Mike Singh has written a characteristically thoughtful paper whose analytic contours are, I think, broadly correct. In particular, Mike argues that
1. the greater Middle East ought to be understood as an arena for great power competition with China and Russia, not a sanctuary from it; and
2. the United States has vital national interests in the Middle East apart from great power competition, principally counterterrorism and nonproliferation, which will compel it to remain engaged in this region to a considerable degree even as Europe and Asia assume more importance.
While both of these precepts are essentially right, the argument can be extended further. Far from relegating the Middle East to the strategic margins, as some foreign policy analysts have postulated, intensifying great power competition is more likely to make the region both more dangerous and more consequential for U.S. foreign policy to navigate over the decade ahead, due to several factors.
“…intensifying great power competition is more likely to make the region both more dangerous and more consequential for U.S. foreign policy to navigate over the decade ahead…”
First, the Middle East is likely to continue to be the world’s preeminent breeding ground for crises and conflicts, the majority of which will erupt according to their own internal dynamics rather than as a result of external instigation or influence. Yet as illustrated in Syria, what until recently would have remained essentially local disputes—to be dealt with, or not, on their own terms—now carry a much higher risk of entangling the major powers in opposing constellations. These, in turn, are likely to exacerbate and prolong the conflicts themselves. Thus, to paraphrase Bismarck, with every “damn fool thing” that blows up in the greater Middle East (and there is no shortage on the horizon) comes a heightened threat of not only intensified regional upheaval but also great power collision. In this respect, Syria—far from being the last of America’s post-9/11 entanglements in the Middle East—is more likely a harbinger of challenges to come.
Second, contrary to the regionalist fallacy of American foreign policy—which holds that, in order to be successful on one corner of the Eurasian land mass, it is necessary for the United States to downgrade or curtail its involvement on the others—international perceptions of U.S. credibility and reliability are, to a great extent, indivisible. Consequently, perceived U.S. failures, missteps, and abdications in the Middle East—including any perception of American abandonment of long-standing security commitments there—are increasingly likely to carry systemic effects outside the region. America falling on its face in the Levant was bad enough when Europe and Asia were largely quiescent; now those reverberations will be felt more sharply, further afield.
Here, too, Syria has proven instructive, as the Obama administration’s last-minute decision in 2013 not to enforce its self-declared “red line” on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use set off alarm bells not only in the Middle East, but also among America’s Asian and European allies. This problem is compounded by the fact that nowhere in the world has the United States consistently articulated more ambitious goals and repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises than in the Middle East. Moreover, while regionalists are wrong in thinking that the United States can neatly amputate its Middle Eastern limbs without serious danger of sending the wider U.S.-led system into shock, they are correct that certain American resources are inescapably zero-sum.
Third, while a broad bipartisan consensus has taken hold in Washington that maintains that great power competition ought to be the principal focus of American foreign policy, this consensus does not appear to extend yet to the American people. Polls consistently indicate that, while the Beltway has grown intellectually fatigued by problems like ISIS and the threat of another 9/11, the rest of the country has not. Thwarting terrorism typically ranks as the American public’s top foreign policy priority across party lines; upholding a nebulously defined Asian balance of power, not so much. That is a major reason why, repeatedly, recurrent crises in the Middle East have yanked American attention and resources back into the region, despite the initial proclivities of a succession of presidents to focus elsewhere. In this respect, proponents of a pivot toward great power competition have more of a Middle East problem than they imagine. In foreign policy as in economics, the argument “this time will be different” does not have an inspiring track record.
Finally, the recognition that there is some kind of Middle Eastern component in great power competition with China and Russia does nothing to instruct how the United States should compete with Beijing and Moscow in the region. Given the panoply of potential Russian and Chinese activities, how should the United States distinguish between that which is merely undesirable and that which is truly intolerable? For that matter, how should the United States reconcile its traditional regional objectives—which Washington over the past quarter-century has typically treated as natural zones for win-win cooperation among the major powers, on the basis of shared interests—with its newfound interest in gaining a strategic advantage against Beijing and Moscow?
While beyond the scope of this paper to resolve these questions in depth, approaching the Middle East through the prism of great power competition should at minimum imply a new or refined set of objectives and operational concepts for the United States in the region. The former could include
1. preserving U.S. naval primacy in the Persian Gulf and the region’s other maritime choke points, given their criticality for both China’s economy and that of America’s Indo-Pacific allies and partners;
2. preventing China and Russia from establishing new military outposts in the greater Middle East or influence over critical infrastructure that could jeopardize U.S. power projection in the region;
3. frustrating regional military aggression that is backed by threat or use of Russian or Chinese military power;
4. avoiding diplomatic schemes that elevate Moscow or Beijing as coequal or preeminent arbiters of the region’s fate, or that reward or incentivize countries for aligning with them;
5. countering Russian and Chinese influence operations in the region, including through exposure of corrupt or illicit activities with local actors; and
6. encouraging India and Japan toward closer cooperation and involvement in West Asian security in general and maritime security in particular.
In sum, rather than thinking about the Middle East as an autonomous sphere sealed off from the rest of Eurasia—containing a collection of free-floating problems to be solved for their own sake—it is going to be increasingly necessary to approach the region as part of a much wider whole. Given the U.S. foreign policy community’s propensity to organize itself into regional silos, this will be challenging, both bureaucratically and intellectually. But it is the necessary precondition if the United States is to compete effectively there—as Russia and China themselves are already increasingly doing.