September 24, 2012

American Power and Choice in the Middle East

Though Kindred Winecoff may have written this about Stephen Walt, it also speaks to Pankaj Mishra's op-ed today predicting the allegedly inevitable US decline in the Middle East:

How does any of this indicate that the geopolitical position of the U.S.
has been weakened? The U.S.'s antagonists are quite literally fighting
for their lives....regional democratization is underway
-- albeit not in the way they had expected -- and the broader
transformation of the region is proceeding in a direction that is
amenable to the U.S.'s long-term interests. The Middle East is less
engaged in proliferation than it was a decade ago, Tehran's
intransigence notwithstanding. There are fewer security dilemmas in
operation than at any point in decades...the frictions that
many believed had developed between the U.S. and its NATO allies over
Iraq appear to have been transitory rather than permanent.

Dan is also correct that, contrary to recent analysis, the Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, and other external powers also still sit on the periphery of Middle East power relations. This structural realist line of analyis doesn't address the societal changes Mishra describes, but his argument is unconvincing on that level as well. The postcolonial wave has been a consistent challenge globally for US foreign policy since the 1950s, but it never posed a overwhelming threat to American power in the Middle East. Why? Its effects are not uniform across states, and always remain vulnerable to national, regional, and extra-regional dynamics. This isn't to say that people do not share strong political commonalities or even necessarily weak civilizational ones. But in the case of the Middle East, the regional challenge to American influence never really emerged. In fact, as the Cold War deepened and post-colonial fervor hit its height the United States actually increased its power and alliances in the Middle East.

If Nasser and the forces he unleashed could not drive the US out, it's highly unlikely that the Arab Spring will. Had the idea of Arab unity been able to seriously mobilize a preponderence of power, it would have succeeded in its recurring series of projects aimed at regional unity. Yet whether in the confused strategy of the Arab states that lost the 1948 Israeli war of independence or the failure of the United Arab Republic, we've never seen a cohesive force able to really dispel external influence. One can take a constructivist explanation, as Michael Barnett does, or a standard neorealist explanation oriented around anarchy and the balance of power to figure out why. Either way, Mishra does not convince as to why today's upheaval is different.

This sort of talk unfortunately obscures the real issue: the variable shape of American involvement in the Middle East and how highly contingent that involvement really is on American perception of value.  The US is not going to "withdraw" from the Middle East--we're yoked to it for cultural and economic reasons that cannot simply by wished away. But so are a host of other powers that nonetheless have different postures in the region than we do. In the absence of a Soviet strategic threat to the Persian Gulf and Iran's declining strategic position, how long the United States chooses to maintain its current network of alliances, political relationships, and force deployments will likely depend, as Dan has said, on both domestic opinion and policymakers' conception of costs and benefits.

Plainly put, the US intervenes in the Middle East to sustain and sometimes modernize US alliances structures and political relationships. It also sporadically intervenes to try to change the Middle East's domestic and cultural spheres, with varying degrees of success and failure. Though American intervention is mainly political and economic there is also a heavy military dimension. The former is unduly ignored and the latter is often unfairly blamed for America's problems in the region. The larger point: political and strategic relationships do not sustain themeselves. They have be constantly refreshed and defended, The US can skimp on that cost in the hope that clients and partners will, on their own, pick it up at the expense of competing domestic priorities. But it will find that those costs---like a rent bill--do not pay themselves. The Arab Spring, Iran, and emerging 2nd wave jihadist challenges pose political and diplomatic costs. The political-military "landlord" (to continue an awkward metaphor) also must be paid in Asia too, if the post-Vietnam American policy there is to be sustained.

Sometimes the bill can be paid by other actors, but not necessarily in the way the US desires. We are seeing a dramatic example of this in the South China Sea. Japan and China are engaging in a kind of conflict that was prevented in the past by the US' postwar policy of keeping Japan from becoming a threat to China and providing stability for Japanese economic and political development. American policies of dual containment in the 1990s against Iran and Iraq came as a consequence of the failure of attempting to play both against each other in the 1980s--a failure that prompted direct American military intervention to protect economic interests.

Right now, the US is willing to pay the costs of the current policy. But external shocks in other regions and further economic disruptions may shift this calculus. We should not also rule out nationalism as a possible factor in American policy shifts. In the past, as Dan notes, isolationism was originally expressed as an American feeling of superiority over a morally corrupted world dominated by European power politics. The popularity of the recurring "Muslim rage" concept plays on an traditional American idea that the blame for American failures to transform the societies of others should be laid at those societies themselves. So while we shouldn't bet on anything more than near-term US retrenchment (a different thing than decline) in response to current economic realities, retrenchment that leads to a different conception of achieving American interests shouldn't be conclusively ruled out in the early 21st century. But contra Mishra, that would have more to do with factors external to the Middle East than Frantz Fanon 2.0.