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Magazine / National Security

Dynamic Instability

The Arab “Iron Curtain” is crumbling and, with it, America’s venerable strategy for the Middle East. Until a new order emerges, core U.S. interests in the region just got a lot harder to protect.

The new power: A Libyan rebel in Benghazi.(GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of James Kitfield
March 3, 2011

This is how it looks when revolutionary change eclipses a decades-old U.S. strategy for pursuing its goals in the Middle East.

In the face of massive protests, the White House cautions the king to exercise restraint in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Instead, his armed forces fire on protesters, escalating the crisis and putting at risk a key node in the American security architecture built to protect the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Days later, the violent unrest spreads to Libya, interrupting that country’s oil exports and causing world prices to spike to more than $100 a barrel; the volatility could threaten the global economic recovery.

In Egypt, soon after massive street protests drive American ally Hosni Mubarak from office, the military-led interim government takes a step that the dictator did not countenance in three decades of rule—allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, to much fanfare. Cracks appear in the United States’ carefully crafted edifice containing the Islamic Republic of Iran.


In a recent power play, Hezbollah chose the new prime minister of Lebanon. Hamas and Egyptian officials have reopened the Rafah crossing on their border, allowing the government in Gaza to rearm. The State Department characterizes both Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups.

U.S. officials worry that civil strife in Yemen and Libya could provide opportunities for local jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaida, and that Islamists will hijack the democracy movement in Egypt or elsewhere and deal a major blow to U.S. counterterrorism operations.

At a moment when White House officials are taking great pains to stress that the eruption of “people power” shaking the Arab world is not about Israel or anti-Americanism, the United States stood alone against 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council on February 18 to veto a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. In explaining a vote that prompted its own “day of rage” in the Palestinian territories, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice had to concede that the closest U.S. ally in the region is pursuing illegitimate settlement activity that “violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.” Defending Israel becomes an ever-lonelier task.



No one can predict the outcome of the historic change sweeping the Arab world. Given the rapid pace and unprecedented nature of the revolutions roiling the monarchies, dictatorships, and autocracies of the Middle East, the Obama administration has displayed deft diplomacy during its most serious foreign-policy crisis. President Obama has put the United States on the side of a new generation of Arab youth demanding a voice in their own governance, even while quietly prodding venerable allies to initiate democratic reforms and stay ahead of the mob.

But even before the dust settles in Arab capitals, it’s already clear that the region has changed in ways that make it hard for Washington to protect its interests. American strategy had been premised on the bargain that Washington would largely ignore the domestic policies of allied autocrats who helped it get what it wanted: uninterrupted oil exports, a check on Iran, help in fighting Islamist terrorism, and security for Israel. Capital by capital, that bargain and the strategy it underpinned are unraveling.

“There is no question that we are seeing an earthquake in Middle Eastern politics that amounts to the most important moment for the region since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—and, at some point, we will have to retool U.S. strategy to adjust to those profound changes,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of State for political affairs, told National Journal. With the region in such dramatic flux, he said, it is too early to consider a wholesale realignment of U.S. policies or strategic alliances.

“Our diplomacy has to be very adaptive in this period, because it’s supporting a multiplicity of U.S. interests, some of which are competing against each other,” said Burns, currently a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The Obama administration was right to throw its backing behind Arab youths protesting for democratic change, he said, but at the same time, Washington has to protect its traditional interests and, to the degree possible, stand by its friends and partners in the region. “The United States will have to consider whether a Middle East strategy that has served us pretty well for the past half-century is still relevant,” Burns said, “or whether instead we need a new strategic framework.”

No longer can Washington count on complacent autocrats to advance its Middle East interests, nor can it afford to ignore the domestic political currents rising against its Middle East partners. If Egypt is a bellwether for the Arab world, the United States has a new core interest on its already crowded Mideast agenda—helping Cairo make a peaceful transition to democracy. “In the past, the United States was more concerned by, and had more influence over, what countries in the Middle East did beyond their borders,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So we might privately push internal reforms, but that took a backseat to more-traditional foreign-policy priorities.”

