made with extractive regimes that were out of touch with their publics and simply couldn’t endure. The Middle East may have warranted low expectations in the good-government department, but at some point the same forces of change that were transforming the rest of the world were bound to visit there as well. There was no way the United States would ever have pushed meaningful reform, let alone broken our ties with the authoritarians, unless the street did it for us.

Great powers don’t pivot, or in this case let go easily. Indeed, we haven’t yet in Egypt, where we’re trying to maintain some influence with the military; nor in Bahrain where we tread carefully on regime change and human rights so as not to anger the Saudis or destabilize them. And we may need the Gulf autocrats’ help not only to keep prices low at the pump, but also for the looming confrontation with Iran.

Let’s be clear: There will be no revolutionary epiphanies here, no transformations in American policy. Our commitment to genuine democratic reform, particularly if we don’t like the new democrats, will be slow and gradual. More likely, America will be dragged along and forced to deal with the new realities that emerge, particularly the rising power of the Islamists. If we’re lucky, it will produce a more honest conversation between the Arabs and the United States, and just maybe an opportunity to bring America’s values into greater alignment with its policies. But we also shouldn’t kid ourselves: The process will be long and messy and may well not turn out the way we want.

4. We can’t fix everything. Be happy.

America may be the world’s indispensable nation, but these days it’s with a small “i.” Expectations for American power in this region have always run fantastically high. We’ve had moments of dramatic success, against the backdrop of decades of unspectacular or even failed diplomacy. The good news — even though it’s come at the expense of popping this inflated bubble — is that the Arabs (and Israelis) too may be finally getting it: We can’t, won’t, and have no intention of saving them.

The jury is still out on the Iranian nuclear issue. If Israel doesn’t bomb, we might. But on almost every other issue — fixing Iraq and Afghanistan, promoting democratization, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, bailing out the Arab economies with American dollars — we really lack leverage and motivation to do much.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is the poster child for how we have infantilized the Middle East and how it has become too dependent on us. I must have drafted scores of “next steps” memos in the peace process when there really were no next steps, truly.

We clearly still have an important role to play in maintaining security ties with the Gulf states, encouraging political and economic reform, and yes even on the peace process. But that role will depend on a good deal more ownership and responsibility on the part of the locals.

There will be no more 911 calls to save the peace process. And it’s about time. We should have long ago tired of whining Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs, and Europeans asking us to do things when they wouldn’t or couldn’t do their fair share. The two-state solution isn’t dead, but the good news is that at least there’s an honest recognition now that America alone can’t deliver it.

5. We’re learning (maybe).

Failure is one of life’s great teachers. I know from personal experience, dealing with the Middle East for a few decades. And the United States has encountered plenty in recent years. Much of it has been heartbreaking.

The Middle East is still a mess. Lately, to be sure, it’s also seen a great deal of rare promise and hope. But it continues to be marred by violence, economic misery, sectarian strife, religious extremism, conspiracy theories, and leaps of logic and rationality that should worry us all.

Still, I think we’re learning a few things. The Obama administration has done pretty well in this regard. No spectacular successes, but no galactic failures either. Our approach is steady and deliberate. It’s focused on getting priorities straight: seeing the threats and opportunities clearly and thinking matters through before throwing American military or diplomatic resources at a problem when there’s no real strategy to guide it. If that’s “leading from behind,” so be it, particularly if leading from the front gets you Iraq and Afghanistan.

America doesn’t need prophets, ideologues, or geniuses to run its Middle East policy. Just give me a smart president, an empowered secretary of state, and a lot of folks to help them who know history, can find their way around an atlas, and have common sense and good judgment about how American power can be best utilized. It may not guarantee a lot of success, but it will reduce our failures. And that, to be sure, is something to be happy about.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.