Let's end America's "Middle East First" policy

No more nation-building: Let's downsize the Pentagon and reassert our economic might

Published February 1, 2011 12:01PM (EST)

A U.S. soldier of Charlie Company 1-15 Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat team, 3rd Infantry Division, passes next to a wall painted with the Iraqi flag during a routine patrol in Salman Pak, about 30 miles (45 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) (Associated Press)
A U.S. soldier of Charlie Company 1-15 Infantry, 3rd Brigade Combat team, 3rd Infantry Division, passes next to a wall painted with the Iraqi flag during a routine patrol in Salman Pak, about 30 miles (45 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris) (Associated Press)

The crisis in Egypt, however it plays out, provides Americans with an opportunity to reconsider the role of the Middle East in American foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has pursued a global grand strategy centered on the Middle East, while treating the rise of China as a secondary strategic concern. The growing costs of both excessive military intervention in the Middle East and inattention to China’s military and economic policies raise the question of whether America's obsession with the Middle East has been an expensive distraction.

Because military resources and attention spans are limited, American strategies tend to focus on one or two critical regions from which the greatest security or economic threats might emerge. Isolationists who advocate an America First strategy are unlikely to get their way, as long as threats to American security from within the Americas are perceived to be minor. Nor does a Europe First strategy make sense, as long as Europe is peaceful, prosperous and allied with the U.S. It is the problem children who get attention, not the well-behaved.

In an industrial civilization, an industrial great power like the U.S. can be threatened by other industrial great powers that convert their economic strength into military power, or by countries that, although not great powers themselves, can control or disrupt the flow of energy supplies on which the economies of the industrial powers depend. East Asia is the region that contains the only industrial great power, China, which in a few decades might be a "peer competitor" or rival to the United States. The Middle East is the region with the greatest concentration of the fuels on which machine civilization depends.

Today’s American grand strategy can be described as Middle East First. During the Cold War, the Middle East was a zone for proxy wars between the two superpowers. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was followed by the first U.S. war against Iraq in 1991, the U.S. has sought to establish itself as the sole military superpower in the region. If the Greater Middle East is defined to include the partly Muslim areas of the Balkans like Bosnia and Kosovo, Central Asia including Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Horn of Africa, then since 1989 the U.S. in addition to numerous small-scale strikes and interventions has fought five major wars in the region -- Bosnia, Kosovo, the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the Afghan War. Only the Afghan war was a response to the al-Qaida attacks of 9/11. The other wars had different causes or pretexts, but their effect was extending and solidifying America’s military domination of the Greater Middle East.

America’s Middle East policy is about oil, but not in the simple sense that U.S. oil companies dictate U.S. foreign policy. America’s client-states in Japan and Europe are much more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the U.S. Having lost a rationale for maintaining U.S. military dominance in East Asia and Europe after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has found a new one in protecting the flow of Middle Eastern oil to its allies along sea lanes and through pipelines. The Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese, along with the members of the EU, get to "free ride" on American military power, in return for agreeing not to rearm and carry out their own military policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. This bargain between the U.S. and its industrialized protectorates was made explicit by George W. Bush in his 2002 West Point speech: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace." Translation: Germany and Japan should export BMWs and Toyotas, not Panzers and Zeroes, and in return the Pentagon will protect their security interests.

Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has offered to be not only the security guard of the other industrial great powers, but also their market of first resort. By running a fiscal deficit caused in part by wars to protect their energy supplies, and by running a chronic trade deficit with them at the same time, the U.S. has sought to reward Japan and Germany for agreeing to remain demilitarized, civilian export powers subservient to the U.S. in their foreign and defense policies. In the hope that China would accept this bargain as well, the U.S. has tolerated predatory Chinese trade policies like currency manipulation, subsidies and state ownership of industries, on the condition that China defer to the U.S. in its confrontations with states that threaten the American military in East Asia (North Korea) and the Middle East (Iran).

The project of establishing unchallenged U.S. military hegemony in the Greater Middle East has won the assent of both Republican and Democratic foreign policy elites, in part because it fits into the narrative of post-Cold War American or Western triumphalism. According to the British diplomat Robert Cooper, the post-Cold War world is divided among "postmodern states" like the U.S. and the nations of the European Union, which are supposed to have outgrown nationalism and are devoted to globalization; "modern states" which remain nationalistic; and "premodern states" which are primitive and disorganized.

Cooper and others have called for the postmodern states to intervene in the premodern states, in a 21st-century version of the "civilizing mission" proclaimed by 19th-century colonial powers like Britain. Some progressives have joined neoconservatives in appealing to the theories of "liberal imperialism" and "humanitarian intervention" and "the responsibility to protect" to justify the occupation by the U.S. and its allies of countries in the Greater Middle East from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Some have even called for a U.S.-led invasion of Sudan, to protect its non-Arab population from its Arab population.

