The Shrinking

Why the Middle East is less and less important for the United States.

Does the Middle East really matter anymore?

I'm just kidding. Of course the Middle East matters. Just look at the headlines: Not a day goes by without a new crisis in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt or a statement by an Israeli politician or Iranian mullah predicting that we're headed either to war or peace. This week, world leaders met in Geneva to discuss Iran's nuclear capability. Last month, President Barack Obama gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) devoted entirely to the Middle East. Then there are the petroleum reserves, the iconic Suez Canal, and the all too narrow Strait of Hormuz. There's also the never-ending saga of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, of course, September 11. That terrible event -- the second bloodiest day in U.S. history, exceeded only by a day during the Battle of Antietam -- came from the angry, grievance-producing, broken Middle East.

But, with all that said, the Middle East is not nearly as important as it used to be. The traditional reasons for U.S. involvement are changing. Once upon a time, it was all about containing the Russians, our dangerous dependence on Arab oil, and a very vulnerable Israel. Then it was all about the threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism, and the desire to nation-build in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Much of that is now gone. Some of what remains has gotten more complex and limited the role the United States can and should play in the Middle East. On other matters, the fact that some situations have gotten simpler may actually be further limiting what America wants and needs to accomplish there.

Could it be that, in coming years, we're going draw back even more from the place? Perhaps. And here's why.

(1) There's no new cold war or bogeyman.

It was the famous trio of Russians, oil, and Israel against the backdrop of a declining British empire that brought the United States to the Middle East in the first place, and some would like to believe there's still a cold war on. After all, Putin loves to stick it to America every chance he gets, and he's seen the United States remove Russian clients one by one (Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi) and even threaten unilateral action against Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's last man standing in the Middle East.

But Putin is not interested in an expanded proxy war with Washington in a region he knows is rife with Islamic extremism and a messy trap for Russia to boot. He would like to preserve the influence and assets he has, some of which involve billions in unpaid Syrian debt and contracts with Assad's name on them, as well as the naval base at Tartus. Putin also opposes a Pax America. However, as the recent U.S.-Russian framework agreement on Syrian chemical weapons reveals, Putin's aims can involve cooperation as much as competition. With Russia a part of the P5 +1, I also suspect Putin would sign on to a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue, rather than risk Israeli or U.S. military action.

In other words, the Russians and the Americans are hardly allies in the Middle East -- but they're not quite enemies either.

So, if the Russians aren't the principal threat to draw the United States into the region anymore, who or what is? In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of smart people had questions about what new organizing paradigm for U.S. foreign policy would replace the Cold War. After a decade, the answer came literally out of the blue on a beautiful but deadly fall day in September 2001.

The attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers generated a frenzy of activity, much of it focused on the Middle East. This would come to include two of the longest and among the most profitless wars in U.S. history, a global war on terrorism, an industrial-size homeland security complex, and a continuing struggle to find the right balance between America's security and the rights, privacy, and civil liberties of its citizenry.

But, another decade later, the signs of retrenchment and withdrawal from the hot wars that replaced the cold one are pretty clear. We're out of Iraq, and, by 2014, we'll be heading for the exits in Afghanistan, too. As for the so-called war on terrorism, we are getting smarter and more economical. The United States has been quite effective in dismantling al Qaeda's central operations and keeping the homeland safe from another sensational attack. We've been lucky for sure, but effective, too. The danger now appears to be more from extremist-inspired, lone wolf episodes like we saw at Fort Hood and in Boston. In any event, Americans dying in terrorist attacks remains an unlikely situation: Last year, only 10 Americans died in terrorist attacks. You're more likely to die in a car accident.

Meanwhile, drones are hardly an ideal counter-terrorism strategy from a legal, moral, or political point of view, but, along with the use of U.S. Special Forces, they do reflect a much lower-profile approach to dealing with terrorists than invading nations and trying to rebuild them. Ideal or not, these kinds of tactics reflect the sort of retail approach to terrorism that the United States is likely to continue pursuing in the future.

To be sure, the threat from Islamic extremism has not gone away. But the notion that the Islamists and their Sunni or Shiite arcs are poised to take over the Middle East and require some new grand interventionist strategy is another example of threat inflation. Osama bin Laden is dead. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a shadow of its former self. Hamas is contained in its tiny Gaza enclave. Nasrallah and Hezbollah have been weakened by Assad's travails. And the prospect that a small al Qaeda offshoot is going to take over and govern large parts of Syria is fanciful at best.

