Editor's note: This article is adapted from a paper presented at the workshop Bridging Restraint and Positive Engagement: Toward a New Framework for U.S. Middle East Policy that was co-hosted by DAWN and Yale Law School.
Each of the past three U.S. presidential administrations has looked for ways to reconfigure America's relationship with the Middle East. All have sought to build a more balanced and—at least to some extent—more "restrained" approach to the region. None has succeeded in finding a workable approach.
Barack Obama, for example, entered office determined to draw down the U.S. troop presence in the region from the exceedingly high baseline of the George W. Bush years. Yet his implicit acceptance of the logics of the War on Terror led him to approve a surge of U.S. forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with the goal of rescuing those wars from failure. This, combined with the unexpected eruption in 2011 of widespread protests across the region that became the Arab Spring, prompted U.S. intervention on stated humanitarian and democracy-promotion grounds in Libya and, to a more limited extent, in Syria. Obama's central success in the Middle East was diplomatic: the negotiation of the nuclear agreement with Iran and several world powers. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, the deal not only placed significant restrictions on Iran's nuclear program but helped to lower U.S.-Iran tensions at a time of significant regional turmoil.
Donald Trump, for his part, expressed similar views to Obama during the 2016 campaign—notably, that he was the only credible Republican candidate to criticize the war in Iraq and to promise troop withdrawals from the region. At the same time, his opposition to nation-building was easily overpowered by persuasive advisers, his public distaste for his predecessor, and by his own penchant to use force when challenged. The end result was a slight increase in U.S. troops in the Middle East. The Trump administration's central diplomatic achievement, the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and several Arab states, showed some significant promise at first. But it also threatened to create new regional cleavages, particularly when combined with the administration's deliberate abandonment of the JCPOA and the calcification of increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran.
The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations allowed path dependence and inertia to overwhelm attempts to adequately assess U.S. interests in the region.
- Emma Ashford
Joe Biden finally withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan and initially appeared willing to pivot away from the region, reopen nuclear talks with Iran, and downgrade America's troubled relationship with an increasingly authoritarian Saudi Arabia. Within a year, however, his administration had largely settled on a continuation of Trump-era policies: isolating and containing Iran, and building on the Abraham Accords to create a U.S.-backed security arrangement linking Israel and the Gulf states, eventually including Saudi Arabia. The administration's growing focus on China and great-power competition within the confines of the region was the primary driver of this fundamental about-face. It was also shaped by domestic electoral considerations and concerns about high oil prices in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions on Russian energy.
But it is likely that in the aftermath of Hamas's attacks on Israel in early October and amid Israel's bombardment of Gaza, the administration will continue to "lean-in" to the Middle East as older regional security concerns resurface—most of all, fears of a wider regional war erupting out of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A strategy of restraint has failed to take hold of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East despite the stated aims, in varying degrees, of three consecutive presidents. There are two primary reasons for the failure of all three administrations to navigate the path to a more restrained approach to the region. First, each administration allowed path dependence and inertia to overwhelm attempts to adequately assess U.S. interests in the region today (rather than two decades ago). Second, each demonstrated a profound inability to accept that there are limits to the U.S. ability to shape the region and its states.
Consider U.S. interests in the region first. In reality, they are remarkably limited. Historically, U.S. interests included maintenance of energy flows in the Persian Gulf, support for Israel, an acceptable minimal level of regional instability and—perhaps most importantly—preventing Soviet hegemony of the region. Over time, the U.S. role has expanded to include nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, democracy promotion and a variety of other issues. Most of these extra issues, including counterterrorism and democracy promotion, were added during the heady unipolar 1990s and are not truly core U.S. interests in the Middle East. Even the rise of China as a potential new threat to U.S. interests in the region is not easily comparable to the Soviet threat. And thanks to the shale revolution and other energy innovations, the U.S. is nowhere near as vulnerable or dependent on Middle Eastern oil as it was 40 years ago.
If policymakers are to break free of this pattern of overreach in the Middle East, they need to dramatically downsize what are considered core U.S. interests in the region—those that require a military solution—to a much smaller set: protecting the sea lanes and maintaining regional stability. And when it comes to the latter, the record suggests that a U.S. military presence may be less stabilizing than previously assumed.
The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have all demonstrated a profound inability to accept that there are limits to the U.S. ability to shape the Middle East and its states.
- Emma Ashford
The other lesson that U.S. policymakers should take from the last few administrations is the profound limits of Washington to produce policy change within the states of the region using coercive means. From sanctions to military intervention, the U.S. has often failed to shape the domestic politics of states in the region. Nation-building in Iraq following the U.S. invasion and occupation has been a profound failure. Although U.S. arms sales and support to proxies have been moderately effective in recent conflicts like the fight against ISIS, they are also a narrow, military response that cannot produce the kind of broad societal or economic changes to address the root causes of ISIS's rise.
U.S. policy toward Libya after 2003 and Iran after 2016, meanwhile, has in some ways encouraged nuclear proliferation rather than prevented it; in both cases, the United States would negotiate non-proliferation deals before reneging on them. In the case of Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, the United States negotiated a non-proliferation agreement with Gadhafi that at least implicitly accepted his legitimacy as a leader, suggesting regime security, before helping depose him in the NATO-led intervention in 2011 during the Arab uprisings. Indeed, many states in the region could reasonably have taken the lesson from Libya that giving up their nuclear ambitions is an invitation to regime change.
If U.S. policymakers are to avoid the mistakes of the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, they need to think differently, both about American interests in the region, and about the tools used to achieve them. America's primary interests should be construed far more narrowly: maintaining energy flows, avoiding excessive Chinese influence, and preventing proliferation spirals. Secondary interests—such as promoting economic growth and democratic reform, and limiting the flow of refugees—should be dealt with through non-military and non-coercive toolsets, and with an eye to the long-term, rather than immediate results. Thus a focus on trade and on development aid should be a priority. U.S. policy should aim to mitigate the worst effects of regional conflicts, through diplomatic and economic support that provides aid for refugees and addresses humanitarian crises.
These are undoubtedly less ambitious than the nation-building and democracy-promotion of recent decades, but they are potentially achievable over a long horizon. Perhaps most importantly, U.S. policymakers should endeavor to ensure that the United States acts as a stabilizing force in the region, not the destabilizing one it has been so often this century.