Now Washington must necessarily spend a lot more energy and resources trying to influence the domestic trajectory of countries such as Egypt, he argues, putting a premium on constitutional reforms, creating political space for civil society and political parties to emerge, and in general helping to make secular politics work. “Because if that transition to a secular democracy fails in Egypt, for whatever reason, it will create an opportunity for radical Islamists to fill the vacuum,” Haass said. “That would have dangerous consequences for the entire region.”



There is no official “U.S. Middle East Strategy” sitting in a desk drawer in the Pentagon’s E Ring. The closest thing to such a formal document is the White House’s national-security strategy. Under the heading “Advancing Peace, Security, and Cooperation in the Greater Middle East,” this document lists as core U.S. interests continued access to energy; counterterrorism cooperation; and the “transformation of Iranian policy away from its pursuit of nuclear weapons, support for terrorism, and threats against its neighbors.” The strategy also mentions an “unshakable commitment” to Israel’s security.

Over the decades, crises have tested each of those often overlapping—sometimes competing—interests, hardening them into pillars of U.S. doctrine. The net effect has been to anchor the United States so securely in the Middle East that no U.S. administration can easily change the strategy, much less pull back from the region. To understand the challenge for the White House, it’s worth remembering the history weighing down current U.S. policy.

Of course, first and always foremost is the oil. As U.S. Central Command points out in its strategic-posture statement, the Arabian Gulf region and Central Asia together account for at least 64 percent of the world’s known petroleum reserves, 34 percent of crude-oil production, and 46 percent of known natural-gas reserves. In an era of globalization and rapidly increasing energy demand from developing countries such as China and India, the strategic importance of Middle East oil is enormous.

To grasp why the United States stands as the chief guarantor of the Persian Gulf energy supply, you have to cast back to 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel launched a joint attack to take it back. President Eisenhower, however, strongly opposed their action. Pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union forced all three countries to withdraw, signaling the beginning of the end of European colonialism in the region and the eclipse of Britain and France as world powers. The United States has assumed the role of primary guarantor of free access to the Persian Gulf ever since.

Any doubt that oil could be used as a strategic bludgeon against the United States was dispelled by the 1973-74 oil embargo. In response to U.S. support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries shut off the flow to America. Oil prices nearly doubled overnight, causing the first fuel shortage in the United States since World War II and setting the world’s financial system on a decadelong trajectory toward recession and inflation. And that was not the last time that key U.S. interests in the region—protecting access to oil and ensuring Israel’s security—came into conflict.

President Carter deepened the U.S. commitment to oil flow by announcing the Carter Doctrine in 1980. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the president declared that the United States would defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf with military force if necessary. Shortly after, the United States established U.S. Central Command to enforce its responsibilities in the region. And twice in the following decade, Washington made good on the doctrine’s threat.

During the 1987 Iraq-Iran “tanker war,” when both countries were attacking other nations’ oil tankers, the U.S. Navy agreed to reflag foreign ships. Under international law, the Navy was then free to retaliate, a stance that led to numerous skirmishes with Iranian military forces. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military reversed Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and nullified the threat to Saudi Arabia’s oil fields.

Even in the Gulf War, American national interests were in competition with one another. “I remember [Secretary of State James] Baker saying the conflict was about ‘oil, oil, oil,’ whereas in my mind it was about trying to establish rules of the road for the international system at the end of the Cold War, such that naked state-on-state aggression would be out of the question,” Brent Scowcroft, former national-security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, said in an interview. “So while there is no doubt the Middle East is being transformed today, I think it would be a mistake to try and develop a grand strategy that attempts to cover the whole region. The strategic context in which we pursue our policies may be different, but the basic nature of our interests in the region haven’t changed.”



Many see the recent turmoil as a wake-up call to Washington to develop a sustainable energy policy, but the United States remains decades away from weaning itself from Middle East petroleum. “Oil remains a prime U.S. interest in the Middle East, because disruptions could throw the global economy back into recession,” said Edward Walker, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and a former ambassador to Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. If new governments are elected partly to battle with Washington, they could cut off our access to oil.

