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American Grand Strategy in the Middle East

Flynt LeverettFlynt Leverett, who worked in the arenas of diplomacy and national security during several U.S. administrations, is teaching in the international relations program at the Jackson Center for Global Affairs. He spoke on October 25 on the topic, “American Grand Strategy in the Middle East: On the Road to Failure.”

He said a cluster of issues in the Middle East forms one of two strategic challenges that will largely determine America’s standing as a great power in global affairs. (The other is the phenomenon of rising powers in what he called the Global South.)

He defined grand strategy as “identifying the underlying theory of how the United States should act in the region to generate security for itself and its allies.”

“I think the ways in which the United States has sought to implement the main elements of its grand strategy in the Middle East have grown increasingly dysfunctional to the actual achievement of the goals of that strategy,” he said, “and that is putting the United States at serious risk of strategic failure in what is arguably the world's most vital region.”

Leverett said the grand strategy covers provision of energy security as an international public good; encouragement of a negotiated settlement to the Arab/Israeli conflict; and cultivation of a regional balance of power tilted in favor of the United States and its regional allies. He added, “Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington has effectively added a fourth element to its grand strategy, namely, preventing the region from once again being a platform for launching mass casualty terrorist attacks against the United States, and thus the greater Middle East and its periphery have been the central focus of America’s post-9/11 Global War on Terror.”

He said this strategy has been endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats, although some conservatives have argued the U.S. should seize physical control of oil reserves “and have led the charge against any approach to Arab/Israeli peacemaking that they consider overly demanding of Israel,” while some liberals have been uncomfortable with an approach that, from their perspective, gives short shrift to human rights.

He said the situation now is that the U.S. can project conventional military force in the Middle East for years to come, but on the other hand, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “have underscored the limits on what the United States' military might can accomplish. I think it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. today is a declining power in this critical region.”

He said these two wars have also been detrimental to America’s counterterrorism goals in the Middle East. He quoted another expert’s data showing that anti-American terrorism, especially suicide terrorism, is more frequent now than before 2001. “The more we've gone over there, the more they’ve [terrorists] wanted to come over here.”

Leverett criticized U.S. policy toward Iran, saying the U.S. has endorsed Israel’s determination to “sideline” Iran. He noted that Thomas Donilon, who he said was very pro-Israel when he worked in the Clinton administration, just became President Obama's national security adviser. “America's effective abrogation of its presumptive responsibility for managing the Arab-Israeli conflict has deepened popular resentment of America’s policies throughout the Muslim world – resentment that not even the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States has resolved,” he said.

He outlined a “six-step recovery program” that he predicted would get the U.S. back on track in the Middle East. First is to “avoid another war of choice in the region.” Second, “the United States needs to realign its relationship with Iran, as it did with China in the 1970s. The United States can’t achieve any of its goals in the Middle East absent a more positive and strategic relationship with Iran.”

Third, he said the U.S. must pursue a truly regional strategy in Afghanistan. “Because of U.S. mistakes, it's now necessary to engage the Taliban.”

Fourth, he said the U.S. needs a new approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, “because the actors needed to reach agreement aren't at the table, and they must be engaged without pre-conditions.”

Fifth, the U.S. “cannot end its current role as on-the-ground occupier in the Middle East fast enough.”

And sixth, the U.S. needs to become “a genuine provider of international public goods again.” The responsibility of the hegemonic power – the U.S. – “is to manage shifting geo-political balances and mediate important conflicts.”