Sometimes, when countries are lucky, reality knocks them over the head with a two-by-four before they make fatal mistakes. The United States, over whom God is said to watch (along with fools and drunks) has just gotten two of them in connection with the Middle East in the last week. Yet no one should bet the ranch that these broadest of hints will be taken.
The first came in a Saturday Washington Post news article on the regional situation just before a Saudi-led coalition started intervening in Yemen’s civil war. As Post reporter Liz Sly explained it:
“The United States is aligned alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and against them in Yemen. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have joined in the Saudi offensive in Yemen, are bombing factions in Libya backed by Turkey and Qatar, who also support the Saudi offensive in Yemen. The Syrian conflict has been fueled by competition among all regional powers to outmaneuver one another on battlefields far from home.”
The clear message: This is a madhouse that even Bismarck couldn’t deal with, much less Susan Rice.
The second sign that current Middle East policy is flying the United States into a mountain came from, of all people, House Speaker John Boehner. Now traveling through the region, the Ohio Republican declared, “America’s ability to lead in the world depends on Jordan’s ability to remain a stabilizing force in the Middle East, and we could not ask for a more solid partner.”
This is the same Jordan whose Sunni king from an Arabian peninsula tribe rules over a population that’s long been more than half comprised of always restive Palestinians, but whose demographic profile is now being reshaped by enormous refugee waves from disintegrating neighboring countries. Among the newcomers – hundreds of thousands of Shiites who comprise that sect’s first significant presence in the country. In other words, Boehner believes that the future of America’s global leadership depends on the national equivalent of a time bomb whose ticking he can’t, or won’t, hear.
As I’ve written before, it’s time for the United States to go. But not in the belief that various surrogates – like Arab coalitions – can effectively replace or even supplement American power. Or that the domestic energy revolution is already advanced enough to make the region marginal to U.S. economic interests. Or that ISIS is so brutal that it will ultimately tear itself apart or provoke a powerful backlash. Or that one of these days, Iran and Saudi Arabia may be ruled by moderates and genuine modernizers. Or that (similarly), Islam in all its forms might undergo a Reformation and help lead all the Middle East’s peoples out of dysfunction.
Instead, the United States urgently needs to begin actively and explicitly preparing its exit by using domestic policies to minimize Middle East dependencies and threats. This means ensuring that the economy develops energy sources large and diverse (geographically as well as in terms of fuel types) to turn Middle East oil producers into permanent global energy market followers, not leaders. It means securing U.S. borders well enough to keep out terrorists from within the region (and their supporters from without). And until marginalization policies are firmly in place, it means (a) harrassing ISIS with air strikes and special forces to keep it off balance, and (b) either preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, or crippling its economy through sanctions if current negotiations fail, until marginalization policies are in place.
Above all, it means that American leaders must realize that foreign policy-making isn’t first and foremost about acting out their fantasies – whether imperial or humanitarian. (Yes, I know – the two often overlap.) Instead, foreign policy-making is first and foremost about promoting and defending the nation’s security and welfare. Before the energy revolution in particular, the United States had no viable alternative to active, often dangerous, involvement in the Middle East’s deadly affairs. Now the vastly superior disengagement option, which emphasizes (domestic) conditions that Washington can reasonably hope to control, is within our grasp. I’d hate to be the one to have to explain to future generations why this opportunity wasn’t aggressively seized.