Indeed, the problem for many of the lands visited by the Arab Spring isn't that some new ayatollah or mullah is going to create a modern day Caliphate, but that there will continue to be weak and ineffective governance in the region, with those in charge incapable of coming up with truly national visions for their countries or leading in a way that addresses the basic political and economic needs of their people.

(2) Nobody wants America to play Mr. Fix-It.

One thing is clear: We've likely seen the last of the big transformative-interventionist schemes to change the Middle East from the outside in the name of U.S. security, a freedom agenda, or anything else. I say this knowing that there's little historical memory here, that the military gives a willful president all kinds of options, and that the world is an unpredictable place. But watching the public, congressional, and even expert reaction to the prospects of a limited U.S. strike against Syria, there's clearly zero support for intervening militarily in somebody else's civil war.

The alliance of the liberal interventionists and neocons who bemoan the Obama administration's lack of will, vision, and leadership and its abject spinelessness in the face of 100,000 dead (a full half of whom are combatants belonging to one side or the other) is simply no match for a frustrated public promised a reasonable return on two wars who instead got more than 6,000 American dead, thousands more with devastating wounds, trillions of dollars expended, a loss of American prestige and credibility, and outcomes more about leaving than winning.

To believe anyone in the United States is ready to invest additional resources in tilting at windmills in the Middle East is utterly fantastical. Who can blame them? Last week in Libya, the one successful example of U.S. intervention in the Arab Spring, militias kidnapped the prime minister. Car bombs kill scores weekly in Iraq. And, in Afghanistan, one can only despair about the gap between the price we have paid there and what we can expect in terms of security and good governance in the years ahead.

(3) An energy revolution is coming.

Energy independence isn't around the corner. But there's a revolution brewing in North America that will over time reduce U.S. dependence on Arab oil. U.S. oil production is increasing sharply for the first time in almost a quarter-century. And natural gas output is rising, too. Some people even predict that, within a decade, America will become the world's largest producer of oil and gas. Indeed, Saudi Arabia currently produces 10 million barrels a day, while the United States churns out six million. If you add another two million in natural gas liquids, you can -- without straining the bounds of credulity -- see the potential. According to Council on Foreign Relations oil guru Michael Levi, even the cautious U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that, by 2020, U.S. production could get close to 10 million barrels a day.

The point is not that the United States is becoming the new Saudi Arabia. As Levi points out, we're not in a position to manipulate and play politics with our oil production to affect supply and price. But we are going to become less reliant on Middle East energy. In 2011, we imported 45 percent of our energy needs, down from 60 percent six years earlier, and the share of our imports from Western Hemisphere sources is increasing. Between new oil in Brazil, oil sands production in Canada, and shale gas technology at home, by 2020, we could cut our dependence on non-Western Hemisphere oil by half. Combine that with the rise in national oil production and greater focus on fuel efficiency and conservation, and the trend lines are at least running in the right direction.

As long as oil trades in a single market, we're still vulnerable to disruptions, and the security of the Middle East's vast oil reserves will continue to be a key U.S. interest. But our own independence and thus freedom of action as it relates to the Saudis and other Arab producers will only increase. Given the fact that this month is the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 oil embargo, that's a good thing to contemplate.

(4) Arab Allies are estranged.

Part of the reason the United States is losing interest and influence in the Middle East is that we're sort of running out of friends -- or, perhaps more to the point and to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reported description of a Nicaraguan president, our own SOBs. America is watching a region in profound transformation. The old authoritarians with whom we fought (Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad the elder) and those on whom we relied (Yasser Arafat, Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh) are all gone. It's true the kings remain. But the most important ones -- the Saudis -- have serious problems with our policies. They can't abide the fact that, as a result of our doing, a Shiite prime minister rules in Baghdad; they loathe our policy on acquiescing to Mubarak's ouster; they resent our interest in reform in Bahrain; and they can't stand our refusal to get tough with Israel on the Palestinians.

We've just suspended a chunk of military aid to Egypt, another of our other Arab friends, and managed to alienate just about every part of the Egyptian political spectrum, from the military to the Islamists to the liberals to the business community. The Jordanians still want to be our friend largely because King Abdullah's vulnerabilities require it. Likewise for Mahmoud Abbas, who has no chance of getting a Palestinian state without U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's peace process lifeline.

