Monday, January 29, 2018

Does our broader Middle East strategy need "recalibration?"

Do you get the feeling now and then that our thinking about the American role in the Middle East is a bit ossified - that in some ways we are just going through the motions not so much from thought, but from motor memory?

Bruce W. Jentleson from The Century Foundation, has some thoughts on the topic worthy of your consideration.

I am not fully in line with some of his points as they come from the other sides of the world-view spectrum from me, but in general his call for a "recalibration" of America's position in the Middle East is spot on. His entering argument is a reasonable frame of reference for a conversation.
This reappraisal of interests and reassessment of strategy—here more broadly termed “strategic recalibration”—has four fundamental elements when applied to the Middle East.3 First, strategy needs to shift from regional dominance to regional balance. The United States must accept that Russia and China are global powers with interests in the region, and stop seeking to minimize their presence and assure American preponderance. Instead, a forward-thinking strategy should combine competition, collaboration, and complementarity. Second, in relations with traditional Arab allies, and Saudi Arabia in particular, the United States has to move beyond the “support our friends” mantra and be more assertive of its own interests where they differ on counterterrorism, domestic political reform, and overall regional security architecture. Third, even if U.S. policy toward Iran will continue to focus on containment, depending on the latter’s aggression, Washington should also seriously and creatively pursue diplomacy, and probe possibilities for substantial improvement in relations with Tehran. Fourth, even though the United States and Israel have faced divisive issues in the past, their greater divergence on the issues of Israeli-Palestinian peace and Iran, combined with political changes in both American and Israeli domestic support bases for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, poses significant challenges that must be addressed. The United States needs to maintain its commitment to Israel’s core security even as it supports a two-state solution.
His first point is best. The USA should act more like a mercantile republic, and less like an empire. Russia, China, and others have interests there. As long as they don't interfere in a hostile way with ours, why not accept that fact? What is the cost/benefit that we are willing to accept to keep them out if the nations of the area want them in?  

Russia now clearly wants back into the Middle East. Syria is the most obvious example. Russia’s September 2015 military intervention in the Syrian conflict has had a number of objectives. These include direct, tangible objectives such as supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad and solidifying an ongoing military presence in the region through expanded military basing in Syria. But Russia’s actions also have indirect, message-sending objectives such as taking a stand against yet another American-supported regime change and—along with its moves in Ukraine—demonstrating that it is back in the global geopolitical game. But Syria is not the sole focus of attention, as Russia has also been increasing relations with other major countries in the region.

Russian-Egyptian relations have grown closer since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in his 2013 military coup. Moscow and Cairo convened their own tracks of Syrian peace talks as alternatives to the official United Nations (UN) Geneva talks, which were dominated by the United States. Egypt supported Russian efforts to block UN Security Council resolutions seeking to end the September 2016 Aleppo siege and the humanitarian crisis it caused. In October 2016, Russia and Egypt held joint military exercises, something the United States and Egypt had done regularly until 2011. More meetings have been taking place at the ministerial level in search of new economic and military agreements. Russia supplies close to 60 percent of Egyptian wheat imports; with inflation projected as high as 36 percent and Sisi trying to maintain bread subsidies to avoid food riots, this external economic support is vital to Egypt’s internal political stability.7 In March 2017, Russia deployed special forces to western Egypt. These forces then reportedly moved into Libya in support of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, who had been receiving some U.S. support but now is referred to as “Moscow’s man.”8
China’s Middle East role is also increasing. Oil is China’s principal interest in the region. It imports almost 60 percent of its oil, and over half of that comes from the Gulf. The United States imports just 28 percent of all the oil it consumes, with just 16 percent of imports coming from the Gulf. It has been estimated that by 2020 (albeit based on pre-Trump policies) imports will be down to 11 percent of total American oil consumption, which the United States could satisfy solely with imports from Canada and Mexico.18 Still, it is doubtful that the United States would choose that option. Even if it did, security of world oil supplies would still be a U.S. interest because of both its allies’ dependencies and the broader economic effects, including on financial markets, of such security. But given the shared interests in Gulf oil, and China’s arguably greater interest, the United States does not stand to lose much if anything by letting China take on some of the responsibility for, stakes in, and costs of assuring the security of Gulf maritime shipping routes. China already conducted joint navy exercises in the Gulf with Iran in 2014 that, while focused more on their bilateral concerns, did show the Chinese Navy’s oceanic reach (“blue-water capacity”).

China’s own natural preference is to free-ride on the U.S. Navy. It is not Trumpian economic nationalism or Rand Paulian isolationism to propose shared roles and shared costs. Indeed, having more than just American ships in those waters could provide further disincentive for terrorists or Iran to attack or otherwise disrupt Gulf shipping. Shared operations could be structured like the multilateral antipiracy operations off the Horn of Africa, with more informal complementarity than direct coordination. Much detail would need to be worked out, but this collaboration could be an example of collective interests taking precedence over zero-sum competition. Those concerned that expanded economic relations and military presence will bring China greater influence can take some comfort in the fact that U.S. leverage remains limited despite Washington’s far more extensive economic, military, and diplomatic ties.19
His conclusion should be, if nothing else, a conversation starter.
Given that Russia and China have interests in the region, and a number of regional states are interested in increased relations with them, regional dominance is simply not a viable strategy. Nor is it necessary for American interests. A combination of competition, collaboration, and complementarity is more likely to be effective. Traditional allies should not be abandoned, but the United States needs to be more honest with itself and with them—Saudi Arabia in particular—about the mix of shared and divergent interests, and be more assertive of its own interests where they differ on counterterrorism, domestic political reform, and regional security architecture. Opportunities as well as threats need to frame relations with Iran. To the extent that Iran’s aggression continues, containment needs to be the principal response. But the United States should pursue, creatively and seriously, possibilities for a breakthrough that would improve relations, and do so in ways that allow it to be consistent with commitments to regional allies. Further, the United States needs to maintain its commitment to Israel’s core security while supporting a two-state solution and, as warranted, pursuing diplomacy with Iran.

The makers and implementers of American foreign policy may well need to reappraise U.S. interests and corresponding strategies worldwide, but such a reappraisal, the essence of strategic recalibration, is especially crucial for the Middle East.

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