Not going to fix itself: Why the U.S. should reengage in a troubled Middle East

With the Middle East experiencing historic instability at the moment, many in Washington are debating the role that the United States should play in the region. Should it continue with limited engagement (such as narrowly focusing on critical national security concerns like counterterrorism), disengage from the seemingly intractable region, or return to a central leadership position? 

In a report jointly published by Brookings and the Atlantic Council, Kenneth M. Pollack—senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy—outlines the significant challenges for contemporary Middle Eastern security and offers a way forward to potentially achieving long-term, structural solutions.

Pollack contends the enduring significance of the region’s energy resources, the concentration of terrorist groups, the extraordinary humanitarian costs of conflict, and geographic centrality ensure that Middle Eastern security (insecurity, really) remains a global concern. He adds that it is unlikely that the Middle East’s problems will resolve themselves or that regional powers can either. Indeed, as he writes, the last few years have witnessed the predictable devastating spillover caused by state failure, civil war, and widespread public unrest. Meanwhile, the United States has remained strategically distant since withdrawing from Iraq, declining to reengage after years of active involvement.

According to Pollack, the collapse of the Arab nation-state system necessitates fundamental political, economic, and social reform. However, before any meaningful reform can be implemented, the primary drivers of instability—civil wars—must first be resolved. As the report concludes, “only the United States has the combination of capabilities and potential willingness to lead, develop, and implement” the necessary strategies that offer any hope of achieving lasting regional stability.

This time is different

Middle Eastern countries have historically been used to a different kind of insecurity—one centered around conventional interstate threats, and they devoted tremendous resources and efforts accordingly. As Pollack notes, for decades, the wealth generated by massive oil reserves and superpower competition subsidized these costly security policies and simultaneously sufficiently covered up the systematic failures of the region’s political, economic, and social policies. 

He adds that the Arab Spring in 2011 dramatically exposed the long simmering popular resentment against the failing state system. The subsequent violence and state collapse has only further confirmed the pervasive structural problems in the region. In the report, Pollack addresses critical areas of concern, some longstanding and some new, and provides a comprehensive roadmap for the United States if it chooses to return to its traditional leadership position.

A paradoxical region

“Since it is the Middle East, the paradoxes are endless,” writes Pollack, which becomes abundantly clear throughout the report. He writes that policymakers must “[think] beyond traditional security paradigms” and recognize the need for fundamental reforms to Middle Eastern society. Paradoxically however, the immediate and overriding concern, according to Pollack, must be ending the calamitous civil wars that “have become engines of instability that make it impossible…to do much of anything to address the deeper fault lines.” The unexpected collapse of energy prices has similarly both weakened this region of rentier states and potentially provided the opportunity for meaningful economic reform. For the United States, the central concern is the threat of Islamic terrorist groups, but Pollack warns against American overemphasis on counterterrorism (something Dan Byman has also written about), when ultimately terrorism is only a consequence of deeper regional problems.

Pollack’s central contention is that it’s possible to end civil wars through third-party intervention. If the U.S. truly commits to a side—through liberal amounts of material aid, training and assistance, and diplomatic support—to decisively alter the military balance in any of the civil wars, he argues that Washington can create an opportunity for a negotiated power-sharing agreement (all without engaging in large, costly, and unpopular occupations). However, even with a serious recommitment of American power, the civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen will require strategic triage. This strategy is inevitably complicated by the concurrent issues of the Shiite-Sunni divide (including the Saudi-Iranian geopolitical competition), the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the pressing need throughout the region for security sector reform.

A novel old idea

Pollack looks to Europe for lessons, noting that it has gone from being the “most unstable, violent continent in the world” to being “so tranquil and secure as to be geostrategically boring.” The enduring European security architecture that eventually became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been central to enduring peace on the continent. Pollack recommends a broadly similar (though modified) architecture for the Middle East in order to bring friends and foes together in dialogue. A new security framework would not resolve all differences, but, as Pollack writes, it would be “a mechanism to facilitate actions that would be harder to accomplish without it.”

Stabilizing a region collapsing in violence will be an ambitious undertaking, and the potential for failure looms large. The report concludes by acknowledging the choice between American leadership in action, as Pollack recommends, or strategic withdrawal that seeks to contain the spillover. Neither option is great, but as Pollack warns, “the worst move of all would be to not choose.”