With fighting raging in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, American interests are under immediate threat across much of the greater Middle East. Each day requires U.S. officials to make new tactical decisions to deal with rapidly changing developments.
To go beyond day-to-day crisis management, the United States needs to develop a regional grand strategy that can define America's fundamental interests in the Middle East and set realistic ways to protect these interests. What's needed is a new security system that will stabilize the region over the long term and enable America to meet its own security, political and economic requirements at far less human and material cost.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America's task at the eastern edge of the Middle East seemed difficult but relatively straightforward: topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan and then start nurturing that country toward the modern age. At the same time, the Bush administration made a start on a two-state solution designed to enable Israel and an independent Palestinian state to live side by side in peace.
Then came the war in Iraq, and U.S. attention became riveted on that conflict. At first the goals seemed clear: remove a tyrant, end a threat of weapons of mass destruction, lessen the danger to Israel, and start Iraq on the path to democratization. But the classic goal of stability is now taking precedence over all others in Iraq
Any realistic timetable for when Iraq can take care of itself — as one entity or a combination of autonomous regions — defies prediction. The U.S. debate on Iraq is now not about what will be best for America's long-term interests, but primarily about the terms and conditions for U.S. troops to get out
America's leaders have to calculate the potential costs of a U.S. withdrawal if it leaves Iraq in a mess. These costs include the chance that Iraq will become an incubator for terrorism, a loss of U.S. prestige, a blow to America's reputation for reliability and a loss of U.S. regional influence
America's attention is also increasingly focused on Iran, which may be trying to develop nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Iran is injecting itself vocally and vigorously into the struggle for regional influence by supporting Hezbollah in the current fighting in Lebanon and northern Israel.
The chance of a U.S. war with Iran over the nuclear issue may be receding with the prospect of direct negotiations, but it cannot be ruled out. There, too, America has no clear answer to the question of what it needs to achieve.
In Lebanon-Israel-Gaza, the U.S. opposes attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas and continues to reject dealing with Hamas even though it won the Palestinian parliamentary elections. But at the moment America has not unveiled a plan for helping to resolve the current crisis, or for what to do when the fighting finally dies down.
In developing a grand strategy for the Middle East, America should seek to create a region not plagued by violence, not fostering terrorism, and without the spread of nuclear weapons. In addition, the strategy should work to create a region where oil and natural gas can flow, where Israel, Palestine and Lebanon can live side by side in peace, fully sovereign and secure from threats, and where no country can dominate the region and block America's legitimate interests.
Domination of the region by any country hostile to the U.S. is unlikely so long as America is engaged in the region and does not look foolish or irrelevant.
Creating security for Israel and a state for the Palestinians is in the longer-term perspective largely a matter of U.S. political will to press the contending parties to accept the principles for a two-state solution laid out by President Clinton just before he left office.
Only constant U.S. engagement in Arab-Israeli peacemaking can stop the spoilers' role played by Hezbollah, its backers and other extremists. Setting goals for peace and backing them up — rather than adhering either to the played out method of taking only one step at a time toward a comprehensive peace or believing that Israel can achieve peace by itself — will get America most of what it needs for its broader ambitions in the region.
The possibility of Iranian nuclear weapons and Iran's continuing support for Hezbollah terrorism are serious business, but the U.S. has been unwilling to deal with what so far has been every nuclear nation's primary motivation for getting the bomb: security.
If Iran will behave — allowing open inspections, abandoning nuclear weapons and refraining from supporting terrorism — America should offer it the same security guarantees already given North Korea. The Europeans have been pressing America to propose such a deal for more than three years.
But what is still needed is something to tie all these separate actions together. This can be accomplished by creating a regional security structure to replace the one shattered by events from the 1979 Iranian revolution through the 2003 Iraq invasion and the current fighting between Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas.
This new security structure will require constant U.S. political and diplomatic engagement and should have four key goals:
Set standards for national security, political legitimacy and acceptance, and competition for regional influence that apply to all and that will be enforced by all who accept the standard.
Provide for a principal but not predominant U.S. military role, expressed as much as possible through alliance structures — NATO to start with, transitioning to a region-based system.
Create a UN-backed means for resolving disputes among regional nations where possible.
Promote the importance of economic development, education, health, job creation, human rights and representative governance.
Only the United States can take the initiative to create this new security system. But it would surely find willing partners and supporters, especially in Europe.
The new security system could begin to show people in the Middle East that America wants to help build a basis for a productive future for local peoples and not U.S. aggrandizement.
The new system could also support collective efforts in fighting terrorism. It could help reverse the startling drop in U.S. standing in the Middle East and elsewhere. And it could show the American people that the investment of blood and treasure — hopefully at far lower levels than now — has a point and purpose that make sense for America's long-term interests and values.
Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.
This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on July 19, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.