More Civilian, Less Military, U.S. Policy Needed in the Middle East
Daniel Serwer is a Senior Research Professor of Conflict Management, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This piece is a synopsis of a longer paper as part of the Middle East Institute's scholar series titled "The Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Elections." The views expressed here are the author's own.
America's allies in the Middle East -- the Sunni Arabs, as well as Israel -- are concerned that the United States is withdrawing and leaving a vacuum that will be filled by jihadi extremists or Shiite Iran. They are right to worry. U.S. interests in the region are declining from Washington's point of view, and so is the need for its military presence. It is not our military but our civilian capabilities that have the best chance of serving remaining American interests across the Middle East, and we need to wield them far more effectively than in the past.
The first priority for the U.S. military in the Middle East has been to keep oil flowing unimpeded to world markets from the Persian Gulf. The United States spends between 12 and 15 percent of the Pentagon's budget on this goal, which former President Jimmy Carter enunciated 36 years ago in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union is gone. The United States, which never imported a big portion of its oil from the Gulf, nevertheless had reason to worry that a supply disruption there would bump up the world market price and cause significant economic damage.
Today, there is little chance of that: The U.S. economy is far less dependent on energy than it was four decades ago; we maintain ample oil stocks in a Strategic Petroleum Reserve; and unconventional production of oil and gas would return quickly at $70 or more per barrel, mitigating any economic impact of a disruption. If Washington is worried about a supply disruption, it would make sense to encourage Gulf countries to increase their pipeline capacity, which would mitigate price increases by ensuring that adequate supply reaches world markets. We should also be convincing India and China to hold larger stocks and to contribute naval forces to guarding the Strait of Hormuz, since they import the lion's share of Gulf oil. It makes no sense for Washington to be spending more than $80 billion per year to keep oil flowing from the Gulf so that Beijing and Delhi can import most of it. Diplomatic means trump military means when it comes to Gulf energy issues.
Terrorism also requires more emphasis on civilian resources. We have been at war with Islamist extremists since the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan. Their number has more than doubled (and may have tripled) since then, while the number of groups has proliferated to many more countries. Fourteen years of military effort have killed more than a few thousand, but there are now tens of thousands in more than a dozen countries, as well as uncounted sympathizers ready to do us harm at home. Our failed efforts at state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan during the decade after the 9/11 attacks should not prevent us from realizing that more inclusive and better governance is vital to combating extremism, especially in territory retaken from the Islamic State in Syria, Libya, and Iraq. Cooperating with the United Nations, the Arab League, Europe, and the Gulf, we need to be sure that new governance vacuums are not allowed to form.
Nuclear nonproliferation has rightly been a major preoccupation for the United States in the Middle East. The nuclear deal with Iran, properly implemented, will postpone the most serious risk for 10 or 15 years. In the meanwhile, we need to build a security architecture that will prevent a regional nuclear arms race a decade hence. We successfully built such an architecture in Europe during the Cold War, greatly reducing the risk of nuclear war with the Soviet Union through a combination of bilateral agreements and multilateral organizations. Doing something comparable in the Middle East will require ending the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen that pit Saudi Arabia and Iran against each other.
Both protagonists will need to be convinced that their competition can be safely pursued in political and economic rather than military channels. For the United States, this means a major civilian diplomatic effort, not a military one. If in the future, military action against Iran were to become necessary to prevent it from going nuclear, standoff weapons from platforms outside the region would permit us to achieve the objective with less risk to our troops.
America's allies in the Middle East will continue to seek our military equipment and training, and we should be willing to provide it. They are unlikely to want our values, in particular human rights and democracy. While the Saudi monarchy is tinkering with elections and even women's political participation at the local level, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq all seem more likely to limit democracy rather than expand it in the years ahead. We'll need to be prepared to continue as best we can to support those who peacefully seek better, more inclusive governance and open societies. The failure of the Arab uprisings everywhere but Tunisia -- where the revolution is still shaky -- indicates that the United States must be prepared to play the long game in the Mideast. Experience suggests military assistance is unlikely to prove an important lever on nonmilitary issues.
U.S. interests in the Middle East have declined and changed. We should be shifting our engagement from military toward civilian means: diplomacy, state-building, and foreign aid. Doing so will serve our current interests better than continuing our primarily military engagement.