Why Flexing America’s Muscles in the Middle East Will Not Make Things Worse

Earlier this week I participated in an Intelligence Squared debate on the Middle East. Intelligence Squared convenes Oxford-style debates on important policy issues. Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Paul Pillar of Georgetown University (and a non-resident senior fellow with Brookings Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence) argued in favor of the proposition that U.S. military action exacerbates the region’s problems, while Bret Stephens, deputy editorial page editor at The Wall Street Journal, and I rebutted it.

Remarkably, Miller and Pillar conceded defeat in the opening round of the debate and yet still managed to win it. How is that possible? If you are curious, you will have to watch the whole thing.

I will, however, share with you here a couple of tidbits from my own performance. As the debate developed, my primary goal was to advance the counterintuitive argument that the United States, when it demonstrates a pronounced bias against military action, makes it more likely that it will have no choice but to intervene in a massive, unilateral fashion. In order to keep the Middle East at bay, it must enlist allies, but it cannot succeed at that goal without some application of military force. This, I believe, is the lesson that President Obama has learned in the last three months.

“We want to believe,” I argued, “that people in the Middle East love us for the reasons that we love ourselves. It’s not true…. [T]he people in the Middle East want us primarily for one thing, and that is our ability to provide security…. Look at Syria today. If we want to solve Syria, or if we just want to make it a little bit better and keep it at a distance, we want to put others out in front. We want to have allies. We would like to have Turkey, one of the most important countries there, go and do things in Syria… They’re not going to go out and take risks…if they think that we might do like President Obama did a year ago with Syria and say, ’Ah, you know what? I’m tired of this fight.’ They need to know we’re going to go all the way with them and back them no matter what happens, and that requires military force.”

When concluding, I said the following:

“We are judged by our action, and we are judged by our inaction. And we are participants by the nature of our size and our historic role in the Middle East in the sectarian conflict, in all of the conflicts in the region, whether we think we are or not, whether we stay out or whether we don’t. So, the question is not whether to intervene or not to intervene, it’s how to shape what’s going on there. And the most important resource that we have in order to keep us from having to have massive interventions like the kind that we had in Iraq in 2003, is to build up our alliances.”

“And the only way we can build up our alliances is by providing security to our friends. …[R]ight now our friends in the Middle East don’t believe that they can rely on us because, time and again over the last decade, we have backed away from commitments to them. And that’s why we have to use military force so that we will not have the kind of wars that Paul wants to prevent.”

Visit the debate home page here for results and full biographies of all the participants, and watch the video or read the transcript.