America’s Middle East First strategy also dovetails with the widespread if naive belief among Anglo-American elites that as a result of increased trade and financial flows there will never again be great power conflicts. Instead, the only threat in the future will come from anarchic regions that become havens for stateless terrorist groups like al-Qaida or international criminal rings. Given this premise, the conclusion follows that the U.S. military must change its emphasis from deterring or defeating the armed forces of other industrialized states to an emphasis on counterinsurgency (COIN) and nation-building in shattered societies like those of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to this logic, the objective in both the Iraq and Afghan wars was not merely to remove an enemy regime from power but to create a functioning modern society, a project that may require decades or generations of semi-colonial American and international occupation.

While the Middle East First strategy, together with the ideology of postmodern humanitarian imperialism and nation-building, remains popular with America’s bipartisan foreign policy elite, the public's anger at its price in American blood and American treasure was a factor in the Republican loss of Congress in 2006 and John McCain's loss in the 2008 presidential race. In October 2010, National Security Advisor James Jones estimated that there are fewer than 100 members of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, without any bases and with "no ability to launch attacks on either [the United States] or allies." This translates into 1,000 U.S. troops and $300 million per year for every single al-Qaida terrorist alleged to be in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan has morphed from a war against al-Qaida into what even hawks acknowledge is an unwinnable war against the ethnic Pushtuns who support the Taliban. Barack Obama has promised a drawdown in Iraq and the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan this year. But no well-developed strategic alternative to the Middle East First strategy has yet appeared.

The most plausible alternative would be an Asia First national security strategy. Such a strategy would reject the premise that globalization has made conflict among industrial great powers inconceivable.

East Asia remains a region dominated by "modern" rather than "postmodern" states, to use Cooper’s terms. Like China, Japan and South Korea combine a high degree of ethnic and cultural nationalism with a leading role for the state in the economy and society. All of the major East Asian countries view one another with suspicion. While treating commerce as an instrument of nationalist statecraft, the East Asian countries have engaged in a regional arms race. No regional institutions unite them, the way that NATO and the EU unite the major countries of Europe. Instead, they have hub-and-spoke relationships with the U.S., whose unilaterally open domestic consumer market has enabled their parasitic trade policies of using various means (nontariff barriers in Japan, forced technology transfer in China) to target American industries while protecting their domestic industries from American imports.

The East Asian combination of Realpolitik and economic nationalism presents a challenge to the post-Cold War ideology of the United States and Britain. East Asia refutes the complacent belief that the world is evolving into one big global market, in which demilitarized developed nations with economies open to goods, labor and financial flows trade with each other under the benevolent umbrella of U.S. military protection, while American-backed international forces supervise the "natives" in the Greater Middle East and other poor areas until they are fit to join the ranks of "democratic capitalism." Twenty-first century Asia is far more like the Europe of Bismarck than the contemporary European Union.

An Asia First strategy would require a different U.S. economic policy and a different U.S. military. American economic policymakers would have to abandon the utopian fantasy that China and its neighbors will abandon their highly successful versions of state capitalism for Anglo-American-style free-market capitalism. The U.S. would have to settle for a combination of managed and free trade across the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would also have to abandon the idea that it can maintain its post-Cold War hegemony in East Asia, without provoking confrontation with a rising China. Instead of encircling China on its coasts and its Central Asian land borders, the U.S. should adopt a less provocative "offshore balancer" strategy as an over-the-horizon naval and air power, adding its strength to that of Japan, India and other regional powers, if that is necessary to deter future attempts by China to intimidate its neighbors.

America’s Middle Eastern policy would be subordinate to its Asia policy, if the U.S. pursued an Asia First strategy. The U.S. would abandon the attempt to be the quasi-imperial hegemon of the Greater Middle East as too costly, and adopt the more modest role of offshore balancer in that region, too. None of the three populous nations in the area, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, is powerful enough to dominate the others. The U.S. should seek to deter intervention by external great powers, not by permanently occupying and garrisoning the region from the Balkans to the border of Pakistan itself, but by promoting a regional concert among the great powers on the periphery of the Greater Middle East, including Europe, Russia, China and India. The stake of those countries in stability and peace in the region is much greater than any American interest in the area.

Among other things, an Asia First strategy would allow the U.S. to preserve its security while reducing the Pentagon budget in the interest of long-term solvency. Having renounced further labor-intensive wars of counterinsurgency and nation-building in the Greater Middle East, the U.S. could downsize the Army, in favor of a military based chiefly on elite special forces, naval and air forces and unmanned drones. Some of the savings could be channeled into homeland security defenses -- for example, protecting infrastructure and telecommunications against the mysterious cyber attacks that have been directed at the U.S. and Europe from China. Other savings could be devoted to rebuilding America’s dual military-civilian manufacturing base, which has been ravaged by offshoring and the collaboration of U.S.-based multinationals with Chinese, Japanese and German industrial policies. Any future great-power conflict is likely to take the form of a cold war, in which the ultimate victors will be those whose domestic industrial economies are the strongest and whose banking systems are subordinate to their national interests.

Following World War I, the British expanded the borders of their overextended empire in the Middle East and Africa, sending British and colonial troops to suppress impoverished Muslims in Iraq among other countries, while neglecting Germany’s unsated ambitions and allowing Britain’s manufacturing base to decline. In 1939 they paid the price. Will the historians of the future write that, by adopting a Middle East First policy following the Cold War, the United States repeated Britain’s mistake?

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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