Best Defense

Our new Middle East policy is emerging. It is: Just stand there.

Grand strategy, when approached properly, requires recognition when a nation’s vital interests have shifted.

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By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Grand strategy, when approached properly, requires recognition when a nation’s vital interests have shifted. The United States no longer needs foreign oil to keep our economy afloat. Consequently, the Middle East region has become a secondary theater of American strategic interest.

No one in the Barack Obama administration or on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has come out and said that in public, but there appears to be a general acknowledgment that our vital interests have shifted away from that region. Obama’s aborted attempt to put more emphasis on the Pacific was perhaps a de facto admission of the decline of our interest in the Middle East, as was his failure to intervene in Syria after threatening to do so. Syria is the latest manifestation of sectarian civil war in the region, and the United States is well advised to keep out of it. Despite Russia’s recent successes in supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime in the Syrian theater of that civil war, the Russians are stepping into a quagmire that they will come to regret.

Police hate domestic violence calls more than anything and statistics show that more cops die in responding to such calls than any other cause. On the international stage, intervening in other people’s civil wars is roughly analogous. We Americans found that out in Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon. Being slow learners, we also got involved in Libya. In each of those situations, we made a bad situation worse. In its intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia have shown itself to be a rookie cop.

The Russians are not necessarily our enemies, but they are our rivals in several key areas of the world. Trump has signaled that he wants to tamp down tensions with Russia, and he is wise to do so. When your rival is determined to do something stupid, it is best to leave him alone. In that, Obama has made good choices, and Trump is well advised to follow that line.

The United States still has interests in the Middle East, but they are not vital. The majority of Americans continue to view the survival of Israel as desirable, but its survival is no longer in serious question. Keeping oil flowing from the region is important to U.S. allies and the world economy, even though it is no longer critical to U.S. economic wellbeing. Preventing the Iranians from having nuclear weapons is a laudable goal, and even the Russians seem to agree on that.

Given the tectonic shift of vital national security interest away from the Mideast, what then should our policy toward that region now look like? In the Sunni-Shiite civil war, we can become honest brokers while supporting moderate Sunnis in the fight against the Islamic State. Likewise, supporting Iraq’s attempts to maintain itself as a democracy where the Shiite majority does not trample the rights of Kurdish and Sunni minorities makes sense. Brokering a peaceful settlement between the Turks and their Kurdish neighbors is also reasonable foreign policy approach.

While Americans may abhor the plight of Syrians caught up in the fighting, a better solution to allowing more Syrian refugees into the United States is to offer assistance to Sunni nations in the region to house and care for those war victims. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have not stepped up to the plate in this area while Europe, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have borne the brunt of the exodus of Syrian Sunnis.

To date, the United States has been the grownup in the complex Sunni-Shiite regional civil war, and we are well-advised to continue in that role. The Russians will eventually find themselves in a quagmire in Syria. The fall of Aleppo was not the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war; it was the end of the beginning. Unlike Iraq, the Sunni insurgents in that conflict are the majority in Syria. The minority Alawite Shiite sect will be years in trying to subdue the insurgents, and will require more and more Russian assistance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made that his problem, not a U.S. problem.

The defense budget implications of a continued hands-off policy in the Mideast region are positive. We are about the right size for the present job. Our naval and air forces in the region are sufficient to deter the Iranians from overt adventurism and we probably have enough advisors in Iraq to assist them its government in dealing with the Islamic State.

The Mideast remains a problem area and will continue to be for the immediate future, but the region is no longer a vital American interest. For now, the best advice to American policy makers is, “don’t just do something, stand there.”

Gary Anderson served as a U.N. observer in the Middle East and as a civilian advisor with the State Department in Iraq.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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