From Syria and Iraq to Libya and Yemen, the Middle East is once again rife with conflict. Much of the fighting is along sectarian lines, but can it really be explained simply as a “Sunni versus Shia” battle? What explains this upsurge in violence across the region? And what role can or should the United States play?
In a new Analysis Paper, F. Gregory Gause, III frames Middle East politics in terms of a new, regional cold war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for power and influence. Rather than stemming from sectarian rivalry, this new Middle East cold war results from the weakening of Arab states and the creation of domestic political vacuums into which local actors invite external support.
Gause contends that military power is not as useful in the regional competition as transnational ideological and political connections that resonate with key domestic players. The best way to defuse the conflicts, he argues, is to reconstruct stable political orders that can limit external meddling.
Noting the limits in U.S. capacity to do so, Gause recommends that the United States take a modest approach focused on supporting the states that actually govern, acting multilaterally, and remembering that core U.S. interests have yet to be directly threatened.
My biggest concern is that Washington is signaling to Russia that it’s OK to meddle in the politics of sovereign nations which are your neighbors. Meddling is going on from Paris to Ukraine, from east to west and north to south, within Europe and at its borders, and always with the intent of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions. And it is being either denied or downplayed.