The Middle East is more stable when the United States stays away | Daily News


The Middle East is more stable when the United States stays away

Iranian mourners carry a symbolic coffin wrapped in a US flag during the funeral procession of General Qasem Soleimani in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. - AFP
Iranian mourners carry a symbolic coffin wrapped in a US flag during the funeral procession of General Qasem Soleimani in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. - AFP

As the assassination of Suleimani shows, it might be Washington that is the main spoiler in the region.

It has been a mantra of U.S. foreign policy for a decade or more that, without the United States, the Middle East would descend into chaos. Or even worse, Iran would resurrect the Persian Empire and swallow the region whole.

Yet when U.S. President Donald Trump opted not to go to war with Iran after a series of Iranian-attributed attacks on Saudi Arabia last year and declared his intentions to pull troops out of the region, it wasn’t chaos or conquest that ensued. Rather, nascent regional diplomacy—particularly among Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—and de-escalation followed. To be sure, the cards were reshuffled again in January, when Trump ordered the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, one of Iran’s most important military figures. Courtesy of Trump, the region is once more moving toward conflict, and the early signs of diplomatic progress achieved during the preceding months have vanished.

It is thus time for Washington to answer a crucial question that it has long evaded: Has America’s military dominance in the Middle East prevented regional actors from peacefully resolving conflicts on their own? And in that way, has it been an impediment to stability rather than the guarantor of it?

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter proclaimed a new doctrine: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he stated, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” In the context of the Cold War, preventing the Soviets—the main outside force Carter was worried about—from gaining control over the energy-rich region had a strategic logic.

But over time, that logic shifted. In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan expanded the doctrine to include threats to the flow of oil originating from inside the region, too. As the geopolitical context changed still further, subsequent presidents found even more ways to justify America’s growing military presence in the Middle East. What started as a policy to prevent others from establishing hegemony over the oil-rich waters of the Persian Gulf morphed into a policy of asserting American hegemony in the region in order to “save” it.

As long as U.S. allies lack the capability or competence to secure the region, the thinking went, Washington would have no choice but to shoulder this responsibility. U.S. President George W. Bush was explicit about that; without an increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq, he claimed, there would be chaos in the region. He missed the irony, of course, that his invasion of Iraq was the single most destabilizing event in the Middle East of the past decades.

As the scholars Hal Brands, Steven Cook, and Kenneth Pollack wrote endorsing the Carter Doctrine and its continuation, “the United States established and upheld the basic rules of conduct in the region: the United States would meet efforts to interfere with the free flow of oil by force; uphold freedom of navigation; demand that regional powers give up their irredentist claims on other states or face grave consequences; and prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

This account is accurate enough (although the last rule on the list always exempted Israel), but the story glosses over how the policy also gave cover to U.S. allies for some fairly destabilizing behaviors of their own. That’s an omission Brands makes in a Bloomberg article, too, where he points to Saudi Arabia’s slaughter of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to argue that a “post-American Middle East will not be stable and peaceful. It will be even nastier and more turbulent than it is today.” And in the words of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2018, “If it weren’t for the United States, they’d be speaking Farsi in about a week in Saudi Arabia.”

- Foreign Policy

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