The security situation facing the Middle East is grave and appears to be trending toward greater violence and instability. The states of the region have tended to focus on traditional, external threats but the internal threats they face—from domestic unrest, state failure, and civil war—have become both more common and dangerous.
It is highly unlikely that these security problems will solve themselves or that regional states will be able to resolve them on their own. Given the ongoing importance of Middle Eastern energy resources to the international economy, the region’s central geographic location, its multiplicity of terrorist groups, and the extent of regional anger at numerous other countries for their predicament, it would be a mistake to assume that these security problems will not affect the wider world. Already the problems of terrorism and refugees generated by Middle Eastern upheaval have made many Americans, Europeans, Russians, and Middle Easterners want to take action themselves.
To avoid a catastrophic descent, the Middle East will require considerable external assistance to address its security problems over the short and long terms. Only the United States has the combination of capabilities and potential willingness to lead, develop, and implement these strategies. If the United States is unwilling to do so, it is unlikely that any other state can or will, and the security problems of the Middle East will likely worsen as a result.
Although the United States remains indispensable to such an effort, it should not be expected to shoulder the burden by itself. Moreover, there is reason to believe that other countries—in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere—could be persuaded to do more, including potentially leading a wider campaign in certain areas. This is especially so as refugees, terrorist groups, and other manifestations of spillover from Middle Eastern civil wars increasingly affect other states.
Ultimately, the only way to eliminate the recurrent, worsening security crises of the Middle East is to help the states of the region address the deep structural problems in their economic, political, and social systems through a process of long-term reform.
In the meantime, important steps need to be taken to address immediate security problems, particularly the civil wars raging across the region, but these cannot be allowed to supersede the need for sustained reform, as has been the case too often in the past.