The signs are getting curious-er and curious-er that the American foreign policy establishment is becoming more and more taken with the idea of just throwing up its collective hands in exasperation and walking away from the Middle East. In addition to being personally gratifying to yours truly, as I’ve been urging this course change for many months, it would be great for the nation as a whole, as the region has become completely dysfunctional on every level imaginable. Therefore, the notion that any outside power can intervene or try to manage events constructively has become a formula for disaster.
Last week, I noticed that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, clearly still one of America’s foremost foreign policy gurus, published a column in The Wall Street Journal that could easily be read as a thinly disguised brief for withdrawal. This essay has now been followed by one in Foreign Affairs that argues explicitly for a U.S. pullback – mainly in military terms. That journal has for nearly a century rightly been seen as the flagship publication of the national foreign policy establishment – or, more accurately, its increasingly underwhelming remnants – because it’s sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, the closest approximation the nation has to Establishment HQ. And to thicken the plot further, Kissinger has long been a leading power in the Council’s counsels.
Skeptics can observe that the article’s authors are two former Obama administration White House foreign policy advisers, and that, just to keep a premature campaign promise, the president wants nothing more than to wash his hands of the Middle East and its seemingly endless wars and turmoil. But its appearance in Foreign Affairs means that a much broader – and powerful – part of the establishment has at least decided that this recommended strategy has now become legitimate to bring up. And such developments and the signals they send throughout not only the policy and political communities, but into the upper ranks of business and finance, have a habit of influencing decision-makers sooner or later.
The main problem with “The End of the Pax Americana” – which Foreign Affairs‘ editors billed as pointing to a “Post-American Middle East” – is that the pullout depends on a great many things going right in a region where confidence in the future has rarely been justified. The authors’ overall prescription is that Washington seek to advance America’s “primary interest” in the Middle East – “regional stability” – by acting as an “offshore balancer.” As they explain, this political science-y term entails “refraining from engagement in overseas military operations and forgoing quasi-imperial nation building to focus instead on selectively using its considerable leverage to exert influence and protect U.S. interests.”
But usually when analysts use phrases like “use its considerable leverage to exert influence,” it’s a sign of fudging. On the one hand, they’re seeking to dispel the illusion that the United States remains powerful enough simply to dictate outcomes in the region. On the other hand, they’re insisting – for no apparent reason – that the amount of influence that can be exerted will always, or at least often enough, suffice to achieve the desired goal.
It also seems that the authors are saying that whatever interests the United States retains can’t be addressed militarily (hence their warning that “Political and economic developments in the Middle East have reduced the opportunities for effective American intervention to a vanishing point….”) but can be handled diplomatically. Which seems awfully, and inconvincingly, convenient.
But the bases for the authors’ optimism are also specific and concrete, though no more persuasive. Will the United States really be able to continue deterring Iran’s ambitions to be the Middle East’s kingpin even after it becomes clear that a major military campaign against ISIS has been ruled out?
Indeed, it’s doubtful that the authors themselves believe this. In the first place, they pointedly add that Iran probably isn’t strong enough to dominate the region. And in the second place, even though they portray a major ant-ISIS campaign as the height of strategic folly, they argue that “a serviceable regional U.S. military presence” can “prevent ISIS from expanding further (into Jordan, for example) and…deter Iranian breaches of the nuclear deal and respond to any destabilizing Iranian moves, such as a major ground intervention in Iraq.” Even, apparently, though this presence should never be used.
Moreover, the serviceable presence itself turns out to be pretty big. In fact, they maintain that “The American military footprint in the region should not change.” In fact, neither should the Obama administration’s current military strategy:
“The air campaign against ISIS should continue, and American troops will still need to be deployed occasionally on a selective basis to quell terrorist threats or even respond in a limited way to large-scale atrocities or environmental disasters. But a resolute policy of restraint requires that any major expeditionary military ground intervention on the part of the United States in the Middle East be avoided and that regional partners be encouraged to take on more responsibility for their own security.”
And that reveals a further weakness with the authors’ proposals: As they themselves point out, Washington has few, if any, local countries it can rely on. Worse, its supposedly closest allies, like Saudi Arabia, seem deeply conflicted about the desirability of defeating the terrorists – as opposed to trying to use them to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad.
Nonetheless, even though “The End of Pax Americana” doesn’t make a sound case for U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, and in fact seems to back only the slightest actual policy changes, its appearance in Foreign Affairs is a minor milestone. It pushes the foreign policy mandarinate – and therefore the nation as a whole – one step closer to a strategically sensible and prudent case for exiting the region, one that recognizes America’s potential to deal with the threats the region still generates mainly through domestic policy that capitalize on its geographical remoteness from the Middle East and its potential for even greater energy self-sufficiency.
But all the progress in the world won’t make a difference unless it takes place fast enough to prevent a new regional disaster for the United States. And so far, it’s been tough to justify genuine optimism on that score.