Does the United States have a coherent strategy in the Middle East?  

By Daniel DePetris

What exactly is America’s foreign policy in the Middle East? Former Senator and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asked precisely that during a short interview with the national security publication Defense One. In Hagel’s mind, Washington doesn’t have a policy, a strategy, or anything else in between. The Trump administration is attempting to achieve objectives in a tough, turbulent, bloody region—kick Iranian troops out of Syria; limit Moscow’s influence; support an independent, corruption-free, and democratic Iraqi government—that place an unnecessary burden on America’s limited resources and costly burdens to the American taxpayer. In Hagel’s own words: "I don’t know what our foreign policy objective is in the Middle East or almost anywhere else.”    

Ironically, the former Defense Secretary is actually being generous in his critique.

The lack of a concrete strategy in the Middle East is not so much a Trump Administration problem as it is a bipartisan failure prolonged by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Every U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War has contributed to that failure in one form or another. Indeed, if it looks like the United States doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East, this is because a largely unaccountable elite continues to perpetuate the fallacy that America should embrace the role of the region’s police officer.  

The fact the U.S. has made mistake after mistake in the Middle East over the last 17 years—from invading Iraq and destabilizing the regional security order to squandering hundreds of billions of dollars on fruitless nation-building exercises—should be all the evidence one needs that the U.S. simply has no idea how to pacify this mind-bogglingly complicated part of the world.  

Luckily for Washington, pacification, stabilization, and long-term financial and military investments are not required. The United States can adopt a far more pragmatic grand strategy that can successfully protect the American people and promote the country’s economic prosperity. 

The blunt truth is that U.S. national security interests in the Middle East are limited. Everything else—military-induced democratization, billion-dollar reconstruction initiatives, and participation in any of the Arab world’s proxy wars—is an expensive and unwarranted distraction from the administration’s emphasis on 21st century great power conflict.    

Establishing diplomatic and commercial relationships with a multitude of regional players and playing those states off one another to America’s strategic benefit have proven to be far cheaper and more effective in safeguarding the interests of the American people than diving into the Arab world’s intractable sectarian imbroglio.

Second, it is critical for the U.S. to defend its citizens from terrorist organizations with transnational capabilities. Some of those organizations, such as the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, remain ensconced in the Middle East and continue to have a desire to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland. To the extent at which this is the case, the U.S. intelligence community will need to forge working relationships with as many governments as possible—even if most of those governments are far from ideal in terms of their politics or leadership. Just as vital: distinguishing transnational terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia form others within the jihadist lexicon that concentrate on local ambitions. Treating all terrorists as existential threats to the United States—no terrorist group should be afforded that label—is a recipe for the dragging the U.S. into other peoples’ conflicts.

The third objective, helping to preserve an international energy market that is consistent and affordable for the American people, is an indisputable part of America’s grand strategy and will continue as such for as long as crude oil is the lubricant of the global economy. 

Unfortunately, America’s Middle East policy is no longer about setting priorities or seeing the big picture. Instead, successive administrations have gotten into the weeds of sectarianism, picking winners and losers in the region’s adversarial contests, and traveled down the dangerous path of using U.S. military power to solve political problems that can only be solved by the people living there. All of this comes as the U.S. national debt is skyrocketing past the $21 trillion mark, America’s roads, bridges, and public transportation systems are in dire need to repair.

The Middle East is an epicenter of violence. It will only be able to turn itself around when the region’s politicians have the incentive, determination, and leadership to take ownership of the crises currently inflicting their neighborhood. The U.S. military should not be put in the position of doing it for them, nor should the American people be on the hook for throwing their hard-earned taxpayer dollars towards a project that will inevitably fail.  

It is about time for America’s crop of foreign policy leaders to start doing what is best for security and prosperity of the American people. Those who want to add more security burdens on the country’s shoulders need not apply. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on October 23, 2018. Read more HERE.