The Middle East’s Strategic Obsolescence

Against my better instincts, I’m going to try to develop the thought that I pithily summarized yesterday by saying that I returned from a two-week vacation and media fast with the sense that the Middle East is “overrated” as a strategic focus of U.S. interests. Against my better instincts, because it goes against 40 years of U.S. strategic calculations, and involves an iconoclastic re-evaluation of the longterm impact of President George W. Bush’s ill-advised, badly intentioned and poorly conceived decision to invade Iraq. I will then try my best to publish the post before second thoughts lead me to dispatch the entire effort to the trash bin.

I’ve argued previously that the Iraq War, with everything that it represents in terms of imperial hubris and overstretch, was inevitable for the U.S. as a unipolar global hegemon, since power rarely finds its own limits in the abstract realm of forebearance, but rather in the concrete realm of failure. I’m convinced now that history will regard that war, launched in order to “remake” the Middle East and cement the U.S. presence there for the foreseeable future, as the beginning of the end of the U.S. military commitment to the region. And I’m convinced that this is a good thing, and a healthy reorientation of America’s global commitments.

The U.S. military commitment to the Middle East is based on two obsolete strategic pillars of the Cold War era: one, to prevent the infiltration of Soviet influence; and two, to guarantee access to oil. All the rest, including the Israeli-Arab conflict, is window dressing.

In the post-Cold War era, “Soviet influence” can be generalized to that of any adversarial power, and “access to oil” to the stability of the global economic order.

With regard to the first, great power rivalries will certainly continue to find some sort of expression in the Middle East, as elsewhere. But the only nation that could conceivably impose a monopolistic sphere of influence in the region of the kind that could threaten U.S. interests is the U.S. And as the outcome in Iraq clearly illustrates, that effort is, in practice, beyond even our overwhelmingly superior military capacity.

As for the second, the global economy managed to shrug off $150-per-barrel oil that resulted, in part, from our efforts to guarantee steady and cheap supplies. That discredits the idea that any dramatic destabilization of oil supplies and prices would have catastrophic effects on global commerce, and by consequence that America’s costly military commitment is necessary to forestall such an eventuality.

In reality, Saddam Hussein was the region’s last belligerent interventionist. It would have been cheaper to contain his ambitions and wait him out. But having removed him from power, the Bush administration essentially removed the last threat of cross-border warfare — “grandfathered” from the Cold War-era — that justified a significant forward military presence.

The key to maintaining stability in the region will increasingly shift away from military coercion and toward the regional and global consensus over economic integration. That’s what I meant when I said yesterday that I find the world’s zones of integration and opportunity more compelling than its zones of conflict and instability. As the center of gravity continues to shift toward the former, it will exert a growing influence over the latter.

As for the one post-Cold War strategic justification for a continued U.S. military presence in the region — i.e., al-Qaida — that’s an effort best conducted indirectly through assistance programs, and robust international policing combined with intelligence and targeted special operations.

When the Iraq War finally does wind down, I have a hunch that the wake of the returning troops will pull most of the U.S. advanced military presence throughout the region back home with it. And despite the intentions of the war’s architects, the Bush administration will have been the initiator of America’s military disengagement from the region.