The fact is, for the first time in half a century, Washington lacks a truly consequential Arab partner with whom to cooperate on matters relating to peace or war. Part of the reason is surely because our own street cred is much diminished. But most of our predicament derives from regional deficits -- the weakness of the Arab leaders and states themselves, and the turbulent changes loosed in the region in the past several years.

You might even go so far as to suggest that, today, the three most consequential powers in the region are the non-Arabs: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. All are serious, stable countries, with strong economies and militaries. Too bad we can't forge a partnership among that triad. The Middle East might become a serious and functional place.

(5) Israel is stronger and more independent than ever.

As matters have gotten worse for America in the Arab world, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has only grown stronger. Israel's own situation has also improved dramatically. Indeed, three factors -- Israel's formidable capacity; steadfast support from the United States; and stunning Arab incapacity -- have created a situation where Israel is stronger and more secure than it's ever been.

Iran's nuclear pretentions remain an acute challenge, and an unresolved Palestinian problem holds longer-term worries, too. But the notion that the Jewish state is a hapless victim, the Middle East's sitting duck, has been an illusion for some time now. Indeed, that image infantilizes the Israelis and creates a sense that they don't have freedom of action vis-a-vis their friends and enemies -- which they do. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself projects this image sometimes: His use of Holocaust imagery when describing the Iranian nuclear challenge seems to accord the mullahs great power. I've seen the picture of Churchill that Netanyahu has in his office, and I know he admires him. But Churchill would never, even in the darkest days of the blitz, have ever suggested that Hitler had the power to destroy Britain.)

Israel is a dynamic, resilient, and sovereign nation, and the United States needs to realize that, even while the Israelis take our interests into account, their own matter more -- particularly when it comes to their security and weapons of mass destruction. Where you stand in life is partly a result of where you sit, and as the small power with little margin for error, Israel is going to make its own decisions on the threats it faces and act unilaterally if necessary to deal with them.

Israel was never America's client. On the contrary, we helped enable and empower its independence of action. If Israel acts militarily against Iran because diplomacy can't address its concerns on the nuclear issue, it will be another indication that, as much as we would like to shape what goes on in the Middle East, we really can't. We don't live there, and we are clearly unable or unwilling to dictate to those who do.

(6) Diplomatic agreements could be on the horizon.

The speech Obama gave at the UNGA last month doesn't sound like a guy who's getting ready to disengage from the Middle East. After all, he committed to making resolutions of both the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the key foreign policy priorities of his second term. Given his risk-aversion, America's diminished credibility, and the sheer difficulty of the substance, it's by no means clear that the administration has the resolve and skill to succeed.

Even if he is serious, it's not as if Obama can just will solutions. These two problems are the most intractable ones in the region. Not to mention the fact that the Israelis, Palestinians, and Iranians will have a few things to say about these matters. Moreover, unlike the Syrian chemical weapons affair, it's very unlikely there's a Vladimir Putin who's going to make either of these issues easier for the United States. (Although, admittedly, we should withhold judgment. Had you told me at the end of August that the United States and Russia would be cooperating on Syria and U.N. inspectors would be busy eliminating Assad's chemical weapons stocks, I wouldn't have believed a word.)

Still, should Obama overcome these hurdles and deliver on these two issues -- and when I say deliver, I mean limited agreements, not conflict-ending ones -- not only will he have earned his Nobel Peace Prize, but he will have freed the United States from two awful burdens, made the Middle East a much friendlier and more secure place, and validated the basic premise of this column. Sure, we'd be involved in monitoring and helping to implement new agreements, particularly on the two-state solution. But, on balance and over time, agreements might free us from getting stuck and enmeshed any deeper in the middle of the mess we'll likely be facing in the Middle East if solutions to both issues can't be found.

The Middle East hasn't been kind to America. Nor we to it. The sooner we can reduce our profile in these unhappy lands, the better. Nothing would make me happier.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Advantage: Iran

Does the U.S. stand a chance against Tehran, the nimble, canny free agent of nuclear negotiations?

Nobody knows how the Iranian nuclear dilemma is going to end. A good deal, a bad deal, no deal, a U.S. or Israeli military strike -- or none of the above? But amid all the uncertainty, at least one thing seems pretty certain: The mullahs are playing three-dimensional chess while the United States is playing checkers.

This is not to say that the Iranians are diplomatic and strategic geniuses. After all, if they were that clever, they wouldn't be reeling under the impact of nation-crushing sanctions that are destroying their economy. Nor would everyone's favorite mullah -- President Hasan Rouhani -- be sending Rosh Hashanah tweets to all his would-be Jewish friends.

