Playing Hard to Get in the Middle East

Some of America's Middle Eastern allies are reportedly not very happy with the United States these days. I refer, of course, to Saudi Arabia and Israel, who are troubled by U.S. discussions with Iran and upset by Obama's reluctance to plunge head-first into the Syrian quagmire. But those of us with a more strategic view of U.S. interests in the Middle East may welcome these developments, as they contain the kernel of a more flexible and effective approach that may be emerging.

Let's start with U.S. interests. The United States has at most three strategic interests in the Middle East. First, we want Persian Gulf oil and gas to continue to flow to world markets. Hydraulic fracturing notwithstanding, a major disruption in energy supplies from the Gulf would drive up world prices and hurt a still-fragile global economy. Second, we want to discourage countries in the Middle East from developing WMD, and especially nuclear weapons. (It would have been better had the United States done more to stop Israel from getting the bomb, but that horse left the barn in the 1960s.) Third, we would like to reduce extremist violence emanating from this region, mostly in the form of terrorism. (This threat is usually exaggerated, in my view, but it is hardly non-existent.)

The key to advancing these interests is two-fold: first, help maintain a balance of power in the region, and second, keep the US military presence there to a minimum. If one regional state becomes too powerful, or if an external power were able to intervene there, it might be able to dominate the various oil-producing countries and manipulate energy supplies in ways we might find unpleasant. Concerns about that possibility led the United States to create the Rapid Deployment Force in the late 1970s, and led us to tilt toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. It also led to our direct military intervention to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

At the same time, excessive U.S. interference and a large-scale U.S. military presence threatens our other strategic goals, either by encouraging some states to seek WMD as a means of deterrence or by fueling anti-American terrorism of the Al Qaeda sort. Policies like 1990s-era "dual containment" or the Bush administration's disastrous attempt at "regional transformation" were strategic missteps for this reason, not to mention their human and economic costs. Given the unpredictable turmoil that has roiled the region ever since the "Arab spring" erupted, it makes even more sense for the U.S. to keep its presence limited, lest we be seen as a predatory imperial power addicted to interference in local political events.

A balance of power (or if you prefer, balance of threat) approach to the Middle East also highlights the costs of America's "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia. If you are playing the balance of power game, you want to maximize your diplomatic flexibility and avoid becoming overly committed to any particular ally. As was said of England during its own balance of power heyday: it had "no permanent friends, only permanent interests."

Today, because the United States is so closely tied to Israel and Saudi Arabia, it gets blamed for and associated with their various misdeeds. Specifically, we are seen as complicit in Israel's cruel treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and seen as the chief protector of a decadent Saudi monarchy whose ruling values are sharply at odds with our own. Equally important, preserving these "special relationships" has reduced U.S. influence over both partners: the Saudis have repeatedly dragged their feet on counter-terrorism issues while Israel has continued expand settlements and either threatened or used force with disturbing frequency, and often in ways that complicate US relations with the rest of the region.

Talking to Iran and taking a more measured approach to intervention in the region is thus a very good development. Although the United States and Iran won't become close allies anytime soon, rebuilding a working relationship with Tehran would be a great benefit to the U.S. strategic interests. Not only would it facilitate cooperation on various issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align (such as Afghanistan), but the mere fact that the U.S. and Iran were talking to each other constructively would also make our other allies in the region more attentive to our concerns and responsive to our requests.

I don't want to overstate this trend or exaggerate its likely benefits: the United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won't immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It's also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.

Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power -- a geographic reality we sometimes forget -- and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing "hard to get." That's why it's not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.

For further reading: for an excellent analysis of these issues which makes a number of similar points, see Paul Pillar's blog post here.

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Stephen M. Walt

Culture Clashes, and What I Learned from My Grandparents' Old Neighborhood

I spent this past weekend in Southern California, visiting my daughter at her college's Parents Weekend. While I was there, I drove her out to see the house in Glendale where my mother was raised. My grandparents had moved there from Phoenix in 1932, and we visited them many times during my childhood. I hadn't seen the house in nearly 30 years, but memories came flooding back as we drove around.

Be patient: This post really is about foreign policy.

It's still a nice little house and a pleasant middle-class neighborhood; what's different is that the WASPs are mostly gone and the community is now mostly Latino. And seeing the transformation got me thinking about groups and tribes and nations and the inevitable melding of cultures that is a central part of human history.

