LET’S recap the state of America’s commitments in the Middle East. Our military is fighting in a tacit alliance with Iranian proxies in Iraq, even as it assists in a campaign against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen. We are formally committed to regime change in Syria, but we’re intervening against the regime’s Islamist enemies. Our strongest allies, officially, are still Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we’re busy alienating them by pushing for détente with Iran. And please don’t mention Libya or Al Qaeda — you’ll confuse everyone even more.
Is there a method here? A Metternichian master plan discernible only to President Obama and his advisers? Not exactly: This administration has been persistently surprised by Middle East developments, and its self-justifications alternate between the exasperated (why don’t you try it if you’re so smart?) and the delusional (as soon as we get the Iran deal, game changer, baby!).
But there is a strategic element in how the Obama White House ended up here. Haltingly but persistently, this administration has pursued a paradigm shift in how the United States relates to the Middle East, a shift from a Pax Americana model toward a strategy its supporters call “offshore balancing.”
In a Pax Americana system, the United States enjoys a dominant position within a network of allies and clients; actors outside that network are considered rogues and threats, to be restrained and coerced by our overwhelming military might. Ideally, over time our clients become more prosperous and more democratic, the benefits of joining the network become obvious, and the military canopy both expands and becomes less necessary.
In an offshore balancing system, our clients are fewer, and our commitments are reduced. Regional powers bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, our military strategy is oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.
Since the Cold War, and especially since 1991, the Pax Americana idea has predominated in our foreign policy thinking. But in the Middle East, there has been no real evolution toward democracy among our network of allies; instead, their persistent corruption has fed terrorism and contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise.
Hence the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decision to try to start afresh, by transforming a rogue state into a regional model, a foundation for a new American-led order that would be less morally compromised than the old.
That order did not, of course, emerge. Instead, it took all the king’s horses and all of David Petraeus’s men just to hold Iraq together; a different bad actor, Iran, ended up empowered; and the old problem of repression led to the Arab Spring and the civil wars that followed.
Sticking to the Pax Americana model after these developments would have required keeping American troops in Iraq for decades. It might have forced us to choose between bombing Iran and extending a Cold War-style nuclear umbrella over most of the Arab world. And there still would have been no easy answers about how to deal with corrupt allies, or with the zealots who move in when they fall.
So it’s understandable that the Obama White House has sought a different role. Our withdrawal from Iraq and light-footprint approach to counterterrorism, our strange dance with Bashar al-Assad, our limited intervention against ISIS — they all aim at a more “offshore” approach to the Middle East’s problems. Likewise, the long-sought détente with Iran, which assumes that once the nuclear issue is resolved, Tehran can gradually join Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv in a multipolar order.
But there are two problems. First, offshore balancing offers the most benefits when your entanglements are truly minimal, but it’s very hard for a hegemon to simply sidle offstage, shedding expectations and leaving allies in the lurch. And when you’re still effectively involved everywhere, trying to tip the balance of power this way and that with occasional airstrikes, it’s easy to end up in a contradictory, six-degrees-of-enmity scenario, with no clear goal in mind.
Second, multipolar environments are often more unstable and violent, period, than unipolar ones. So offshoring American power and hoping that Iran, Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel will find some kind of balance on their own will probably increase the risk of arms races, cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war. The conflicts we have now are ugly enough, but absent the restraint still imposed by American military dominance, it’s easy to imagine something worse.
If we could actually escape Middle East entanglements entirely, even that “something worse” might be less costly to the United States than trying to sustain the Pax Americana. And if we had a trustworthy hegemon in the wings to replace us, all of this might be moot.
But in the world as it exists, what we have is an administration that wants to believe it’s getting us out, but a region that’s inexorably, inevitably pulling us back in.