The checkers reference is also not meant to suggest that the Obama administration is clueless about how to deal with Iran. While the president's handling of the Syrian chemical weapons issue did at times resemble a Marx Brothers movie, the administration knows the stakes on Iran are higher -- and that, precisely because of Syria, it must be more disciplined, focused, and deliberate.

Yet Iran has certain natural advantages that the United States lacks. This doesn't invariably mean the United States will lose and Iran will win at nuclear roulette. But it does mean that Tehran can be far more agile, devious, and strategic in its quest for a nuclear weapons capacity than Washington can be in its effort to stop it.

Here are brief explanations of these important advantages.

  1. Great Powers Versus Small Tribes

Big doesn't always translate into smart and effective, and small doesn't necessarily mean weak. The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers that wrongly believed they could impose their will on small tribes.

Compelling and coercing nations not to do something they deem vital is no easy matter. The record, as my Foreign Policy colleague Micah Zenko points out, isn't all that great. Big global powers like the United States have many things to do, and they are distracted and tire easily. Smaller ones like Iran that live in a dangerous neighborhood can't afford to do the same. They're focused intensely on just a few things: physical security, survival of the regime, maintaining religious and national identity, historical grievances, wounding and trauma, and fear of bigger powers. They become quite adept at manipulating and maneuvering around these larger powers to achieve their goals, both because of their will and because of their knowledge of the real estate: They know their region's back alleys, sand traps, and complicated ways.

In recent years, the United States has come to Iran's neighborhood all too often and with too little knowledge of the landscape. With our overwhelming military power and technological superiority, we can remove leaders and weaken groups hostile to our interests. But the locals can and do make us pay big time. (See: Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq.) A decade after we've left, all our schemes and dreams won't have changed much on the ground. Two decades later, if locals remember we were there, it usually isn't fondly.

Iran has been particularly deft in capitalizing on these sorts of U.S. mistakes. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan weakened the Taliban and eliminated Saddam Hussein -- two of Iran's adversaries -- and bolstered its regional standing. Iran has also maneuvered deftly, and thus played well, in regional developments like the Syrian crisis. It has backed President Bashar al-Assad, exploited his regime's Hezbollah connection, and managed along with the Russians to keep the regime afloat. The U.S.-Russian agreement on chemical weapons has also furthered the Iranian goal of legitimizing the Syrian leader and has raised questions in the minds of the mullahs about whether we are prepared to use military force in the Middle East.

Finally, thanks largely to its smaller, nimbler status, Iran has withstood sanctions, political isolation, cyberwar, and the efforts of three successive U.S. administrations to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Indeed, in 2013, Tehran is closer than ever to attaining the capacity to weaponize within a relatively short period of time. And who knows? They may be even nearer than we and the Israelis realize to crossing that threshold.

  1. Iran Knows Its Own Mind. Do We Know Ours?

We really don't know what the Iranian game is. Are we on the cusp of a new era in the U.S.-Iranian relationship with a deal on the nuclear issue that will lead to a broader regional modus vivendi? Or is the Rouhani diplomatic offensive designed to buy time, probe for weakness and division in allied ranks, neutralize the Israeli military option, and reinforce through charm and sweet talk an American president's already strong preference for diplomacy over war?

Nor does the United States fully grasp its own game. There is tremendous uncertainty about what, in the end, to do about Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon. Do we bomb if diplomacy fails? Do we contain? What do we do if/when Israel decides it must use force? Our policy oozes indecision. And it shows.

The mullahs are indeed smart and canny, and unlike U.S. leaders, they probably know their own mind on the nuclear issue. No matter how real Rouhani may be as a reformer and as a legitimate expression of a popular Iranian desire for change, he's still not the guy in charge. And the guy who is fashions himself the supreme leader of a truly great and historic nation confronted by an America and an Israel that seek to keep Iran down and to deny the country its rightful place in the region and the world. Iran is a country driven by a profound sense of insecurity and entitlement -- a very bad combination of personality traits in an individual, let alone in a nation.

Indeed, Ali Khamenei and his conservative-cum-revolutionary, security-minded cronies may well regard the quest for a nuclear weapons capacity as a basic right, part of their country's identity as a power, designed to bolster Iran's status -- and as a hedge against regime change and as cover to wield regional influence.

The pursuit of Iran's nuclear ambitions has been a national goal for quite some time. Indeed, had the Shah not been overthrown, Iran might already have been a nuclear state. For Iran to completely abandon that goal or to allow the United States to impose restrictions that would make it impossible to pursue it again in the future seems hard to imagine.

