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The Middle East’s 4 Strategic Contests

The revolutionary (and now counterrevolutionary) cauldron in the Middle East is so vexing because multiple conflicts are occurring on multiple levels all at once. The region is being consumed not just by one contest, but four. Each of these four contests has its own unique dynamic, but each also touches on the others and often ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images
DANIEL LEAL OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

The revolutionary (and now counterrevolutionary) cauldron in the Middle East is so vexing because multiple conflicts are occurring on multiple levels all at once. The region is being consumed not just by one contest, but four. Each of these four contests has its own unique dynamic, but each also touches on the others and often multiple conflicts reinforce one another. While daily headlines focus on internal tumult in places like Egypt and Syria, the deeper fault lines crisscross the entire region in a byzantine web, sometimes along national borders and sometimes across them, sometimes along confessional lines and sometimes through the heart of Islamic theology.

The four contests are:

The Great Power Contest. This contest is primarily between Russia and the United States, with Britain, France, and China also playing active albeit secondary roles. For the United States the question is whether it will remain the predominant outside power within the region; for Russia the question is how much Moscow can erode America's standing. The war in Syria is the most visible proxy conflict in this contest, but Russian and Chinese efforts to shield Iran's nuclear program are also expressions of their efforts to play spoiler roles and undermine American interests.

The revolutionary (and now counterrevolutionary) cauldron in the Middle East is so vexing because multiple conflicts are occurring on multiple levels all at once. The region is being consumed not just by one contest, but four. Each of these four contests has its own unique dynamic, but each also touches on the others and often multiple conflicts reinforce one another. While daily headlines focus on internal tumult in places like Egypt and Syria, the deeper fault lines crisscross the entire region in a byzantine web, sometimes along national borders and sometimes across them, sometimes along confessional lines and sometimes through the heart of Islamic theology.

The four contests are:

The Great Power Contest. This contest is primarily between Russia and the United States, with Britain, France, and China also playing active albeit secondary roles. For the United States the question is whether it will remain the predominant outside power within the region; for Russia the question is how much Moscow can erode America’s standing. The war in Syria is the most visible proxy conflict in this contest, but Russian and Chinese efforts to shield Iran’s nuclear program are also expressions of their efforts to play spoiler roles and undermine American interests.

The Regional Power Contest. This is the conflict over which Middle Eastern nation(s) will be the dominant power in the region. For some time the standoff has primarily been between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but now others such as Turkey and Qatar are jockeying for position and seeking to extend their influence. The alliances are ever shifting; a year ago it appeared that the Saudis and Qataris were aligned in their support for the Syrian rebels, but recent weeks have seen a much-commented split between the two over which Syrian factions to support and in Egypt over whether to back the Muslim Brotherhood (Qatar’s choice) or the military (Saudi Arabia’s preference). Not to be overlooked is the more profound shift represented by Egypt’s implosion and diminished regional influence, and thus the apparent end (or at least suspension) of the decades-long rivalry between Cairo and Riyadh for regional leadership.

The Religious Contest. This is the Sunni-Shiite conflict, articulated most expansively by Vali Nasr in his 2006 book The Shia Revival. The fault lines in this contest are not along nation-states per se but rather among the Sunni and Shiite leadership and communities across the region. While sometimes coextensive with nation-states and represented by particular governments (primarily Iran for the Shiites and Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis), the contest is ultimately transnational and cuts across confessional lines in countries like Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. This contest helps explain the irritating acquiescence of Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in Iranian-Hezbollah support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In turn this contest has its own multiple sublevels and internal rivalries, such as Shiism’s struggle between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s more quietist school and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s militancy, or the multiple competing claimants to the theological mantle of Sunni leadership.

The Ideological Contest. This conflict is between Islamism and pluralism. While this contest also has an irreducibly religious dimension, ultimately the debate is over what will be the dominant mode of political organization in the region: Islamist ideology or pluralism. The former seeks to impose a narrow, politicized version of sharia law and brooks no dissent; the latter protects political space for a diverse array of participation, religious and secular. Pluralism is obviously inherent in liberal democracy, but pluralism is also quite possible under benign autocracies and monarchies. It has a moderating effect in its own right and can also play an important role in economic and political liberalization. Like the Sunni-Shiite contest, this ideological conflict is also primarily taking place within Islam. But non-Muslims, especially Egypt’s Coptic Christians and other religious minorities across the region, are also active participants in the debate and have an existential stake in its outcome.

These four contests are not discrete and exclusive, but are taking place simultaneously and often feeding on each other. In some cases the primary actor is the nation-state; in others it is a transnational religious community or political movement. In some cases the main instrument in the contest is force; in other cases it is diplomatic, economic, ideational, even spiritual. In some cases the stakes are a classical realpolitik question of which nation-state will emerge stronger; in other cases the stakes are an existential question of whether a particular nation-state can even survive — and whether the nation-state model itself will continue to be the basic political unit in the region. In a few cases the outcomes will merely be local concerns; in most cases the outcomes will substantially implicate American interests.

The challenges in crafting a coherent strategy in this milieu are manifest. Setting priorities among the various contests is hard, as is finding levers of influence among a limited set of options. Sometimes advancing a strategic equity in one contest can diminish a strategic equity in another contest. Such is the case with Syria, where all four contests are in acute tension, most visibly in the mantra that intervening to curtail Russian and Iranian influence could also strengthen the hands of violent Islamists.

In the face of these challenges, the White House’s approach to the region seems to have been a combination of "hands up and hands off" — that is, throwing its hands up in exasperation at the multiple conflicts and limited options, and consequently adopting a hands-off posture. Barack Obama’s administration has relentlessly told itself about all the negatives of engagement in the region and in the process has created a set of self-fulfilling prophecies.

When considered in the aggregate, however, the United States has substantial interests in the outcomes of these four contests, including preserving its influence as a stabilizing force in the region, encouraging pluralism as an antidote to radicalization, and preventing regional dominance by other malevolent actors, especially a nuclear Iran. Just as the several contests are linked to each other in their negative consequences, so could positive developments on one front lead to progress on other fronts.

Where to start? Addressing the four contests can begin with a focus on two countries, Egypt and Iran, and one issue, religious freedom. In Egypt, the erstwhile Muslim Brotherhood government’s overreach and ineptitude significantly damaged the brand equity of Islamism. As Michael Singh and Robert Satloff have pointed out, the new Egyptian government provides an opportune moment for a needed reset to the U.S. relationship with Egypt and thus the region. In Iran, as John Hannah highlighted, the election of Hasan Rouhani presents an opportunity for an invigorated dual-track approach that would reassert American leadership: increased support for the freedom aspirations of the Iranian people and increased pressure on the nuclear program in the form of a credible threat that arrests Tehran’s dissemble-and-delay tactics. Such renewed initiative with Egypt and Iran, two historical leaders in the region, would also restore U.S. credibility with Saudi Arabia, a third regional leader. Meanwhile, promoting religious freedom across the region would help encourage authentic pluralism, ameliorate extremism, and allow space for Islamic political participation while guarding against intolerant Islamism.

Two and a half years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation set an entire region ablaze, the contours of the multiple contests are now clear. And past rationales for American passivity now pale in comparison with the compelling American interests at stake in the outcomes of each contest.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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