Stephen M. Walt

U.S. Middle East Strategy: Back to Balancing

As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I’ve been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum’s meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There ...

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

As I promised in my last post, today I want to offer a somewhat different view of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. I’ve been traveling for the past 10 days, giving talks at several venues in the United Kingdom and attending the World Economic Forum’s meeting of Global Agenda Councils in Abu Dhabi. There was a lot of discussion of America’s evolving role in the world at these meetings, and I intend to revisit some of those issues in subsequent posts. But for now, a few thoughts on the Middle East, which is in the news big time these days.

For me, any discussion of U.S. strategy has to begin by acknowledging America’s remarkably favorable international position in the world. In the endless quest to identify and neutralize new threats — both real and imagined — Americans often forget just how secure the United States is, especially compared with other states. As I’ve noted many times before, the United States is blessed with a large population, abundant resources, fertile land, navigable rivers, and a technologically sophisticated economy that encourages innovation. These core sources of American power are highly robust, which means that U.S. security and prosperity depend more on what happens at home than on anything that might happen abroad.

Furthermore, the United States has no serious rivals in the Western Hemisphere. It is protected — still! — by two vast oceans. As the French ambassador to the United States said in 1910: "The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east, fish, and on the west, fish." Today, the United States possesses the world’s most capable conventional military forces and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal, giving Washington a deterrent power that others can only envy. Indeed, the main reason the United States can roam around concerning itself with other countries’ business (and interfering in various ways) is because it doesn’t have to worry about defending itself against foreign invasions, blockades, and the like.

One consequence of this favorable position, by the way, is that the country routinely blows minor threats out of all proportion. I mean: Iran has a defense budget of about $10 billion (less than 1/50th of what the United States spends on national security), yet we manage to convince ourselves that Iran is a Very Serious Threat to U.S. vital interests. Ditto the constant fretting about minor-league powers like Syria, North Korea, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, and other so-called "rogue states."

When we talk about U.S. strategy in the Middle East, therefore, we need to start by recognizing that the United States is in very good shape, and a lot of what happens in that part of the world may not matter very much to the country in the long run. Put differently, no matter what happens there, the United States can almost certainly adjust and adapt and be just fine.

So what are U.S. interests in the Middle East? I’d say the United States has three strategic interests and two moral interests. The three strategic interests are 1) keeping oil and gas from the region flowing to world markets, to keep the global economy humming; 2) minimizing the danger of anti-American terrorism; and 3) inhibiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The two moral interests are 1) promotion of human rights and participatory government, and 2) helping ensure Israel’s survival.

A few comments: The strategic interests haven’t changed much for decades, though the vigor with which the United States has pursued them has varied depending on circumstances. As for the moral interests, there has often been a trade-off between moral aspirations and practical strategic realities, as shown by U.S. tolerance for authoritarian regimes in various countries. Similarly, the moral basis of America’s commitment to Israel has weakened over time, both because Israel has become increasingly secure from external threats (it is the strongest military power in the region at this point) and because its own character and conduct (i.e., the continued campaign to colonize the West Bank and suppress Palestinian Arab rights) is increasingly at odds with core U.S. values.

The best way to pursue these five goals — especially the first three — is a realist, balance-of-power policy, akin to the policy that the United States followed from 1945 to 1990. During this period, the United States acted as an "offshore balancer" in the region. It had close security ties to several countries and clear strategic interests, and the central U.S. goal was to prevent any single country — especially the Soviet Union — from dominating the region. So long as the Greater Middle East was divided into many separate powers, no one country could halt the flow of oil and most oil producers would have obvious incentives to sell it at the world market price.

The United States didn’t need to dominate the region itself; it just had to make sure no one else did. Accordingly, the country relied on local allies for the most part, and it kept its own military forces out of the region save for brief and rare moments. Even after the Iranian revolution led to the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, the United States kept those units over the horizon and only brought them into the region when the balance of power broke down. The United States tilted toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War and then balanced vigorously against Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

After 1991, the United States departed from this strategy in two steps. First, it adopted the odd strategy of "dual containment": Instead of using Iraq and Iran to check each other, Washington took on the task of containing both. This strategy required the United States to keep large military contingents in Saudi Arabia, thereby reinforcing Osama bin Laden’s animus and helping produce the 9/11 attacks. Second, George W. Bush administration adopted the even more foolish strategy of "regional transformation," which led directly to the disastrous debacle in Iraq. Apart from the direct costs, extensive U.S. interference had two obvious negative effects: It helped fuel anti-American terrorism, and it gave some regional powers additional incentives to pursue weapons of mass destruction.

