Time for U.S. to Embrace “Constructive Disengagement” from the Mideast

August 12, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the August 2008 issue of Energy Tribune.

Political observers predict that Barack Obama, who has been critical of the Bush Doctrine of promoting unilateral regime change and spreading democracy in the Middle East, is going to transform U.S. policy there. I’m not holding my breath.

Even under the best‐​case scenario, some U.S. troops would probably remain in Iraq and other parts of the Persian Gulf, as a way of demonstrating U.S. resolve to defend the oil‐​producing countries in the region. Washington would still maintain its strong support for Israel and try to mediate another “peace process.”

Indeed, under either a Democratic or a Republican president, one should not be surprised to discover that the major element in the neoconservative agenda — maintaining U.S. military and diplomatic hegemony in the Middle East — will likely remain alive and well, producing the never‐​ending vicious circle: more U.S. military interventions, leading to more anti-U.S. terrorism, resulting in more regime changes.

A lack of change in U.S. policy could be due to inertia combined with the influences of entrenched bureaucracies and powerful interest groups. But the most important factor making it likely that U.S. interventionism in the Middle East will continue is the survival of the U.S. Middle East Paradigm (MEP), which I described in my book, Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East. The origins of the MEP go back to end of World War II and the Cold War.

Three factors provided the rationale for ongoing U.S. involvement in the Middle East. The first was what were perceived as the necessities dictated by geo‐​strategy. The assumption was that the Soviet Union sought dominance in the region and had to be contained; consequently, the United States replaced Britain and France in the role of protecting the interests of the Western alliance in the Middle East.

The second reason had to do with geo‐​economics. Given the larger context of the need to counter Soviet moves, Washington figured it was worth the price to be involved in the Middle East, not only to protect U.S. access to Mideast oil, but also to protect the free access of Western economies to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf. It seemed to make strategic sense during the Cold War to let allies have a “free ride” on U.S. military power.

Third, with the establishment of Israel in 1948, the United States underscored its historic and moral commitment to its survival in the Middle East by helping it maintain its margin of security as it coped with hostile Arab neighbors. These U.S. policies were very costly, involving alliances with military dictators and medieval despots and covert and overt military intervention. But if one accepted the notion that, based on calculations of national interest, Washington should have been engaged in the Middle East during the Cold War, one was also willing to accept the costs involved — including anti‐​Americanism that produced oil embargoes, embassies held hostage, and, of course, terrorism.

With the end of the Cold War, however, that factor receded in importance. But U.S. policymakers did not reassess the MEP for U.S. policy. Instead, during the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Washington took advantage of the Soviet collapse and the lack of competition from other global powers and emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East, including through the containment of Iraq and Iran, the extension of U.S. military power to the Persian Gulf, and the efforts to mediate peace between Israel and Arab states.

But these same policies ignited more anti‐​Americanism, and led to the Second Intifada and then to 9/11. From this perspective, 9/11 should have been seen as a challenge to U.S. dominance in the Middle East. But again, no effort was made to reassess the MEP; in fact, the policy paradigm was the framework within which the U.S. response was fashioned. The neoconservatives simply offered a different strategy to achieve U.S. regional supremacy — through regime change and the direct occupation of Arab countries, instead of through the more diplomatic strategy and indirect military approach embraced by earlier administrations.

The costs of following neoconservatives’ advice have become apparent. But most critics of the Bush administration still fail to offer anything other than different policies to achieve U.S. hegemony in the region; they prefer to maintain the current MEP instead of replacing the bankrupt policy paradigm.

But U.S. policymakers need to recognize that the main rationale for U.S. intervention in the Middle East — the Soviet threat — has long since disappeared, and that U.S. military intervention in the region only ignites anti‐​Americanism in the form of international terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. economy is not dependent on Mideast oil; 70 percent of U.S. energy supplies do not originate in the Middle East. The United States is actually more dependent on Latin American oil than it is on Saudi and Persian Gulf oil. And the notion that U.S. policy in the Middle East helps give Americans access to cheap and affordable oil makes little sense, if one considers the military and other costs — including two Gulf Wars — that are added to the price the U.S. consumer pays for driving.

Indeed, U.S. military force is quite likely unnecessary to maintain access to Persian Gulf oil, either for the United States, Western Europe, or Japan. The oil‐​producing states have few resources other than oil, and if they don’t sell it to somebody, they will have little wealth to maintain their power and curb domestic challenges. They need to sell oil more than the United States needs to buy it. If political and military influence is required to keep oil flowing to Western Europe and Japan, and increasingly China, the countries that are truly dependent should be the ones to bear the cost.

The time has come, therefore, to bid farewell to the old MEP and try to draw the outlines of a new policy in the Middle East. There is a need for a long‐​term policy of U.S. “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East that will encourage the Europeans and other global and regional players to take the responsibility of securing their interests in the region.

With the demise of the Soviet threat, continued U.S. intervention in the region serves mainly to promote anti‐​Americanism and terrorism. If a balancer of last resort is needed, let the European Union, with its geographic proximity and economic and demographic ties in the Middle East, do it. Likewise, the main threat to Israel’s survival is not a lack of U.S. assistance, but Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza and its continuing conflict with the Palestinians. U.S. support for Israel now creates disincentives for a settlement. The prospect of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, and of a lower diplomatic profile in the Palestinian‐​Israeli dispute, should produce incentives for both sides, as well as for the Arab states and the E.U., to deal with it.

Washington needs to understand that it doesn’t have the power to resolve these disputes. It should engage in the Middle East through trade and investment and by providing support to those who want to be allies. But by trying to force a U.S. mind‐​set and values on the nations of the Middle East, Washington will only erode its power and produce more anti‐​Americanism.

Of course, the necessary condition for constructive disengagement from the Middle East is a larger U.S. reconsideration of the idea that Washington should be the final arbiter in disputes in the region, which would mean not only tolerating but also welcoming activity by the E.U. and other players. In that context, the foreign policy establishment in Washington would have to recognize that the Palestinian‐​Israeli conflict is now in the process of being “de‐​internationalized,” transformed from a major regional conflict with enormous global ramifications for the United States and other global players, into a more “localized” affair that Washington, at the start of the 21st century, will be able to treat with certain benign neglect.

Benign neglect of the Middle East? Certainly, intellectual Washington’s foreign policy elites and the U.S. public were not conditioned to approach the Middle East with detachment for much of the Cold War. Hence, the notion of abandoning the MEP would not be easy for U.S. policymakers and pundits. It’s difficult to say goodbye to old friends. Just ask some of those veteran Cold Warriors in Washington. Psychiatrists have identified “enemy deprivation syndrome” as a common cause of anxiety among Washington’s wonks.

Consequently, it is more likely that Washington will eventually pull back from its dominant role in the Middle East not through a responsible rethinking of U.S. engagement, but through a series of mounting costs and disasters that eventually lead to a “destructive disengagement” from the region, a disengagement that will look like — and to a great extent, be — a U.S. defeat and retreat.

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