Hard Choices Await Next U.S. President on Middle East.
|U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Nettnin conducts a dismounted patrol to assess the progress of security measures in the Al Dora market area of Baghdad, Iraq, May 25, 2007.|
By Steven Metz, April 3, 2015
In January 2017, a new U.S. president will move into the White House. He or she will immediately instruct the National Security Council to assess American national security strategy and provide policy options, particularly for key regions and issues. In all likelihood, no assessment will be more complex and important than the one dealing with the Middle East.
After the end of the Cold War, U.S. strategy in the Middle East focused on promoting stability largely by supporting like-minded regional states. While nominally opposed to the more nefarious dictators in the region, before 2003 the U.S. did not do much to bring them down, fearing that the instability this would unleash would prove worse than the dictators themselves.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush dramatically rejected this approach when it removed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, choosing to accelerate rather than modulate change. This shifted the foundation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and it coincided with a massive surge in dissatisfaction across the region. The ensuing revolution fed both violent jihadism and the populist movements that drove the Arab Spring. But as the old regional order collapsed, neither Bush nor his successor, Barack Obama, found an effective response. The old strategy no longer worked, but nothing replaced it.
Given this, the next president is likely to redesign U.S. foreign policy in a dramatic way. Hopefully, this effort will be guided by the first rule of strategic logic: The expected benefits of any action must justify the expected costs and risks. Recently American policymakers seem to have forgotten this.
As Bush and his top advisers made the case for invading Iraq in 2002, they stressed the benefits of removing Saddam while ignoring the likely costs of bringing order to the country. As a result, the Bush administration was woefully unprepared to stabilize Iraq after Saddam’s parasitic regime was gone. After the Iraq disaster, security experts should have learned from this experience and stopped recommending policies based on incomplete strategic assessments. Sadly, not all have.
For instance, John Bolton, who was one of Bush’s ambassadors to the United Nations, advocates bombing Iran to hinder its nuclear program with utter disregard for the political and economic costs. Similarly, John Hannah, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, proposes removing Iran’s theocratic regime, again with no concern for the potential risks and costs and without addressing the instability that is sure to follow. Clearly, when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, even deeply flawed ideas die slowly.
At the same time, the next president will also have to find a way beyond what is often called the “Iraq syndrome.” Characterized by obsessing over strategic risks and costs, this results in a hyper-cautious, vacillating strategy where using modest doses of standoff military power is acceptable, but the expensive and difficult process of rebuilding stability after enemies are removed is considered too daunting. Despite the many failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. must be prepared to take responsibility for rebuilding collapsed regimes, such as Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, when it is in its interests to do so.
With these cautions, the new president must grapple with three central questions. First, what should be America’s priority in the Middle East? Should it be to defeat or contain a specific enemy? If so, should that be radical groups like the self-declared Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaida, or hostile states like Iran? Treating the two as equal threats will leave both unaddressed—the new president must choose. He or she must also decide whether the focus should be on regional stability, as it was before 2003, whether that is even feasible in the new security environment and whether preventing proliferation or humanitarian disasters might be more important. Whatever priority the next president sets will drive U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The second central question concerns partnerships. Should the U.S. be satisfied with highly conditional relationships rather than enduring alliances? In strategic terms, the deeper the commitment, the greater the potential benefit—but also the greater the risk and cost. The current trend is moving away from alliances toward looser partnerships. The best example is the weakening relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. For many years, the strategic priorities and objectives of Riyadh and Washington were close, often even identical. Now that a gap has emerged over Iran and the Syrian civil war, this long-standing alliance may be downgraded to a conditional partnership. It is not yet clear whether this will diminish U.S. influence and, more important, whether this is a good or a bad thing.
The third central question deals with the best way to use the U.S. military. Ever since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. has sustained a robust military presence in the Middle East to deter aggressive regimes. But a conventional military presence does little to deter terrorists. If anything, it inspires them. The right role for the U.S. military in the Middle East thus depends on which threat the next president considers most important. If containing Iran and convincing Arab states that the U.S. will defend them against Tehran is the priority, then a sustained military presence makes sense. On the other hand, if IS and al-Qaida are the top targets, then military disengagement may make sense—even though once U.S. forces leave, they may never return.
In the broadest sense the next president may opt only to defend Israel and perhaps a hypothetical independent Kurdistan, to rely on conditional partnerships with a few other states, to tolerate conflict or disintegration elsewhere and to keep IS and al-Qaida on the ropes with periodic raids and strikes. Or the next president may opt for an Iran-centric strategy, which would require a large-scale military presence and active cooperation with the Arab states. But whatever the next president chooses, the days of U.S. management of Middle Eastern security, a reliance on military power and a refusal to set clear priorities will be gone for good.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.