Given these realities and the need to devote more strategic attention to Asia, the obvious solution for the United States is to return to its earlier strategy. This is now seen in some quarters as a "retreat" or a "withdrawal," and various U.S. client states are uttering the usual dark warnings about American "credibility" being on the line. We should not make too much of these self-serving complaints, in part because U.S. credibility is mostly their problem, not ours. But more importantly, a return to offshore balancing doesn’t mean the United States does not care about the region — the country cared plenty in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s — it just means it is defending its interests in a smarter and more cost-effective way.

The main obstacle to this step is the United States’ various "special relationships" with certain regional powers. I refer, of course, to the mostly unconditional aid and support that the country gives to Israel and to a slightly lesser degree Saudi Arabia. (One might also add Mubarak-era Egypt to that list.) Over the past 25 years or so, the United States has increasingly supported these states no matter what they have done at home or abroad and has turned a blind eye to their various actions that haven’t served U.S. interests (and in many cases, that weren’t good for these countries either). The underlying reasons for these "special relationships" vary, but overly intimate relations with these states have robbed U.S. diplomacy of t
he flexibility that is essential to a sensible regional strategy.

At the same time, the United States has also been hampered by certain long-lasting enmities with Qaddafi’s Libya, Syria, Iraq, and most especially Iran. To be sure: The United States has had genuine conflicts of interest and/or values with each of these regimes and good reasons to press them to change policies that it regards as threatening or immoral. But the recurring tendency to demonize every one of these governments and to exaggerate their power has also made it harder to influence their conduct and to cooperate at those moments when interests aligned. This has been most tragically evident in the case of Iran, which reached out to the United States in the 1990s, after 9/11, in 2003, and again in 2005, only to be sharply rebuffed each time.

Given U.S. interests, the country would be much better off with a more nuanced and flexible approach. To be blunt: The United States is too close to its current allies and too hostile to some of its adversaries. That is not an argument for abandoning current allies and launching a complete diplomatic reversal (though some analysts have argued cogently along these lines), but it is an argument for a less polarized, black-and-white approach. To be specific: The United States should have normal relations with Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia instead of "special relationships." This would be better for the United States and probably better for those countries too. The United States should also have a somewhat more normal relationship with Iran: not friendship, perhaps, but one where the two governments cooperate on matters of common concern (such as Afghanistan) and bargain rationally and rigorously on matters where the two countries differ. (This approach would also take advantage of the desire for contact with America and the outside world that is widespread in Iranian society, especially among the younger population, and make it harder for the clerical regime to thwart reform by blaming its problems in the "Great Satan.")

The strategy I am outlining would also strengthen the United States’ ability to shape events in the region. Over the past several decades, America’s allies in the Middle East have tended to take U.S. support for granted and ignore U.S. concerns whenever it suited them. Thus, Israel has continued to build settlements despite repeated but impotent U.S. protests, and Saudi Arabia has sometimes stonewalled Washington on issues of Islamic extremism and its role in encouraging anti-American terrorism in far-flung places. Broadening diplomatic connections throughout the region would give the United States some useful leverage over its current clients, thereby facilitating its ability to get them to do what it wants. Isn’t that what U.S. diplomacy is supposed to be about?

The tumult unleashed by the Arab Spring provides a final rationale for the approach I have outlined here. The Greater Middle East is in the midst of a profound upheaval whose future course is still uncertain and that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Conflict is now occurring across many fault lines — Sunni vs. Shiite, Arab vs. Persian, secular vs. Islamist, democratic vs. authoritarian, etc. — and in ways that are beginning to shake the foundations of the political order that first took shape at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

Given this turbulent, complex, and poorly understood situation, the last thing the United States should do is try to play referee or try to impose its preferred political formula on these events. (The country tried to do this in Egypt, for example, and for the best reasons, and it is less popular there than ever.) The good news is that the United States is going to be in pretty good shape no matter how all this turns out, and U.S. foreign-policy elites can therefore take a somewhat more detached view of these events than is their normal tendency. The United States should not disengage, but it should not be overly eager to interfere either. Remember: The preservation of a regional balance of power is still the primary interest, and direct U.S. interference fosters anti-American extremism and the desire for weapons of mass destruction. In short, the United States should conduct its Middle East policy with a light touch rather than a heavy hand.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.