But they probably won’t, many experts say. “The geostrategic structure that has been in place in the Middle East for decades has certainly been thrown into uncertainty … whatever new balance emerges is unlikely to try and repeat the Arab oil embargo,” Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, told National Journal. In the last 20 years, he notes, oil relations have also become dominated not by the ideological and nationalist confrontation of the 1970s but rather by a business dialogue. Quite simply, many Arab states have oil that they want to sell, and the rest of the world is eager to buy. “That kind of cooperation represents a big change in the oil producers/consumer dynamic,” Yergin said.

American strategists charged with protecting against every contingency worry nevertheless—not just about oil but also about the American bases that help protect its flow. That was the message behind the trip by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen to reassure skittish leaders of nations whose friendship we need. In addition to 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain, the Pentagon operates a major Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar and a large logistical staging base in Kuwait. The U.S. also uses military facilities and operates Patriot air-defense missile batteries in the UAE. “If anything, I think recent turmoil will make it more important that we maintain our military footprint to ensure that the regional balance doesn’t skew against us somehow,” Walker says.

These uprisings, in a worst-case scenario, wouldn’t be the first time the United States lost base access after a democratic transformation. After the “People Power” revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, America had to vacate Naval Station Subic Bay in 1991. At the time, it was the largest U.S. overseas military installation in the world. Still, as long as the wealthy and relatively stable Gulf kingdoms remain fearful of Iranian hegemony—which they trust Washington to combat—the U.S. will probably be able to keep its Persian Gulf basing structure.



After the revolution of 1979, Iran—and the mission to halt the terrorism it supports—has also drawn the United States deeper into Middle East sands. In 1983, a truck bomber from Iranian-backed Hezbollah killed 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut. The same group’s hostage-taking in the mid-1980s led to the Iran-Contra controversy that nearly derailed President Reagan’s second term.

Most notably, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington by al-Qaida began a chain reaction that led to President Bush’s 2003 decision to topple a regime in Iraq that the administration mistakenly thought was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq war immersed the United States in a massive nation- and democracy-building enterprise. But the removal of the chief regional counterweight to Iran emboldened Tehran, which accelerated its clandestine nuclear-weapons program and increased its support for terrorist proxies in Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon.

“One goal the United States has traditionally pursued in the Middle East was ‘stability,’ because it was seen as serving all of our primary interests in the region,” said Mackubin Thomas Owens, professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. By invading Iraq and trying to install a democracy in the middle of the Arab world, he said, the Bush administration administered “shock therapy” to the status quo. The problem with such a radical strategic departure, Owens said, is “the ripple effect of unintended consequences we’re still seeing today.”

In terms of containing Iran and combating terrorism, the current Arab uprisings have rendered the strategic forecast cloudy: Stormy conditions in the short term, with the potential for future clearing. Iran will try to turn the unrest into an opportunity to advance its regional influence, as evidenced by the warships it sent through the Suez Canal and the cyberattack on the Voice of America for which Tehran took responsibility. The longer this period of instability lasts, the greater the danger that Iran will succeed.

“The leaders of the Islamic Republic have never been able to resist the temptation to be revolutionary,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei has always been petrified by the prospect that a ‘velvet people’s revolution’ would overthrow the Islamic Republic, and he can’t be happy to see it happening in countries all around him.”


The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks began a chain reaction that led to the invasion of Iraq.


Similarly, al-Qaida’s leaders have attempted to characterize the protests in the Middle East as driven by anti-Americanism, even though the call for greater democracy runs directly counter to the group’s support for an Islamist caliphate based on sharia and its narrative that only extreme violence can oust Arab autocrats from power.

“Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it’s become increasingly clear that the undemocratic and statist regimes of the Middle East are a breeding ground for extremist sentiment and action,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior Middle East analyst with the CIA, and currently director of graduate studies at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. “So when we consider how today’s upheavals and the demands for greater political and economic openness might affect U.S. interests, their potential positive impact on terrorism is the most hopeful. To me, that potential far outweighs any short-term disruption in U.S. counterterrorism operations.”



