The Middle East: Thinking Big

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

March 5, 2005

This article is reprinted from

The American Prospect

One certainly cannot fault George W. Bush for lacking what his father famously called “the vision thing.” Immediately after the September 11 attacks, the president announced a war on all terrorists “with global reach,” and warned state sponsors of terrorism “to stand with us or with the terrorists.” Two months after the attacks, Bush endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more explicitly than any of his predecessors. He developed a grand vision for political and economic liberalization in the Middle East, denouncing the 60-year-old policy “mistake” of cosseting authoritarian regimes in the Arab world for short-term strategic gains. And he explicitly linked his vision of a democratic Middle East to his strategies of regime change in Baghdad and Arab-Israeli peacemaking, arguing that the creation of democratic states in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and Palestine would stimulate the spread of democracy.

Unfortunately, while talking big, the president has thought small—in an overly compartmentalized manner—about each of these issues. In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the distribution of power among the states along the strategically vital Persian Gulf has been thrown into a potentially dangerous imbalance. With a severely weakened Iraq, Iran is emerging as a more powerful state in the region. Along with the prospect of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the possibility of a nuclear-capable Iran under consolidated conservative leadership (with reformist President Mohammed Khatami stepping down in June) represents a potential watershed in the Persian Gulf’s balance of power, causing concern in Sunni-majority states throughout the region. The negative impact on regional stability of an increase in Iran’s power and assertiveness would be exacerbated if a consolidated conservative leadership in Tehran decided once again to step up Iranian support to large but politically marginalized Shia populations in states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. At the same time, America’s capacity to deal with this situation through its traditional bilateral partnerships in the region has been weakened by the Bush administration’s largely self-inflicted blows to its credibility as a mediator between Arabs and Israelis and as a promoter of reform.

An Integrated Approach

The president’s conceptual timidity is especially unfortunate because there is both a glaring need and a real opportunity for the United States to think big about the Middle East. The September 11 attacks, the launch of a global war on terrorism, and the U.S.-led military campaign to unseat Hussein have had an impact on the regional balance of power comparable in strategic significance to the shifts in Europe’s distribution of power wrought by World War II. U.S. policy has yet to deal, proactively and thoughtfully, with this challenging reality.

After World War II, America developed an approach to Western Europe that included economic reconstruction (the Marshall Plan), collective security structures (NATO), and the institutionalization of democratic politics. All this was part of a foundational strategy aimed at containing Soviet expansionism. The United States eventually supported development of cooperative security mechanisms—the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which matured into the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE)—extending across both the Western and Soviet blocs. The goals of these cooperative security structures were to keep the competition between the Soviet and Western blocs within tolerable limits, to provide the rival superpowers and their allies with “rules of the road” to regulate their interactions, and to legitimate the encouragement of political reform within the Soviet bloc.

This evolution was a crucial step in the eventual success of America’s Cold War foreign policy. The so-called Helsinki Process, launched in 1972 and culminating in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, rested on a basic bargain: The United States committed itself not to use force to change borders or forms of government in Europe; in return, the Soviets acknowledged internationally binding norms on human rights. Contemporary American conservatives celebrate the importance of those Soviet commitments on human rights in empowering the dissident and civil-society activists that were so crucial to the ultimate demise of the Soviet bloc. But those same conservatives studiously ignore the other part of the Helsinki bargain, for which they roundly excoriated Henry Kissinger at the time but which proved to be a strategic masterstroke: American acceptance that even the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites had legitimate security concerns was necessary not only to winning Soviet agreement to the Helsinki Accords’ human-rights “basket,” but also to undermining communism and ensuring a “soft landing” for Europe as communism was collapsing.

Today, the United States needs a similar grand strategy for the broader Middle East. Such a strategy would weave the various strands of U.S. Middle East policy—prosecuting the war on terrorism, stabilizing Iraq, containing Iran, pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, encouraging reform—into an integrated approach to collective security for the post-9-11 world. The objective would be the containment of Islamist extremism, which is the source of the most potent terrorist threats to the United States and its allies.

A Regional Framework

An integrated strategy for the Middle East could also lay the foundations for cooperative security mechanisms in a region badly in need of renewed and enhanced strategic equilibrium. Of course, cooperative security cannot replace collective security in the Middle East. The United States will continue to pursue important bilateral security relationships in the region, including the direct and indirect security guarantees we extend to key allies like Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But, just as the CSCE/OSCE cooperative security structures in Europe coexisted with NATO and several interlocking bilateral security relationships, the United States should now consider complementing efforts to enhance collective security in the Middle East with the development of a cooperative security framework for the region.

A regional security framework for the Middle East, based loosely on the CSCE/OSCE experience, should be inclusive in its membership (encompassing states with which the United States has problematic relations, as well as U.S. allies), comprehensive in its substantive scope (encompassing issues of economic and political transformation and the fight against terrorism, as well as more traditional security problems), and rooted in cooperative security through the application of mutually agreed-upon norms. These include peaceful resolution of conflicts, noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, opposition to terrorism, and respect for human rights. To join the framework, states would have to endorse the mutually agreed-upon norms and commit to regular dialogues with other member states to review and evaluate participants’ adherence to the norms.

Establishing a regional security framework for the Middle East could start with an initial focus on the Persian Gulf. The framework should include, at minimum, the United States, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), and Iraq. It might also include some of Iraq’s other neighbors, such as Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Additional international players, such as the European Union, might be included as external partners.

The framework would definitely need to include Iran, but this should not be seen as a reward for bad behavior. To the contrary: Including Iran is essential for stabilizing the regional balance of power. Taking Iran into a regional security arrangement would also oblige Tehran to sign up to the framework’s agreed-upon norms. These could be used by the United States to hold the Islamic Republic publicly accountable, in a regionally legitimated forum that would give Washington a better chance of rallying regional and international support in the face of Iranian misbehavior. This inclusion would actually improve U.S. leverage for stopping Iran’s pursuit of weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities and support for terrorist activity.

The United States would also get more out of its relations with established allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states—a key step in revitalizing the war on terrorism. By establishing regional norms and standards on issues such as terrorist financing, the examples of states that are more cooperative with U.S. goals could be used as leverage on other states. A regional mechanism could also help coordinate the contributions of regional states to post-conflict stabilization in Iraq—and hold those states publicly accountable for failures in implementation.

A regional security framework could bolster American efforts to encourage reform in the region. When Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah first promulgated his Arab reform charter in 2003, he had no venue in which to present the idea other than the Arab League, which proved useless for implementing concrete reforms. A regional mechanism that included various aspects of reform (economic, educational, social, etc.) in its mandate would provide cover to Abdullah or other reform-minded leaders in the region. In a regional forum, praise for states taking positive steps would be less likely to seem patronizing.

Over time, a framework focused initially on the Persian Gulf could be expanded to encompass other regional arenas, including the vexing issues of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Israel would, no doubt, suffer a certain measure of rhetorical abuse, but the gains to Israel from Middle Eastern states accepting it as a member of a regional security forum would more than compensate, and could facilitate regular diplomatic interaction between Israel and other regional states.

If President Bush wants to match his bold words with notable accomplishments, he needs to start thinking big about the Middle East. The broader Middle East remains, in comparative terms, the least institutionalized region on the planet. Talk is cheap, and war is expensive. To remake this critical region, the United States needs to become at least as much architect and builder of regional structures as wordsmith or warrior.