Grand Strategy for the Middle East


Nov 19, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on November 19, 2006.

Debate in the United States about the war in Iraq is seemingly about strategy but is really about tactics, as America struggles to control the damage without changing its basic objectives and policies in the Middle East. A strategic reassessment is needed to find a way to deal not just with Iraq, but with the other interrelated problems in the region.

The Bush administration has stopped characterizing its approach in Iraq as “stay the course,” but it is still committed to victory – though the definition of victory has changed over time. Today, the administration characterizes victory as preventing a civil war and preserving a single state, at a time when sectarian fighting amounts to a low-level civil war and threatens to break Iraq into pieces.

Opponents of the administration's approach look for some way to get U.S. forces out of harm's way in Iraq. Some have concocted improbable outcomes – such as a trifurcated state of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that somehow would produce almost instant comity. Others champion the extreme of military withdrawal that ignores both the risks of terrorism emanating from Iraq and a collapse of American influence throughout the region.

When caught up in such a complex of poor choices, the classic step of statecraft is to change the terms of the debate and broaden it so that one piece, however difficult, no longer dominates everyone's vision.

In the Middle East, that means working to preserve the basic principles of American interests, values and policies. These principles are: a region that is relatively stable; the free flow of oil and gas to U.S. and other foreign markets; a secure Israel; societies that are not hotbeds of terrorism and that are slowly modernizing; and U.S. power that is on call when need be, but not omnipresent or essential on a daily basis.

Achieving these principles is a tall order. But policies and approaches to try getting there are reasonably clear and consist of five big steps.

First is to restate priorities in Iraq as development of a state that can govern itself in relative peace, but whose precise character of government is less important than its ability to secure order, at least for now.

This requirement must begin with understanding what is truly important to the United States: Preventing Iraq from becoming a menace in the region. That includes letting Turkey know that America will oppose an independent Kurdistan and will use military power to thwart activities of the terrorist group PKK (which advocates Kurdish independence) that is operating in Iraq against Turkey.

The requirement also includes telling Saudi Arabia, once and for all, to stop all funding by its nationals for the activities of terrorist groups, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. And, most important, it includes an all-out effort to engage other powers in the region to help recast security and politics in Iraq overall.

This leads to the second big step. The United States needs to see that it can no longer do what it tried to do from the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War onward – to take on both Iraq and Iran simultaneously, demanding that both “behave” according to American interests without considering or promoting interests of their own.

The Clinton administration practiced a basically peaceful policy called Dual Containment. The Bush administration drove that to a logical conclusion, beginning with toppling the government in Baghdad and the continued desire to do the same – through one means or another – in Iran.

The effort to contain Iran has an extra dimension occasioned by the prospect that it may be working to get nuclear weapons. If Iran is pursuing weapons, the action is at least in part a response to Iranian fears of a possible U.S. military attack patterned after the invasion of Iraq.

A generation ago, the United States had reason to believe that the Iranian Revolution would infect other Muslim societies. Despite the strident rhetoric of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that time has passed and the mullahs' broader appeal is a husk of its former self.

Strategically, an Iran that would be willing to accept intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and give up its support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah would be an Iran that poses little threat to the U.S. position in the region. But even to attempt to get there would require America to consider a grand bargain: an exchange of Iranian “good behavior” for U.S. security guarantees and Iran's re-entry into the international community.

Such a grand bargain would require direct U.S. talks with Iran. Washington still refuses even to consider such a deal, however, or to allow Iran's European interlocutors to put it on the table.

The third big step is for the United States to recognize that seeking to reach a peace agreement between Israel and an independent Palestinian state has become a strategic imperative. Like it or not, America's standing among all of the Muslim world and its European allies demands that it renew its role as peacemaker – vigorously, without letup – and without being deflected from the goal.

The outlines of peace have been clear for several years and center on land swaps that would let Israel keep territory embracing about half of the West Bank Jewish settlers; a united Jerusalem as capital of two states; monetary compensation of 1948 Palestinian refugees; and a disarmed Palestinian state with the presence of a NATO-led peace force. The most important factor lacking in gaining such a peace is not new ideas but political leadership on all sides: Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.

Fourth is Afghanistan, where the Taliban – the original focus of U.S. military force in the greater Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – have been making a comeback. Military action by the United States, all NATO allies and 11 other countries that have formed the International Security Assistance Force has experienced some success, as have the provincial reconstruction teams working with the security force.

What's lacking in Afghanistan is coordination and coherence of non-military efforts, which is the critical requirement of good governance and development. There is also a lack of sufficient resources to do the job over the many years that will be required. The Europeans should be expected to take the lead, including a strong and well-financed role for the European Union, which has so far sat mostly on the sidelines.

Finally, if the United States is not to be consumed by open-ended military engagement in the Middle East, it needs to foster creation of a new regional security system, potentially embracing all regional states that are prepared to choose a course of reciprocal security rather than efforts at national aggrandizement.

How such a security system would operate needs to be considered carefully and no model of another system – such as NATO – is likely to be valid. But the goal should be clear: a system based first and foremost on local states, with the United States and its European allies playing the role of arbiters, when need be, and the security providers of last resort.

These five steps require vision, leadership and statesmanship to be attempted. Even then, they are far from being assured of success. But making the effort is a far better choice than letting debate on Iraq focus on narrow, tactical issues that promise no way out for the United States. That way has already been revealed as a road to failure for long-term U.S. interests in the region and beyond.

Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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