At any given point in time, human groups take enormous pride in their own values, achievements, and culture. These beliefs and traditions often form the core of individual and group identities and are regarded as something sacred and fundamental. Accordingly, they must be defended against outsiders. Sometimes these group identities are amusingly innocent or even trivial -- as with Red Sox vs. Yankee fans -- and at others time they are the taproot of bitter and violent wars. Think of Serbs vs. Croats, Sunnis vs. Shiites, Israeli Jews vs. Palestinian Arabs, Hindus vs. Muslims in South Asia, and so on and on back through the ages. Modern nationalism is of course another manifestation of this tendency of cultural groups to see themselves as distinct from and superior to others in some way and to seek an independent state in which these values can be protected and preserved.

And so it is when neighborhoods change. I'll bet there were some people in my grandparents' old neighborhood who were upset as its composition shifted, just as there are Americans who worry about what will happen once the "white" population is no longer a majority. Fear of the "other" plays a big role in such concerns, as well as the fear that the values one cherishes today are under siege and may be lost forever. This same impulse sometimes takes a deadly turn, as in the murderous rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway or the recent killing of a Muslim grandfather in Britain by a Ukrainian immigrant who claims to have been defending the "white" race.

But the idea that there is something essential and unchanging about any cultural construct is fundamentally flawed. It assumes that a group's values and customary practices are fixed and eternal, handed down and preserved from some pristine founding moment. It also assumes that membership in the group is tightly controlled, as opposed to evolving over time. In fact, most if not all group cultures are a mélange of distant and obscure historical sources, most of them long-since forgotten. Even the values of today's cultural groups aren't fixed; they are constantly being reshaped by interactions with other groups and by amalgamations and assimilation of new members. It's true of language, music, cuisine, art, and even religion. No man is an island, wrote John Donne, and neither are the world's various groups.

In other words, the "core values" that different tribes, nations, religions, sects, etc. seek to defend -- sometimes to the death -- are neither pure nor fixed, and many of the sacred and "eternal" principles that people are so committed to today are going to evaporate or evolve in the years ahead. This will occur in most cases not because some outside power imposed a different set of values by force, but simply because ideas, norms, values, and behaviors are always being shaped by exposure to the ideas, norms, values, and behaviors of others.

The only way to keep a culture pure and unchanging is to isolate its members from outside influences (and even that won't work completely). Fundamentalist religions use various techniques to do this -- e.g., living in separate communities or compounds, barring marriage to non-group members, or conducting elaborate indoctrination rituals, etc. -- but it's a losing game in today's interconnected world. Countries like pre-Meiji Japan and today's North Korea tried to keep foreign influences out too, but that's impossible to do these days.

It's also a recipe for stagnation. Isolating oneself from outside influences is a good way for any society to remain trapped in the same rut forever, like a restaurant that never changes its menu or a musician who plays the same songs exactly the same way at each performance. Indeed, I would argue that the most vibrant and dynamic societies tend to be the ones that are most open to new ideas and influences and willing to incorporate them into one's existing cultural portfolio.

If the United States has done one thing right over the past two centuries, it has been its willingness and ability to assimilate new groups and transform them relatively quickly into "Americans." It's hardly been a smooth or perfect process, of course, but the key point is that it wasn't a one-way street. New arrivals didn't just passively accept the cultural and political practices established by the (Anglo-Saxon) Founding Fathers and leave them as they were. Instead each new group brought somewhat different ideas with it and helped weave them into the broader fabric of American society. For example, the black Americans who descended from African slaves ended up enriching American culture in countless ways. In short, what it means to be "American" isn't a fixed notion and never has been.

The ethnic, racial, and religious diversity of the United States creates problems, to be sure, but this feature is also what makes it so interesting to live here. My own personal history is almost a stereotype of this process: If you look just at my immediate family and my in-laws, we have a bunch of people from different European backgrounds (most of whom ended up either as Episcopalians or atheists), plus Latinos, Mormons, Sikhs, Jews, Asians, and some who defy readily easy classification. Our family would be less interesting if it were more homogeneous, and so would the country as a whole.

There has been a lot of talk about the "clash of civilizations" ever since Samuel Huntington wrote that famous essay and book. Sam was a great scholar and a friend, but I thought he was wrong then and I still think so today. Cultural differences may play a role in contemporary global conflict, but most of them seem to be occurring within civilizations and not between them. More to the point, these clashes seem to me to rest on a tragic error: the belief that it is both necessary and possible to defend one's own group's values against the values of others, instead of welcoming the fruitful interaction that cultural exchange can produce.

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