  1. The Rouhani Phenomenon

The emergence of Rouhani is the perfect play against the United States, because his election as president really does reflect reformist tendencies within the Iranian public and polity. Sanctions are ruining the economy and hold the potential to create serious popular discontent. Why not send abroad a smiling, attractive, and forthcoming president who can tone down the anti-Israeli rhetoric, accept the Holocaust, and deny Iran has a nuclear weapons program, even while Tehran continues to pursue said program?

The Iranian leadership can lie, dissemble, and pursue this two-track strategy without blinking an eye and without fear of any domestic backlash, all in an effort to see what kind of sanctions relief it can achieve and what it has to pay for it. If the price isn't right, it can recalibrate, turn on a dime, and effortlessly return to the hard-line rhetoric of Rouhani's predecessor.

For Obama, investing in Rouhani thus means risking being made to look the fool should the process reach the point where the mullahs determine that what we're offering isn't sufficient to meet their needs. And, while this budding relationship congeals, the U.S. president is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain every negative Iranian statement or action. Yet Iran has positioned Rouhani as a risk the United States feels it must take.

  1. Negotiating for Whom?

Iran is a free agent in negotiating with the United States. We aren't in as enviable position. Whatever political constraints Khamenei faces, they aren't nearly as narrowing as ours. Between Congress and U.S. allies -- Israel but also Saudi Arabia -- the U.S. position must take into account an array of suspicions and fears, some of them at times competing with each other.

Congress is critical for sanctions relief and for the domestic consensus required for any foreign-policy initiative, particularly one as big as this. And the notion that the Obama administration will somehow have a free hand to ignore Israeli needs strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. As Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman conceded the other day, no deal is better than a bad deal. A bad deal would be one that leaves Israel angry, suspicious, and aggrieved and Iran able to quickly re-create a nuclear breakout option should Tehran suspend or abrogate the agreement.

These realities will not only reduce U.S. flexibility; they also afford Iran a powerful political and propaganda point to argue that the United States isn't negotiating on the merits of the nuclear issue but is allowing politics to shape its positions. It also takes Iran off the hook for responding seriously to what the United States offers. Indeed, the Iranians have undoubtedly figured out that Obama will be quite risk-averse when it comes to offering major concessions. That frees the mullahs from their need to be forthcoming as well.

Let's hope that the mullahs haven't concluded, too, that Obama will be risk-averse when it comes to a military option, should diplomacy fail.

  1. Time: Ally or Adversary?

U.S. presidents and government negotiators measure their lives in four- and eight-year increments -- that is, the terms of administrations. Iran, by contrast, plays the long game, the generational game. Sure, Iran wants sanctions relief. But it can wait if it doesn't get exactly what it wants.

In addition to the limited time frame of his second term, Obama is up against two clocks that are ticking down to a place he'd rather not be: a military option. First, there's the clock showing that Iran is nearing the point of no return -- the much-feared breakout capacity. That, in turn, influences the second clock: Israel's own timeline for making the agonizing decision about its military options.

In a way, too, the Rouhani charm offensive may have accelerated matters for Washington. By elevating the level of negotiations -- opening new channels to both the U.S. president and the secretary of state -- it will be harder, not easier, for the United States to drag things out. Before, in the P5+1 talks in Almaty, Istanbul, and Moscow, we were on mullah time; now, we're on fast-tracked Washington time. After all, once the president at the U.N. General Assembly, in front of the whole world, directs his secretary of state to manage negotiations, it's hard to go back to business as usual.

Maybe the moment of decision is coming. Maybe not. If negotiations really are serious and a deal, however imperfect, is in sight, time will be less of a U.S. concern going forward than it is now. If things don't go well at the table, however, then at some point it will be time to stop pretending that negotiations can answer the mail -- and to acknowledge how Iran's generational game could play out.

Iran doesn't want an Israeli strike, let alone a U.S. one. But it may well calculate that, if it doesn't stick a nuclear weapons program in President Obama's eye, the United States won't strike. As for the Israelis, the mullahs may well take their chances and wager that the temporary setback to their nuclear program would be outweighed by the political benefits they might gain from an Israeli strike.

It's a roll of the dice. But Iran, with all its advantages over the United States and its allies, just might take the risk. Indeed, the message from Tehran might be: Come and get us. And, by the way, welcome to the neighborhood.