Retreating from the Middle East Is Not the Solution

Ambassador Frederic Hof contributed to NSI’s recent Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) report titled “US Foreign Policy as a Global Power.” SMA is a “multidisciplinary, multi-agency portfolio of projects that assesses and studies challenging problems associated with planning and operations of DoD, military services, and Government agencies,” and delivered to the commander of US Central Command. Ambassador Hof and other experts were asked: Does US foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting US interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the US consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and US national interests? Below is Ambassador Hof’s response to the question. The full report can be found by following this link to NSI’s website.

Notwithstanding the end of conscription over 40 years ago and the narrowing of uniformed military service to a tiny percentage of the citizenry, many Americans seem to be exhausted by the post-9/11 commitments of U.S. forces to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Arguably this exhaustion should be the exclusive property of uniformed personnel subjected to multiple overseas deployments and their families. Yet even if some of the broader popular grievance has an “I just want to change the channel” aspect to it, it has real political salience, as demonstrated by the 2016 presidential campaign. Moreover, it is rooted in traditional American pragmatic thinking.

For many Americans – perhaps the majority – the balance between global and domestic focus is seriously out of whack. For many of our countrymen the scale is decisively tipped toward foreign entanglements: much of the weight represented by U.S. involvement – mainly militarily – in the greater Middle East. Public opinion reflects a dollars-and-cents conflict between domestic fiscal priorities (infrastructure, health care, education, social security) and open-ended American involvement in countries where (it is argued) ancient, intractable disputes are being played out violently by fanatics who are incapable of reason and compromise. Many see American blood and treasure being poured uselessly onto sand.

On the other hand, many Americans – perhaps also the majority – recognize that significant foreign policy retrenchment – perhaps all the way to isolationism – cannot be entirely squared in today’s connected world with the defense of American citizens and the American homeland. The two oceans no longer serve as moats, and static defense cannot adequately secure North America from transnational terror threats embedded in places where political vacuums opened up (most notably Syria, Iraq, and Yemen).

Indeed, despite the growth in the U.S. of identity politics and hyper-partisanship, Tocqueville’s 1838 observation about the American mind being rooted in pragmatism – fixed “upon purely practical objects” – remains relevant. Most Americans seem not disposed, as a matter of principle or ideology, to try to raise a nonexistent drawbridge. They do, however, have limited patience for multi-year foreign projects inadequately explained by political leaders, often bereft of plausible, credible good news, and notably lacking a coherent sense of what would constitute success and how it would be achieved.

Neither is pragmatic, traditional American skepticism about ill-defined, open-end foreign undertakings a function of provincialism or poor education. As a Vietnam veteran, this writer experienced personally the corporate incompetence – indeed, the dereliction of duty – of American political leaders. The personal consequences of bad leadership were repeated on a smaller, but equally intense manner in Lebanon in the early 1980s. And Iraq 2003 was, on multiple levels, a case study in foreign policy malfeasance. Popular skepticism about ‘engagement’ abroad is rooted in American pragmatism, itself a key part of our national DNA. Vietnam, Lebanon, and Iraq demonstrated that it is very well-founded.

At issue is not a theoretical question of ‘balance.’ The issue is one of competence, with the emphasis on decision-making and communication. Several American Presidents during the lifetime of this writer have made and doubled-down on profoundly bad decisions on matters not requiring an instant, snap judgment in the face of an existential emergency. Several displayed an inability or disinclination to explain clearly and truthfully what they had in mind with an overseas endeavor.

With the political ‘brake’ represented by national conscription removed in 1973 – a brake that had already been partially disabled by the discriminatory way the draft was administered during the Vietnam War – Presidents desiring to deploy forces abroad knew that the burden of deployment and execution would fall only on the few who volunteered, thereby encouraging a measure of passivity among many citizens and their representatives in Congress. Notwithstanding the War Powers Act, a lower than adequate domestic political bar was set for careful, disciplined decision-making and for informative and persuasive public communications. Yet we are today discovering that mass anesthetization itself wears off over time.

