The Middle East Moves East

The U.S. government's map of the Middle East is changing. Long dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. conceptions of the Middle East are drifting eastward, increasingly centering in the Persian Gulf and coming to envelop the mountains and plains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Seen this way, the U.S. purpose in the region far transcends the need to resolve historical conflicts. The problems of the Middle East now encompass some of the most important challenges to U.S. power and influence in the world.

The signs are subtle but no less clear. In his interview last month with al-Arabiya television, President Obama said, "I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated." The new national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, has criticized the fact that regional divisions in the U.S. government vary from agency to agency, and in resurrecting the Near East and South Asia office at the National Security Council (with three senior directors instead of the one in place at the beginning of the Bush Administration), he sent a signal that he favored knitting the two together. In bureaucratic discussions as well, there is a clear desire to explore the linkages between South Asia and the Middle East.

The shift is not a sign that the United States is abandoning its traditional allies in the Middle East, but it does suggest several important trends. One is a continued move -- begun in the aftermath of Sept. 11 -- toward seeing the Middle East as a source of direct threats to U.S. national security, since this lumping together makes much more sense as a way to understand and contain threats than as a way to maximize opportunities. A second is the heightened importance of energy security to U.S. strategic thinking, given the persistence -- if not escalation -- of security threats in the Gulf and the world's likely dependence on oil for decades more. A third is greater influence for the military, whose Central Command already encompasses the Middle East and reaches east to Pakistan and sees the problems of the area as interconnected.

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