America In or Out of the Middle East?

Michael Cohen (at Foreign Policy) and Matt Duss (at the American Prospect) have pieces out today that capture well the dilemma the United States faces in the Middle East. Both reference the newly-emerging political systems in several regional countries, and note the problems these democratic (or part-democratic) systems pose for Washington’s ability to manage, much less control, events there.

Both also appropriately note that American analysts too often perceive of regional events, and America’s abilities and interests there, only in terms of “us” (Michael’s word), without considering the agency and actions of local actors. Their big difference appears to be in that Michael considers the US more “impotent” in the region than not, forcing it “to try and shape events around the margins,” while Matt believes the US can play a bigger role in shaping outcomes, just a very different one from the past (by “model[ing] liberal democratic practices”).

I certainly agree that it makes no sense to think the US can control events in the region; the historical record, as I’ve argued before, demonstrates that Washington’s ability to achieve outcomes there is conditioned on the decisions and willingness of regional actors.

And it’s also certainly true that changes in both the Middle East and in the world as a whole are creating new dynamics in which the United States will be more constrained in its ability to do what it wants, however slowly this might happen.

In the Middle East it’s obvious that Washington’s leadership is highly constrained: Israel under a rightwing government views its foreign policies through a very narrow lens, often ignoring American and world concerns and pressures. (For the record, this was a pattern already evident before Benjamin Netanyahu came to power a second time.) The Arab states whose authoritarian regimes have been toppled or made more inclusive have to worry about their own internal politics, while the regimes that remain in place have to worry about their own security and power. Iran hasn’t given any indication of a readiness to engage with the US (and by extension, Israel) in a constructive manner. And a host of inter- and intra-state conflicts and challenges continue to wrack much of the region, some more violent and problematic than others.

But I’m not convinced the US is as helpless as many have indicated. I’m not sure Michael or Matt would use that term to describe Washington in the Middle East, but one gets the sense that the sheer ambiguity of regional developments and inability to predict even the near future in the region causes considerable doubt among many.

The international system remains an American-centric one: as some institutionalists argue, the world’s main security, political, and economic structures were constructed by the US, and continue to run on American support in one way or another. Everybody still expects the US to exercise leadership.

The problem is that that leadership has been timid, ill-informed, and hostage to the vagaries of domestic American politics. These conditions downplay a more forceful American foreign policy in favor of a more reactive one, which is one in which the US loses the ability to protect its interests and position.

At the same time, many analysts have been telling Washington that it needs to work in tandem or directly with the democratic forces at play in the Arab world (though there seems to be less interest in Israel’s own democratic structure and a blind spot regarding flaws in Turkey’s democracy). Of course the US should encourage democracy in the region—it would be morally obtuse to expect it of ourselves but think it’s not relevant for others.

But these arguments often portray a choice for the US as one between this reactive, “gentler” policy and a more militarized and militant one in which force is the appropriate instrument. This is a false dichotomy, and again, it diminishes the agency that the US can exert on its own behalf.

It might be ironic that Obama has been demonstrating some of this needed resolve toward Israel. But even here, more American assertiveness is needed, particularly on the more difficult issue of the peace process. It’s become, since the George W. Bush presidency, a negative thing to talk about the US throwing its weight around. It certainly can be a negative thing (for example, when the argument is that the US needs to invade more countries), but it doesn’t have to be.

The global institutions are in place for the US to exert a much more vigorous role in working to manage successful transitions to peaceful, democratic, and prosperous systems around the world; to manage threats to global peace and security; and to push friends, allies, and others to resolve their conflicts without violence. It certainly can’t do all or any of this on its own, and our expectations should be tempered; but the US needs to start trying harder toward such ends.


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