Those of us professionally molded in the uniformed services take for granted procedures and processes designed to compensate for the fact that not every unit commander is a Napoleon or MacArthur. Indeed, both of those geniuses would have been better served by disciplined staffs rather than adoring courts. Commander’s intent and concept of operations are, among other things, drilled into the minds of lieutenants. We think of these things in decision-making processes as being as natural as breathing, and it is not only uniformed personnel who get exposure to these best practices. Yet many politicians do not so benefit in their education and experience. And few of them rise to the level of a Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt in terms of judgment and communication.

Americans across-the-board might support active American engagement in the Middle East – including at times military – if they thought that their political leaders knew what they were doing and were able to explain their intent and their operational concept in convincingly clear English. This writer, for example, has been focused heavily on Syria for the past seven years, both in and out of government. He has neither heard nor can explain what the USG has in mind in eastern Syria with respect to Daesh. OK: defeat it militarily in Raqqa. Then what? The boys (and girls) come home? Same deal in Iraq? What is the endgame in Afghanistan and how – plausibly speaking – do we intend to get there?

If a so-called regional specialist – a ‘Middle East hand’ – cannot understand his own government’s objectives and strategies, what chance does the average American voter have in comprehending what his leaders intend to do, and how? Sadly, the weight of public anger and frustration over incomprehensible overseas commitments has fallen not on leaders who cannot lead, but on ‘experts’ who presumably maneuver clueless, credulous politicians into bottomless quagmires.

The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East recently published the Final Report of the Middle East Strategy Task Force, headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ex-National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. The bipartisan report conveys a sense of optimism about the Middle East, one rooted in the positive potential of a very young, energetic, and promising population base.

It recommends a new strategy based on partnership, with the region itself taking the lead in establishing a new political trajectory based on citizen empowerment. It encompasses a pragmatic approach that would capitalize on promise and avoid regarding the Middle East as a place condemned to conflict and dissolution. This report is garnering significant support in Congress – where the American people are represented directly – and is reportedly having some positive impact on executive branch national security deliberations. It is absolutely required reading.

Albright and Hadley place their policy bet squarely on the people of the Middle East. They reject external ‘nation-building’ and policy dictates from abroad, and counsel a partnership approach with regional reformers and with like-minded external actors. Just as the era of externally imposed strategies and mandates is, in their view, finished, so “There is nothing in or about the Middle East that condemns it to failure . . . The thesis of intractable ancient conflicts rooted in religion and ethnicity is as faulty in the Middle East as it was in Europe.” The two authors acknowledge that sustained commitment to the region “will be a tough sell in the United States. Americans are tired of seemingly unending wars in the Middle East. But we believe the approach we outline ultimately will make the Middle East more stable, and, as a result, will make the United States – and the world – more secure.”

There is a global crisis that has erupted from the Middle East, a region where many countries still wrestle with the question of what follows the 400-year Ottoman Sultan-Caliph system as the source of political legitimacy. It is a crisis directly impacting American interests with respect to keeping Americans safe from terrorism, protecting the U.S. economy, empowering friends and allies to step up to mutual challenges, enabling American global military operations, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and averting destabilizing humanitarian disasters.

Most Americans are potentially persuadable that a patient, long-term U.S. commitment to the region is essential if American interests – starting with national security – are to be served. That they are not now so persuaded is not the product of some objective imbalance. Rather it derives from perception that the region is cursed, our leaders are unskilled and unclear, and the track record of intervention – with Iraq 2003 as the ‘original sin’ – is not good.

If American political leaders cannot demonstrate competence in decision-making and communicating, a sustained commitment to the region will itself be unsustainable, and the ‘balance’ will swing decisively in a direction not good for American security. The great asset of American pragmatism is not necessarily a self-correcting mechanism for American foreign policy. Under conditions of bad leadership it can impose ‘cures’ more deadly than the ‘illness.’ Retreat from the Middle East could be one such ‘cure.’

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division walk inside a military base north of Mosul, Iraq, February 14, 2017. Picture taken February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily