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The U.S. Lacks Interests in the Mideast

October 21st, 2012

That’s the headline for my latest piece in The National Interest. Opening paras over the fold

he foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is expected to spend a lot of time on the attacks on embassies in Libya and Egypt, which were either sparked by an absurdly bigoted anti-Islamic film or used this film as cover for a pre-planned terror attack. Whatever its value as a debating point, this episode has laid bare the bipartisan incoherence of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

Mitt Romney’s immediate response focusing on the question of whether the administration had “apologized for America” was widely criticized as misinformed and ill timed. But Romney’s mishandling of the issue distracted attention from the administration’s own disarray, symbolized by President Obama’s confusion over whether Egypt is or is not a U.S. ally.

The crisis in Syria provides an even more graphic illustration of the incoherence of the foreign-policy debate. It is generally agreed that the civil war now raging in Syria is, or ought to be, a matter of grave concern to the United States. The administration’s position, demanding an end to the rule of Bashar al-Assad but taking few concrete steps to bring this about, has been widely criticized. But the proposed alternative policies run the gamut from immediate military intervention on the side of the rebels to tacit, and occasionally overt, support for the status quo.

This confusion, in turn, reflects the way the Arab Spring has upended the dominant narratives in U.S. discussion of Middle Eastern policy.

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  1. October 21st, 2012 at 19:03 | #1

    “…demanding an end to the rule of Bashar al-Assad but taking few concrete steps to bring this about…”

    You mean apart from funding, equiping, arming, having KSA funnel fighters and co-ordinating via the CIA from the Turkish side of the border assistance to the terrrsts/freedom-fighters?

  2. October 21st, 2012 at 19:09 | #2

    PS: “wearechange.org” asked Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Congresswoman and Chair of the Democratic National Committee, about Obama’s “Kill List”.

    She said she had never heard of such a thing.

    Terrifying.

  3. John Quiggin
    October 21st, 2012 at 19:31 | #3

    @Megan

    I saw that – striking

  4. October 21st, 2012 at 19:54 | #4

    Pr Q said:

    This confusion, in turn, reflects the way the Arab Spring has upended the dominant narratives in U.S. discussion of Middle Eastern policy.

    I am not sure that it is the “Arab Spring” that has up-ended the apple cart. The US political dynamic is shifting, with most American citizens sick of losing blood and treasure in yet another Middle Eastern misadventure. But their is a disconnect between the US’s disengaged or discouraged citizens and its Israel lobby-ridden state. The isolationist populist Ron Paul is a significant straw in the wind.

    Israel is overwhelmingly the dominant military power in the ME with the destruction of the Baathist/pan-Arabist parties in Iraq, Egypt, Syria. The trouble is that the regimes that replace the Baathists will probably be chaotic Islamist. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

    Thats why I can’t stand Middle East politics. There are no good guys there, its just vendettas for the sake of vendettas, group selection gone mad. (Although I do “barrack” for the Azkhenazi Jews for mostly unworthy reasons of personal prejudice. But I pity any other party that has to haggle with them over real estate.) The less we have to do with their ancient and alien feuds, either over there or here, the better – for all parties concerned.

    I dare say that most Americans, after a generation of expensive and unprofitable encounters, are gradually coming around to the same conclusion, that they are well out the area.

    But alot of heavy-hitting US politicians feel that they cannot afford to draw flak from AIPAC. The last US politician to tell the Likud to take a walk was James Baker and no one talks about him or his former boss much any more. Obama-DEMs are tip-toeing gingerly around the issue (thank God he had Osama whacked to cover his right-wing flank) whilst Romney-REPs are still in thrall of the neo-cons.

    The Likud will never give ground on the West Bank, for any number of personal and political reasons. but also for professional reasons, namely the risk of queering the Israeli real estate boom. Tel Aviv real estate is going gang busters mainly due to the influx of cashed-up Russian Jews and the return of the Brighton Beach diaspora. No way would any US politician want to get in the way of that trade.

    But this boom is under threat from hi-tech terrorist threats emerging out of the anarchic conditions developing in the Middle East in general and West Bank in particular. It would be in range of cheap drones launched by a Palestinian West Bank state. Just a couple of cheap drones a day would be enough to cause a capital flight and massive economic contraction.

    So the Palestinians can just forget about getting political independence for the time being, which will probably be forever.

  5. TerjeP
    October 21st, 2012 at 21:06 | #5

    The isolationist populist Ron Paul is a significant straw in the wind.

    Ron Paul is noninterventionist rather that isolationist. But otherwise yes his rise to prominence does signal a shift in public sentiment regarding endless wars. Romney on the other hand is appealing to neo-conservatives not libertarians. Neo conservatives still hold a lot of sway.

  6. TerjeP
    October 21st, 2012 at 21:16 | #6
  7. October 21st, 2012 at 21:32 | #7

    Pr Q said:

    Closely related is the belief that Iran is a dangerous, hostile power that the United States must act to contain and whose government it should seek to overthrow. As Paul Pillar points out [3], U.S. policy on Iran is full of contradictions, leading to responses that are counterproductive at best.

    Actually the US-backed economic sanctions are having a powerful effect on the Iranian state policy, probably more than Mossad assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. The rial is tanking and Iranian citizens are blaming their clerical government.

    Money talks a more persuasive language than lawyers or guns.

  8. Ikonoclast
    October 21st, 2012 at 23:04 | #8

    I don’t think we can say the US lacks interests in the Middle East. It might have fewer interests in the Middle East now but it still has some. The Realpolitik is that superpowers do play a global geostrategic game.

    The Strait of Hormuz has to be kept open and oil production from Saudi Arabia and Iraq assured (as swing producers). Israel can’t be dumped as an ally. It’s just too handy as a central strong point in the M.E. However, all other countries in the M.E. can probably be ignored militarily speaking unless they try to close the Strait of Hormuz. There is also no point in being in Afghanistan.

    Generally speaking the US should let most countries of MENA go their own way with a “no harm/no help” non-involvement policy. Given the kind of “help” the West usually gives such countries they would be much better off without our “help”.

  9. October 21st, 2012 at 23:33 | #9

    So why do the Straits of Hormuz have to be kept open? Or more specifically, why does the US have to keep them open? Actually, how does the US keep them open? I know that to keep the straits open people have to not mine the straits or sink ships in them, but does the US military actually refrain people from doing that? I would think that police work would be best to stop sub-national groups from trying to close the straits, and if a nation did it, well, they really wouldn’t be popular with anyone now, would they? I can’t really see how it would be in the national interest. But if one of the nations in the Gulf wanted to do it, it wouldn’t really be possible to stop them. Maybe I should start watching the more modern James Bond movies and see if this question’s been answered.

  10. PeakVT
    October 22nd, 2012 at 01:40 | #10

    The United States long has derived most of its oil either from domestic sources or from the Americas.

    While strictly true, the US still imports huge amounts of oil that is purchased in global markets by multinational companies for US consumption. So the US refined products market is vulnerable to fluctuations in the global crude oil market. And the fraction imported directly from Persian Gulf countries (about 20% of all imports) is not insignificant. (Of course, the US has been monumentally foolish in trying to maintain the flow of cheap oil instead of putting more effort into conservation. But that’s an issue for another day.) I think that any discussion of the strategic importance of crude oil from the Middle East needs to note that, at least until the past 5 years or so, Saudi Arabia was the main swing producer, as well as a major producer of light sweet crude, which refineries find much tastier than heavy and/or sour varieties. Those factors increased the importance of the region beyond what the raw numbers would indicate.

  11. Ikonoclast
    October 22nd, 2012 at 07:14 | #11

    @Ronald Brak

    “The Strait of Hormuz … is a strait between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. It is the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean and is one of the world’s most strategically-important choke points. On the north coast is Iran, and on the south coast is the United Arab Emirates and Musandam, an exclave of Oman. At its narrowest, the strait is 21 nautical miles (39 km) wide.

    About 20% of the world’s petroleum, and about 35% of the petroleum traded by sea, passes through the strait making it a highly important strategic location for international trade.” – Wikipedia.

    This illustrates why the Strait (singular) is important and must be kept open or major disruption to the world economy will occur. I’d echo others who have said it would be better if we had begun converting to renewable energy sooner but as we haven’t oil is still economically strategic.

    Iran can ship oil without using the Strait by using the ports of Jask and Char Bahar which are outside the Strait. Iran can also ship oil via the Caspian Sea. The Strait is narrow and could easily be closed, blockaded and mined. Prevention is better than cure. The presence of a US carrier fleet deters such action. Action successfully detered prevents the need for an alternative e.g. an all out war with Iran.

  12. Troy Prideaux
    October 22nd, 2012 at 07:26 | #12

    From what I’ve heard reasonably recently, the amount of military hardware in the straights during the recent situation is very substantial. Some described it as like nothing they’ve ever witnessed before.

  13. Ikonoclast
    October 22nd, 2012 at 12:04 | #13

    @Troy Prideaux

    As a general “law” of military strategy, it is easier to hold a position or theatre of operation than to assault it. It is easier for the US and allies to hold the Strait of Hormuz (with a carrier group) and thus deter a takeover and closure of it by Iran (most likely culprit if any).

    If the US stood off and vacated the theatre it could invite a takeover and closure by Iran. The US would then have to re-take the theatre of operations and assault Iran, at least by air and sea assets, to support the operation. This would be be a far worse escalation of the situation. Holding the theatre deters a takeover. Holding the theatre makes war with Iran less likely. Appeasement or backdowns in the face of totalitarian regimes do not work. They just encourage aggressive expanionism which requires worse conflicts in the future.

    However, the position in Iraq and Afghanistan is somewhat different. The first Iraq war (Desert Storm) had limited objectives (eject Iraq from Kuwait and punish not so much the entire Iraqi army, as the Republican Guard as the core of Saddam’s military power and regime support). The second Iraq war was commenced on a set of false pretexts and pushed way too far into regime change and occupation. This second war and occupation was unneccessary, enormously wasteful, counter-productive and even genocidal. The attack on Afghanistan also never served any good purpose. Afghanistan is a quagmire and of no strategic value to the US.

    The Taliban regime was terrible but with the invasion the “cure” has become worse than the disease. A “no help – no harm” non-involvement policy would be best re Afghanistan and possibly even Pakistan.

  14. Jim Rose
    October 22nd, 2012 at 13:43 | #14

    Iran could always go for nuclear latency: the condition of a country possessing the technology to quickly build nuclear weapons, without having actually yet done so.

    Because such latent capability is not proscribed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty this is called the “Japan Option”. Japan is a clear case of a big advanced country with the complete technical prowess and nuclear materials to develop a nuclear weapon quickly.

    On Iran, Tom Schelling has said:
    • He did not know if there is any way to stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons.
    • If they do, we should try to persuade them to declare — as the Indians and Pakistanis have done — that they are for deterrence and defence, not for offensive use.
    • The USA should assist the Iranians in making sure custody of their weapons are secure in any time of disruption. In the case of a riot in the streets, will the weapons be safe? Who might grab them in case of civil war?

    Schelling suggested that the Iranians should have access to technology like in the U.S. which disables bombs if they get into the wrong hands. U.S. weapons have permissive action links— a radio signal code that arms weapons but that will also automatically disarm them it if launched at an unauthorized target. That is the interest that U.S. has in Iran.

  15. Katz
    October 22nd, 2012 at 13:53 | #15

    Since the 1970s and the events listed by JQ — the Yom Kippur War, the Gas Embargo, and the collapse of the Pahlavi regime — the US has acted as a catalyst for unwelcome developments in the Middle East.

    Yet, it is incorrect to view these events as all of a piece. The collapse of the Pahlavi regime is different and more significant than the other two. The Pahlavi regime was viewed as the lynchpin of US strategic and economic interests in the region. The US invested more treasure and prestige in propping up that regime than any other. Not only was Iran an oil giant, it was the largest country in the region.

    However, the US did not take sufficient notice of the fact that Iran distinguished itself from the rest of the region in two important ways — it isn’t Sunni and it isn’t Arab. While the government of Iran remained nominally secular and a puppet of the US, these factors didn’t matter.

    Fatally for US prestige and influence, the rise of Shiite theocracy in Iran turbocharged different and competing views of islamism throughout the region as Shiite islamism threatened to overturn Sunni hegemony everywhere. The failure of the US to consolidate the Pahlavis has set of a chain of cause and effect that drives politics in every muslim nation from Mali to Pakistan. American blundering in Iraq since 2003 has exacerbated this problem. For example, in Egypt, the US spent a fortune propping up tyrannies whose only rationale was as a bulwark against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, clients of Iran, were capable of persuading local Christians to join an alliance against local Sunni. In Palestine, the resistance movement became less secular and more islamist. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain contain turbulent and dissatisfied Shiite minorities.

    The US has spent the last decade fighting against different manifestations of Sunni islamism seemingly oblivious of the fact that its strategic interests in the region lay in finding a balance of power that preserves the peace while leaning against Iran-led Shiite islamism. It now seems that there is nothing that the US can do to prevent the spread of Sunni/Shiite civil war throughout the region. The US wants both sides to lose but there is no alternative to either of them.

  16. Ikonoclast
    October 22nd, 2012 at 13:53 | #16

    I wonder if countries like Iran and Nth Korea realise any nuclear weapons they might possess (some relatively small number) are totally unusable in any real conflict sense. If they use even one (or any other number) they will cease to exist forthwith as any kind of recognisable nation state.

  17. Ikonoclast
    October 22nd, 2012 at 14:24 | #17

    Just to clarify my above comment, Nth Korea and Sth Korea (plus allies) are in a state of unresolvable strategic stand-off. The situation is lose-lose if either side starts a conflict. Specifically, civilization would cease to exist on the Korean peninsular. Neither can either side get the other side to back down from the strategic standoff. The situation has been in stasis for over 50 years and looks almost certain to continue in stasis for another fifty years. It is in no-one’s interest to wipe out the Korean peninsular.

  18. Katz
    October 22nd, 2012 at 14:48 | #18

    The DPRK probably views its nuke as a clove of garlic to ward off US invasion. And it’s probably an effective measure.

    Do you think that the US would have dared invade Iraq if the Bush clique believed that Saddam really had a nuke?

  19. pablo
    October 23rd, 2012 at 08:31 | #19

    Slightly off topic but I’m intrigued by the recent defection of a Nth Korean soldier across the DMZ after killing two superior officers. South Korea seem to have taken him in amidst much fanfare – minus the detail of him having to ‘awaken’ their guards to announce himself.
    Is there no case for his return to North Korea because of the unresolved conflict? No Geneva convention? No moral case applying?

  20. Ikonoclast
    October 23rd, 2012 at 09:12 | #20

    @Katz

    A nuke or two has deterrent power for sure. In the case of small countries and minor nuclear powers, the paradoxical thing is that the deterrent is effective only while not used. Using the deterrent is suicide. That is why, I guess, the Nth Korean regime likes to look mad. So the US will fear they are mad enough to use it.

  21. Katz
    October 23rd, 2012 at 12:19 | #21

    True, Ikonoclast.

    I imagine that the DPRK’s nuke is conceived to deter invasion rather than to ward off invasion.

    In other words, the US and/or the South Koreans need to be concerned about the possibility of a nuclear blast near one or more of their troop concentrations within the DPRK. And, of course, the nuisance of radioactivity in the region after the blast.

    This consideration must have a major impact on any calculation of the costs and benefits of invasion.

  22. PeakVT
    October 23rd, 2012 at 12:54 | #22

    Katz :
    The DPRK probably views its nuke as a clove of garlic to ward off US invasion. And it’s probably an effective measure.

    Having a nuke is unnecessary for NK. First, any attack on NK would draw in China again, leading to a direct confrontation, which the US doesn’t want to have. Second, NK has long had the capability of leveling most of Seoul with conventional weapons, which has been MAD-like deterrent. A nuke does give NK the threat of leveling a Japanese city in response to an American attack (or the even less likely circumstance of a Japanese attack), so building one did increase the amount of deterrence NK has at hand. But it probably wasn’t necessary.

    Besides, NK has no oil and is nowhere near Israel. The people who drive US foreign policy are primarily interest in those two issues. Attacking NK would be good for the defense industry and the broadcast media, but at the same time the military brass knows quite well such an attack would not turn out well. So it was never likely to happen during the Bush administration. Nor would it under a Romney administration, even though he’s brought the Iraq War band back together to be his foreign policy advisers.

  23. Katz
    October 23rd, 2012 at 16:00 | #23

    Nuanced policy is seldom the hallmark of paranoid totalitarians, PVT.

  24. PeakVT
    October 23rd, 2012 at 23:21 | #24

    That’s true. But just because somebody thinks the garlic works doesn’t mean it’s the real reason they aren’t being attacked by vampires.

  25. Katz
    October 24th, 2012 at 07:36 | #25

    The precautionary principle might recommend to anyone strolling through Transylvania the small inconvenience of carrying a clove of garlic.

    After all, another member of the “Axis of Evil” did find himself in Transylvania without garlic. He ended on a dingy gallows.

    At a more general level, no one knows why they AREN’T attacked by vampires. And even the puncture wounds on the neck of victims allow only inferential conclusions about why victims WERE attacked.

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