The Biden Administration’s recent strike on the facilities of Iranian-backed militias in Syria raised a hullabaloo beyond expectations, especially in light of the fact that ordering an airstrike in the Near East has become almost a presidential rite of passage. Still, discussion of the strike has shown that we need to think more concretely and strategically about the administration’s regional political priorities.
It is a commonplace to deride U.S. Near East policy as “lacking strategy.” Within that piece of received wisdom lies a bundle of other truisms: that the United States has no strategic goal in the Near East; that petrochemical concerns drove our engagement there in the first place; that the current U.S. posture stems from little more than institutional inertia; that its heavy-handedness alienates potential allies; that the partnership with Israel, with its alleged support for alleged Israeli expansionism, impedes the formation of other advantageous alliances; and that, in light of the foregoing, any further engagement or escalation is a definite overstretch.
These tropes typically come from the mouths of people who stand close to policy, at least the policy of one of the parties.
The United States has certainly made mistakes in the Near East. It took our military too long to recognize the realities of a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. Bureaucratic infighting produced a mismatch between military and political objectives. And, depending on the party in power, the United States has oscillated between a 19th-century liberal moralism, complete with feckless handwringing over religious persecution, and democratic utopianism.
It is equally certain that sound strategic logic ought to drive future U.S. action in the Near East. The region is critical to any state that has global interests. The importance of the area predates the discovery of oil by around two thousand years; the first indications of its geopolitical relevance appear in the Bible. The ancient Israelites lived at the nexus of several great empires. They prospered through diplomatic maneuver and by gaining wealth from the intercontinental trade transiting the Levantine Basin. Persia’s Achaemenids also derived wealth from the region. One factor in the ascendance of the Greeks was their power over the Levantine Basin before and during Alexander’s conquest of it.
Rome won its most important victories along the Mediterranean coastline of the Near East. The region’s breadbasket was Egypt; the Levant was its central commercial nexus. Rome’s competition with Near Eastern empires—first Parthia, then the Sassanid Persians—was a contest for this lucrative economic chokepoint. After the Roman Empire split and its Western half collapsed, Byzantium continued Rome’s wars against Persia. The conflict ended only with Islam’s ascendency and the Caliph Omar’s conquest of Iran and the Levant.
Since then, the competition has persisted. Venice and its Italian neighbors fought over the Eastern Mediterranean’s lucrative trade routes. The Ottomans, once they consolidated control over Egypt and the Levant, fought two centuries of war over Near Eastern littorals, against Portugal and the Safavids in the south and east and Venice and the Habsburgs in the west. The Sultanate’s Balkan fixation led to its loss of regional maritime control in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean and, thus, to its decay.
In other words, great-power interest in the Near East throughout history has stemmed from factors independent of global energy flows.
The Stakes Today
The Suez Canal not only intensified the importance of the Near East to international trade but provided a critical strategic bonus: The ability to move unmolested through the canal made it possible to coordinate European and Asian forces much more effectively. Thus, British control of the region was critical to Allied victory in both world wars.
As Britain’s empire unraveled, America was faced with a choice. The hard-headed statesmen who walked Washington’s halls of power from the 1950s onward had few doubts about the importance of regional engagement. They made clear mistakes—foremost among them trusting Iran’s Shah and mismanaging his transition from power. But they also made strategically sound choices, working with reliable regional partners Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and, increasingly, Saudi Arabia during the 1970s, and standing up the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force in 1980.
Today, what does the United States get from its engagement in the Near East? It gains the power to arbitrate in a strategically and economically critical region, a necessity during a period of global competition. When the prophets of liberal globalization insist that the world is more connected than ever before, strategists respond with a corollary: For a great power that wants to retain its dominance, each region influences every other.
We have seen that abandoning the Near East has dire consequences. America’s regional allies—most important, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—suffered eight years of neglect, from 2008 to 2016. The Obama Administration’s Near East objectives were unclear, but there were two possible rationales. First, it was thought that a “thaw” with the Islamic Republic of Iran would lead to a regional realignment, isolating Saudi Arabia and showing what Obama regarded as a problematic Israel that the United States had other strategic options. Second, by mitigating Iran’s direct threat to the United States, Washington policymakers could justify progressive strategic disengagement, making it possible to devote increased resources to countering China.
All strategic choices carry risks; but extrication or realignment in the Near East is far more dangerous than the alternative, which is to support the budding alliance among Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. All three countries, particularly the first two, are status quo powers. Despite fearmongering over Israel’s religious Right, Israel lacks the desire and population to expand beyond limited, strategically critical territories. Saudi survival stems from its impartiality as guardian of Mecca and Medina; conquest would imply caliphal pretensions from the House of Saud. The UAE, a federation of otherwise vulnerable principalities, has no interest in regional transformation: Realignment toward Iran would entail siding with an openly avaricious regime against three of the region’s more reasonable powers.
America has now seen the consequences of strategic neglect and uncertainty. Saudi Arabia, fearing abandonment, took matters into its own hands—escalating a brutal war in Syria and bringing down the proverbial hammer on Yemen, to ruinous effect. Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have all reached out to Russia, seeking a direct line to another great power in the event of America’s departure. Whatever history’s judgment of the Trump Administration, the Abraham Accords were a strategic triumph: They solidified the budding alliance between Israel and the Gulf, securing American interests by countering Iranian expansion.
There should be no illusions about the potential benefits of either realignment or withdrawal: Ensuring European security without Near Eastern stability is nearly impossible. Russia’s reach now extends through the Black Sea to the central Mediterranean. With its secure rear, it will be able to pressure NATO’s soft underbelly at will during any confrontation, intensifying existing incongruities of interest that exist within the Atlantic Alliance. At some point, a Russian settlement may be politically prudent; but negotiation from a position of weakness amounts to capitulation when one’s diplomatic partner is a kleptocratic mafia state.
The Beltway adage that “personnel is policy” holds true to a point. President Biden’s strike on Syria notwithstanding, a renewed thaw with Iran is likely as the Biden Administration hews to the policy of its Democratic predecessor. While the policy’s prudence is doubtful, its supporters argue for the rationality of seeking common ground with a dangerous adversary; this is a reminder of rationality’s limitations, as our experience with Iran over the past forty years ought to remind U.S. policymakers. The greater danger, however, is the growing de-linkage between our Asia and Near East policies.
The Near East continues to demand U.S. strategic attention. Reorienting U.S. power toward Asia is reasonable, albeit not a justification for sacrificing U.S. interests elsewhere. Without strategic coherence, America will reap the costs of Near East disengagement while gaining none of reorientation’s benefit. Détente with Iran’s ruling mullahs is an ignis fatuus.
It is a new administration’s right to undo its predecessor’s work—especially in foreign policy, where a president has the greatest latitude. But unwinding the last four years’ diplomatic achievements would result in a colossal policy blunder: driving Israel and the Gulf Arabs into Russia’s waiting arms.
Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and from 1984 to 1989 as deputy undersecretary of the Navy. Harry Halem is a research assistant at Hudson Institute and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.
Image by Amir Pashaei, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92710721
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