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Research Questions

  1. What are the advantages and trade-offs of an alternative Middle East strategy where strategic goals link to a broader understanding of stability that prioritizes reduced conflict, better governance, and greater growth and development?
  2. What might a U.S. strategy in the Middle East look like if the approach shifted from an emphasis on threats to a positive vision of a region supported by increased diplomatic and economic investments?
  3. How would instruments of U.S. policy need to adjust to more effectively addresses current regional challenges in ways that are mindful of limited resources at home?

U.S. policy toward the Middle East has relied heavily on military instruments of power and has focused on regional threats—particularly the Iranian threat—with the goal of keeping partners on "our side." These long-standing policies have largely fallen short of meeting core U.S. interests and adapting to new regional realities and strategic imperatives.

RAND researchers offer an alternative framework, suggesting that the U.S. strategic priority must center on reducing regional conflict and the drivers of conflict. This revised strategic approach puts a greater focus on addressing conflict and socioeconomic challenges that are creating unsustainable pressures on the region's states and immense suffering among its people. Researchers analyze how the tools of U.S. policy—political, security, economic, diplomatic, and informational instruments—would need to adjust to more effectively address such challenges in ways that are mindful of limited resources at home. Researchers also examine how the United States deals with both partners and adversaries in and outside the region and consider how to better leverage policies to the benefit of U.S. interests and the region.

The researchers recommend specific actions organized into the following three pillars: (1) shifting resources from the current heavy reliance on military tools to a more balanced approach that prioritizes economic investments, governance, diplomacy, and programs focused on people; (2) favoring a long-term time horizon to reduce regional conflict and support growth and development, even at the cost of short-term risks; and (3) working multilaterally with global and regional partners to address key challenges.

Key Findings

U.S. assistance is based on legacy considerations

  • Risks associated with regional relationships—such as entrapment and free-riding—do not appear to be fully priced into current partnerships.
  • Just three states (Israel, Egypt, and Jordan) receive the overwhelming share of all U.S. assistance to the region.

U.S. policies have fallen short in containing adversaries and reducing drivers of conflict

  • Policies of maximum pressure, particularly unilateral measures, have not proven successful in reining in Iran's nuclear program or its destabilizing regional activity.
  • Containing Shi'a militia groups requires bolstering legitimate security forces in the areas in which they operate.
  • Preventing the reoccurrence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) control and countering similar terrorist groups requires addressing the economic and societal grievances that provide a ready pool of recruits.

Despite increasing engagement in the Middle East, China and Russia face limits

  • Chinese and Russian influence could increase if the United States reorients its strategy toward the Middle East, but both states face limits and the United States maintains some advantages in the economic and security arenas.
  • Russia, China, and the United States all have an interest in the region's economic growth, reduced terrorism, and nonproliferation, offering opportunities for cooperation.

Reliance on military instruments of power is escalating—rather than reducing—regional conflict

  • U.S. military assistance to the region has far outpaced economic aid.
  • Despite the significant U.S. investment in military and security assistance, the region remains engulfed in conflict.
  • A rigorous, feasible, and uniformly implemented assessment of security cooperation programs is lacking.

Recommendations

  • The United States could reform security assistance by reducing sales of high-end weaponry in favor of equipment that is tailored to defensive and counterterrorism purposes and by closing the gap between the Big 3 aid recipients and other regional partners.
  • The United States could undertake a regional force posture review to assess the costs and benefits of reducing the historically high military footprint in the region.
  • The United States could shift resources to prioritize investments that are focused on people. This includes increasing engagement with Middle Eastern publics on such issues as health, youth unemployment, and climate change; removing blanket travel bans; maintaining a spotlight on human rights abuses; and addressing humanitarian needs, chronic poverty, and refugees and displaced persons with proven programming and methods.
  • The United States could promote regional economic development and integration by prioritizing economic reforms and equitable economic growth that support the private sector, small entrepreneurs, and employment-generating initiatives to sustain jobs and increase productivity.
  • The United States could commit to multilateral mechanisms for diplomacy and conflict reduction by supporting de-escalation talks between Gulf monarchies and Iran; establishing a regional security forum in the Middle East; and continuing the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS with an expanded focus on countering extremism.
  • The United States should avoid efforts to stop Middle East countries from cooperating with China and Russia in a Cold War–like competition when such cooperation does not infringe on U.S. interests and should identify opportunities for cooperation in areas where objectives may overlap.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Toward Aligning Partnerships with U.S. Interests

  • Chapter Three

    Managing Adversaries

  • Chapter Four

    Global Competitors in the Middle East

  • Chapter Five

    Recalibrating Policy Tools

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion

  • Appendix A

    Security-Focused Grants and Sales to Middle East Partners

Research conducted by

This research was funded by the Broad Reach Foundation and conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, a center within International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

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