President Truman planted another stanchion of American strategy in the region in 1948 when he became the first head of state to officially recognize Israel, against the heated opposition of Secretary of State George Marshall and much of the foreign-policy establishment. The symbiotic relationship between the superpower and the upstart Jewish democracy that has developed over the ensuing decades is now a defining feature of the American strategic position in the region.

The United States supported Israel in its 1967 and 1973 wars with Arab coalitions. In the latter conflict, at the height of the Cold War, the Pentagon dangerously depleted its arsenal of tanks to keep the Israel Defense Forces resupplied. Under Carter, the United States also helped secure a cold peace between Egypt and Israel with the 1979 Camp David accords. Every president since then has tried and failed to find a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, an open sore in U.S.-Arab relations.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has advised six secretaries of State, believes that the weight of that cumulative history and national interest will make it difficult to align U.S. interests and policies with new realities in the region, the essence of strategy. “American values, interests, and policies have never been perfectly synchronized in the Middle East because of competing priorities, but the transformational change now under way will make it harder to align them than ever before,” he said in an interview.


“The geostrategic structure that has been in place in the Middle East for decades has certainly been thrown into uncertainty, but whatever new balance emerges is unlikely to try and repeat the Arab oil embargo.” —Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

The U.S. has thrown its support behind Egypt’s democratization, for instance, knowing that a representative government in Cairo will almost certainly prove to be more anti-Israel. An insecure Israel will likely prove to be less willing to make the compromises needed for peace with the Palestinians. “I would not be at all surprised to wake up when the dust settles and find that the new Middle East is much less friendly to the United States and supportive of its interests than the old one,” Miller said.


A number of experts agree that the core interest most endangered by the Middle East protests is Washington’s “unshakeable commitment” to Israeli security and well-being. Whatever government eventually emerges in Egypt is highly unlikely to close the Suez Canal or abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, the bedrock of Israel’s security posture. Israel’s military superiority is not significantly threatened. But as the lopsided vote in the Security Council foreshadowed, America’s role as Israel’s chief protector and benefactor is likely to become significantly more lonely—and costly in terms of good relations and other U.S. interests in the region.

“The United States should prepare to be isolated with Israel on a lot more 14-1 votes at the U.N. Security Council, because with that veto, America indulged Israel’s fantasy that its old, expansionist agenda is still possible,” said Daniel Levy, codirector of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, who was an adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel. “That not only does a huge disservice to the debate over settlements within Israel, but it will also hinder U.S. attempts to reach out to more-democratic Arab regimes that still feel a deep, emotional grievance and humiliation over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, and America’s unwillingness or inability to do anything about it.”



Recalibrating American interests and policies with the new Middle East may take years. Even then, various U.S. strategic aims are sure to collide, and entrenched tensions between hard-nosed realists and starry-eyed idealists will endure.

“I think we should be friendly to emergent democracies, but we should also recognize that the ground for democracy taking root is more fertile in some places than others; and given that often we don’t even manage American democracy very well, it’s ridiculous to think we can help manage democratic transitions in countries we only dimly understand,” Scowcroft said. “I recall that Jimmy Carter told the shah of Iran not to put down protests in his country in 1979, and that didn’t turn out so well. When President Obama tells Hosni Mubarak that transition in Egypt needs to begin now, what message do you think King Abdullah [bin Abdul Aziz] in Saudi Arabia hears about how the United States treats its friends when they get into trouble?”

Millions of Arabs have risked their lives for greater freedom with no prodding from the United States, however, and a strategic reassessment can’t ignore the fact that the status quo is no longer an option or that the gap between U.S. core interests and democratic values has narrowed.

“I do think achieving our traditional goals in the Middle East has become more complicated, and we’re going to need a more sophisticated strategy for pursuing them,” said Joseph Nye, dean emeritus of the Kennedy School and author of The Future of Power. “Our strategy needs to achieve a ‘dynamic stability’ that continues to deal with existing governments and regimes in the region, but at the same time develops a narrative that appeals to the hundreds of thousands of people we saw in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. We need a message that resonates with the next generation of Arabs.”

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