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Many Reasons for America's Continued Engagement in the Middle East

4:00 PM, May 4, 2011 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, who a week ago gave us the “lead from behind” version of the Obama Doctrine, now suggests that in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, there may be yet another “new” direction for administration policy.

Obama thinking

Except it’s not that new. “One of the great ironies,” writes Lizza, apparently without any irony whatsoever, “is that while [President Obama] and his advisers insist that their long-term goal is to ‘rebalance’ America’s posture from the Middle East to the Far East, the Administration’s time, attention, and resources have been disproportionately focused on the former.” No doubt President Bush and his advisers, who came to office promising to devote more attention to great-power balances and avoid the squandering of American power on “nation-building,” felt something similar. And President Clinton, after finding his hopes for a win-win era “geoeconomics” gummed up by the effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, who had to keep Saddam Hussein “in his box” and deal, for the first time, with a terrorist named Osama. And George H. W. Bush, who imagined Desert Storm might usher in a New World Order.  Not even Ronald Reagan could devote all his energy to consigning the Soviet Union to the ash-heap of history. Jimmy Carter lost his presidency, it might be said, in the Iranian desert and the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

“But now it seems possible that the death of Osama bin Laden may mark an acceleration of the shift in resources away from the decade-long detour into this region,” continues Lizza. If that is indeed an accurate encapsulation of the administration’s thinking – and Lizza is certainly a reporter the White House cultivates, particularly speechwriter Ben Rhodes – it reflects a shocking strategic myopia.

To begin with, the American “detour” into the Middle East began decades before September 11, 2001. It began as a conscious policy choice by Franklin Roosevelt, who was determined to dismember the pre-World War II colonial framework of the region’s politics, a decision carried forward by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, most notably during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Another threshold was crossed in 1979 with the formulation of the Carter Doctrine, which in turn quickly was expanded not just to keep the Russians out but Saddam and the Iranians down. In sum, the United States has styled itself the arbiter of security in the Middle East for a very, very long time. This is a doctrine, not a detour.

Further, it’s a critical component of U.S. global strategy and one that directly affects the balance of power in East Asia. It’s a commonplace that the greater Middle East is a place that matters to the world, not only for its resources but for a host of reasons.  Our ability to secure the region gives us enormous leverage over potential rivals like China, and is equally critical to our Asian allies like Japan and South Korea.  Indeed, the most important long-term test of our superpower status will be whether we, with allied help, can militarily dominate and secure the long sea lines of communication that run from the Persian Gulf through the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the several important straits of Indonesia, the South China and East China seas to the Sea of Japan.  This is not only the energy but also the commercial lifeline of the 21st century.

The Obama administration is not the first to fail to articulate a post-Cold War strategy for the United States, but the farther this can is kicked down the road the more difficult the challenge becomes. Because we have a global and “systemic” strategy, we must be able to do many things at once, not rush around “rebalancing” efforts while the number of problems and aggregate level of risk piles up. The greater Middle East, and the Arab world in particular, would appear to be on the brink of greater volatility – even though most of the recent developments are hopeful ones – not less. Regional disengagement would have three consequences: forego the opportunities of the Arab Spring and the demonstration of power and persistence reflected by the Osama kill, put at risk the gains made at great cost since 9/11, and call into question the United States ability to secure the international system.

Our recent efforts in the Middle East have been commensurate with, not “disproportionate” to, our strategic interests. The “realist” interpretation, that we expend so many lives and so much treasure in “foolish wars” simply “because we can” is not a very convincing explanation of American conduct. It is true that we “can” continue these operations; they’re not going to bankrupt us and we have created a remarkably cheap-to-run global order that’s been the framework for several generations of expanding American prosperity. But as Barack Obama has discovered, possibly to his continuing surprise, there are a lot of reasons – political, economic and moral – we should continue the effort.

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