The Post-American Order in the Middle East: Loaded Pause, or Light at the End of the Tunnel?

by Kenneth Weisbrode

Helsinki 1975: A Study in the Alignment of Diplomacy and Strategy
photo credit: Ivanov/RAI Novosti/East News

The historian Paul W. Schroeder wrote an essay in September 2001 that appeared in The National Interest a few months later. It carried the title, “The Risks of Victory: An Historian’s Provocation.” I was reminded of Schroeder’s essay – in a good and a bad way – upon reading the new report by the Quincy Institute about US policy toward the Middle East.

In that essay Schroeder drew an analogy between the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Schroeder warned against allowing the attacks to drive the world’s major powers into a prolonged conflict. That did not happen, or perhaps has not happened yet. There is little doubt that relations among the major powers today are worse than they were nearly twenty years ago, in good part because of post-9/11 policy failures.

Pessimists often point to the Middle East when making predictions about where another major war may occur. The authors of the new report make a compelling case that the overextended and misdirected US role in this region is doing, and has done, more harm than good. Needless to say, there has been a great deal of conflict, but there has been no war of the world’s major powers in or over this region for a long time.

Therefore the report’s brief mention of a possible new regional security system modeled on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is particularly interesting.

I.

The thinking behind this suggestion is rather vague. The long discussion about military costs and benefits in the report stresses the imbalance between the two on the side of the former, and accordingly, to justify a major withdrawal of troops and other US assets. At the same time the report states that the United States retains two important regional aims: (1) to “prevent hostile states from establishing hegemony in the region” and (2) to “facilitate the free flow of global commerce.”

The strategy for advancing those aims appears to be “offshore balancing.” It is alluded to several times in the report but is not mentioned by name. The strategy has a certain theoretical appeal but it has a few problems: It is based not on systemic cooperation but on enforced rivalry, which bears an unfavorable resemblance to failed measures and approaches from the past: e.g., The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916; the Anglo-American-Soviet struggle for regional influence after the Second World War; the US-Soviet role in the Arab-Israeli wars in the 1960s and 1970s; US policy toward Iran and Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s; and the Lebanese civil war. It also raises the question of how the United States ought to “balance” the country that today is the region’s most powerful – Israel – and whether, in this day and age, the notion of being “offshore” makes much sense. If the United States retains the capacity to intervene militarily in the region, it is by definition a regional power, no matter where the bulk of that capacity is physically based. What matters is its underlying strategic aim: rivalry or cooperation.

Nevertheless, it has become almost axiomatic now to expect a US “drawdown” or “rebalancing,” as the Obama administration preferred to call it. The report boldly proposes that a Middle Eastern regional security community should emerge in the aftermath.

There are two points to make regarding that suggestion. It is important to distinguish between regional security communities and regionalism per se. It’s easy to move from regionalism (or regionalization) to a bloc mentality. One may pay lip service to “open regionalism” but for that to happen, regional institutions must overlap and be greater than the sum of their parts. Institutions in other words must be understood as enhancements rather than as substitutes for other bilateral and multilateral relationships.

That conceptual point relates to the practical role of NATO in the Middle East. The report wisely advises against the establishment of a NATO-type alliance there. But the two – role and model – are different. NATO in fact should become more, not less, involved in the region with the aim of constructing a regional security community. This community should include most NATO members as extra-or quasi- regional members. The history of security communities – in Europe and in the Western Hemisphere, for example – show that outside powers are necessary actors, notably at the outset when old patterns of enmity persist in fractious regions. In the former case, it was the United States (and indirectly the Soviet Union and its successors) that brought Western Europe and eventually much of Central and Eastern Europe together in the 20th century in what is today the world’s most durable (but hardly perfect) regional security community. In the latter case, it was primarily the British in tacit or open partnership with a regional power, the United States, that reinforced the “Western Hemisphere idea” in the 19th century.

To acknowledge the role and responsibility of external actors does not contradict the report’s important point about regional leadership. It is correct to note that regional states themselves must “lead” – a security community that is imposed and/or dominated by outsiders is not a security community – but leading is less a question of who is in front or behind and more one of whose interests are served and in what combination. That was the principle at stake in both the above historic cases in Europe and America. The essence of the Marshall Plan, for example, was that European renewal and integration were up to Europeans to design and implement. Marshall Planners from the United States were intimate collaborators, but the Europeans decided how and where the funds were spent. Likewise, the Royal Navy and British investment made possible a community in the Americas over the course of the 19th century, but again, it was done with the interests of Americans (chiefly North Americans and secondarily Latin Americans) in mind.

Leading a regional security community means having regional and extra-regional powers work in unison rather than separately in compensation for one other’s deficiencies. They must act as members of the same community; none lies “offshore” with limited liability or responsibility; none must play the others off against one another or allow itself to be played off against another, which is not the same thing as the normal debate and the occasional clash over policies in a multinational system.

