BIPP: What should the U.S. do in the Middle East?

John Angileri, BIPP Intern

In ascertaining next steps for foreign policy in the Middle East, one must first consider why we were there in the first place. Post- World War II American foreign policy objectives can be divided into roughly five key concerns: (1) counteracting Soviet influence in the region, (2) pursuing economic interests regarding oil resources, (3) addressing the threat posed by terrorist groups in the region, (4) working to democratize autocratic and/or theocratic regimes in the region and (5) supporting Israel. In 2020, with the Soviet Union nearly thirty years gone and the United States a net exporter of petroleum, objectives 1 and 2 have less relevance; the basis for objectives 3, 4 and 5 still exists. A new vision of American foreign policy in the Middle East must first ask whether it is necessary to tweak or redefine these last three, particularly as attitudes towards Israel seem to have shifted in the past decade. Second, it must make certain that these objectives and the strategies used to pursue them serve our ultimate goal – peace in the Middle East.

Note that this “peace” should not be peace at all costs. Relative stability in the region can be achieved through the appeasement of oppressive power structures, as well as through their defeat and subsequent establishment of institutions that promote freedom and agency. We ought to commit to a peace resembling the latter.

Appeals to stop pursuing “endless war” in the Middle East and to end U.S. military involvement in the region entirely have gained strength amid recent confrontation with Iran. The argument here is that Western involvement caused many of the problems in the Middle East, and therefore cannot help in solving them and should withdraw. This theory posits that Western “imperialistic” actions sowed the seeds of radical Islam and provided momentum for anti-American autocrats, and that United Nations Resolution 181 inflamed and/or initiated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are perhaps all reasonable assumptions, but they do not necessarily mean things would be better if America picked up and left.

United States withdrawal from the Middle East would mean that the region’s various political regimes, interest groups, militias and terrorist organizations would need to hash things out themselves. Sure, America does not have a right to dictate how Middle-Easterners live their lives, but we should not abandon vulnerable populations either. Proponents of ending American involvement ought to consider the possibility that some of the most powerful groups in the Middle East — groups that will ascend to a dominant position in America’s absence — could also be some of the most violent and oppressive. We must be certain that American departure will not create a power vacuum leading to more violence and oppression.

If America leaves, the state of Israel as we know it will certainly cease to exist. Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, along with whatever repressive measures it uses, will end, but this is hardly the only consideration worth understanding. Will the great religious significance of the territory not cause war to wage in perpetuity, regardless of who has sovereignty over it? Ensuring a just outcome for the Israeli regional minority and the Palestinians requires a deliberate approach supported by the United States.

American involvement in the Middle East does not need to end, but it does need to change. A better strategy is one that learns from our historical mistakes, focuses on improving our understanding of the region and pursues the interests of the people of the region, as well as our own.

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