June 30, 2010

My Thoughts on U.S. Policy in the Middle East

From Tablet Magazine, where Lee Smith asked me to grade the Obama Administration's efforts in the Middle East:

I tend to believe the actions of local actors are more significant than those of U.S. policymakers. And experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught me that U.S. military force alone cannot decisively protect most U.S. interests. I also believe U.S. interests in the Middle East should be prioritized against one another within the region and also against U.S. interests elsewhere.

As someone who has spent the past decade getting to know the Arabic-speaking world, I should act in my interests and claim the Arabic-speaking world to be the single most important region from the perspective of U.S. interests. But I can't do that honestly. As I read documents like the National Intelligence Council's 2025 survey, I grow to suspect that specialists of East and South Asia will be far more important to the United States than we would-be Arabists going forward. (All you young whipper-snappers out there reading this blog, in other words, should also be working on your Mandarin flash cards.)

How one feels about the first and second sentences in that paragraph, though, really determines how one feels the United States should orient and use our power in all parts of the globe. In general, we Americans -- especially some of our friends on the American Right -- tend to overestimate the importance of what we do in comparison to what local actors do. (Iraq and Afghanistan, seriously, should have taught us better.) That doesn't mean we fold up our tents and head home: we just have to be realistic about what we can hope to achieve through the application of U.S. power, military force especially.