Therefore, NATO – and by extension, the P5+1 powers that underwrote the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – should organize themselves as a semi-permanent feature of Middle Eastern security. They should provide a forum for regional and extra-regional powers to discuss, coordinate, manage, and resolve the full range of the region’s security and security-related issues. NATO, for example, could provide security guarantees during the negotiation and implementation of a nuclear weapons free zone, which the report mentions as a distant possibility. NATO should also continue to enhance and multiply the various bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities already underway.

II.

Piecemeal efforts, however, are not sufficient to make a community like the OSCE. There should also be a compact that lays down a set of basic principles like the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which resulted from the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the forerunner to the OSCE. The Act gave formal recognition to existing European borders alongside a pledge to respect human rights and other norms within and between such borders. It’s hard to imagine all of that being accepted by a number of Middle Eastern states today, let alone formally (and even the Helsinki Final Act was not a treaty). Promoting an OSCE model would also have to contend with the fact of the breakup of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union, and with the now widespread belief that the Helsinki Final Act was in part responsible (although that was never the intent). So, what to do?

Start small but continue to think big. Collective discussions should take place among non-governmental groups like the Quincy Institute in the P5+1 countries and in the Middle East with the goal of producing a joint roadmap showing how a regional security community might be designed, sold, accepted, and implemented. Such a roadmap, however modest, would be an important start. It could reinforce norms of peaceful resolution of disputes and the respect for sovereignty already put forward, not only in the Helsinki Final Act, but also in the charters of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It could bring coherence to regional confidence building measures, such as policies on incidents at sea, which the Quincy Institute report mentions.

Skeptics would be right to claim that these and other norms have been violated repeatedly throughout the Middle East. But a tabula rasa can hardly be a realistic precondition for progress. Like roadmaps, statements of norms and principles are imperfect but necessary. They establish goals that may or may not be met. They are not guarantees or laws. States violating them meanwhile will be placed on the defensive. This was the procedural genius of the Helsinki review conferences that succeeded the Final Act. Along with the Helsinki watch groups established to monitor and promote adherence to the Act, they transformed its principles into axioms with a growing transnational constituency.

Without a roadmap and some policy momentum, it will be easy for governments to retreat to their habitual cynicism, bearing in mind that educated opinion throughout the world regarded much of what the OSCE now does to be unimaginable a mere generation ago when diplomats serving in the US mission to NATO raised the need for “freer movement” to be part of an East-West agreement over borders.

III.

There is one final conceptual roadblock that stands in the way of building a regional security community in the Middle East. The Quincy Institute report appears to conflate everything military – bases, deployments, exercises, officer exchanges, training and education programs, defense spending, and arms sales (which presumably include multinational arms manufacture) – with military intervention (and interventionism). However, cooperative security efforts, which involve most of the former activities, are meant to proscribe, not advance, the latter. They ought to be understood as the means to an end: the US national interest, which, in this case, is a stable and peaceful regional community. Neither they nor their limitation (or elimination) should be an end in itself. That sounds idealistic and belies what the United States has done in this region for the past few decades, but good diplomacy still requires the leverage that strong collective and cooperative defense and security relationships usually bring. If a regional security community is meant to work, it also needs security professionals from all interested nations engaged on the ground. It is encouraging to read that more details about the US drawdown will be provided in a subsequent Quincy Institute report.

There have been several attempts to “remake” the Middle East since the end of the Great War a century ago. Whether or not they prove successful, political orders pose great risks when challenged or overturned. Tocqueville, Gramsci, and more recently, Henry Kissinger, have all stated that truism by way of a warning. One need only look back to the post-1967 British withdrawal “East of Suez” to see how difficult such “hegemonic transfers” can be, especially those that seek to limit cost and liability while preserving prestige and a freedom of maneuver. Even with extensive coordination between the British and American governments, the British withdrawal was fraught. Alexander Haig told me that as late as 1974 he was sent by President Nixon to London to beg the UK to retain (or reintroduce) some military presence in the Gulf until the US was ready to pick up the baton, so to speak, which it clearly wasn’t ready to do. The language was quite imperialistic and possibly exaggerated, but Haig was not alone in talking this way. He said that James Callaghan, the UK Foreign Secretary, agreed to the request but insisted that the US pay for it, and William Simon, the US Treasury Secretary, flat out refused. So having the Shah be the “gendarme” of the Gulf would remain US policy by default. The consequences of that policy needn’t be rehearsed here. As an interpretation of the breech birth of the Carter Doctrine, this is rather oversimplified, but it was Haig’s recollection and there’s some truth in it.

The authors of the Quincy Institute report make a persuasive case that an end to the heavy-handed US role in the Middle East is long overdue. There is still disagreement with what constitutes heavy-handedness and whether the US is guilty of it, but a consensus appears to be forming around a policy of constructive disengagement of one kind or another. That should be a positive development. It won’t be if it continues to happen diplomatically before it happens militarily, and before an effective successor policy is in place. Crafting that new policy will take time, flexibility, and collaboration with regional actors. Otherwise the United States may find itself drawn back into the Middle East in ways the American people, including the careful readers of Professor Schroeder, must not want.