Doing Less Is Not Enough

It is a sign of how far U.S. Middle East policy has gone astray that it is considered news that the U.S. government is aligning its ambitions with its resources. Two decades of maximalist U.S. goals in the region have exhausted the U.S. public and military—not to mention the residents of the Middle East—while U.S. policy has failed to meet many of its stated objectives.

Senior U.S. officials have been increasingly visible in recent months describing a “back to basics” U.S. approach to the Middle East that stresses routines of cooperation and partnership. Yet, activity without an organizing principle is merely busyness, and without a positive strategy to organize U.S. efforts, U.S. partners and adversaries alike will focus entirely on what the United States has done in the past but will no longer do.

What should the strategic goal of U.S. Middle East policy be? A bumper sticker could fit it: promote regional stability as the world moves past oil. The goal sounds hopelessly ambitious, but it is not. The nature of the energy transition will be a huge determinant of global peace and security for the next three decades, and while the United States has neither all of the answers nor the resources to achieve a peaceful transition on its own, its skills, knowledge, and inspirational power are huge assets. Even more, the smoother the transition goes in the Middle East, the better it will be for the United States.

Despite claims that energy self-sufficiency has forever freed the United States from caring about what happens in the Middle East, there should be no question that the United States has a sustained interest in regional stability. Not only does the energy supply from the Middle East help set prices in global markets, but the economies of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia continue to run on Middle Eastern oil and gas. Europe also has the combined problems of irregular migration and potential radicalization within immigrant communities, whether they are documented or not. Any explosion in the Middle East would quickly reach European shores.

Two different forces could drive regional instability. One is interstate aggression, which has long driven U.S. regional partnerships. While outright interstate warfare has been relatively rare in recent years, for decades the United States has played an active diplomatic role, deterred aggression, and strengthened the defensive capabilities of allies and partners. The Biden administration has made clear that it remains committed to these activities, as it should be.

The other destabilizing force is intrastate aggression, that is, the rise of organized violence within countries. Every country in the region has faced this threat in the last 20 years (sometimes abetted by neighbors or global powers). Many are more likely to face it in the next 20, as economies strain to adapt to a new environment.

While only a handful of countries in the Middle East are major energy producers, the economy of almost every regional country is tied to energy markets. The countries that are not energy exporters are often labor exporters, sending workers to countries with oil and gas. Wealthier countries in the region also give assistance to poorer countries, through both formal aid programs and more informal assistance to rulers.

The world’s transition away from hydrocarbons will be neither quick nor smooth, and it is likely to kick off boom and bust cycles in regional economies. Underexploration and underproduction will spike prices. That will spur both exploration and production and boost technologies that avoid the use of hydrocarbons altogether. Prices will then swoon, reducing exploration and production, and then the cycle will begin anew. Governments will have very good years and very bad years, and one may come after the other in rapid succession. With rock-bottom production costs, Middle Eastern countries will be among the last producers of hydrocarbons on earth, and the cycle will continue to shake them.

It is not hard to imagine how disorienting this will all be to the hundreds of millions of people trying to live their lives and pursue their careers in the Middle East. Ricocheting between feast and famine, being unsure in what skills they should invest, and struggling to make sense of their future, tensions are likely to rise.

But it is not all bad news. Every government in the region knows this change is coming, and most are taking various steps to smooth the peaks and valleys, diversify their economies, and invigorate their human capital. Some are further along than others, and some are being more thoughtful than others, but the imperative is clear.

It is beyond the capacity and role of the United States to shape this transition. The Middle Eastern travails of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have taught the United States at least that much.

But as an organizing principle for U.S. policy in the region, helping friendly states make this transition smoothly is a good one. It aligns the United States with regional countries’ most pressing needs, and it helps them skirt the internal problems that could explode and become problems for the rest of the world. It acknowledges that resilient governments provide security while they adapt to pressures from below and enlists the United States in promoting their resilience. In the meantime, it embeds regional countries even more deeply with U.S. norms and practices, helping avoid patterns of crony capitalism, corruption, and bloated public sectors that a less thoughtful development process might produce. It also aligns the United States with the needs of the planet, and it diminishes the likelihood that energy producers take steps to forestall the energy transition.

This is not just a job for the U.S. government. There is surely a role for nongovernmental institutions in the United States to play a role here, too: businesses, universities, and foundations should all take part. U.S. allies and partners have a role to play as well. This transition will involve the world. U.S. interests in this space require broad and creative leadership.

The Biden administration is right to signal its retreat from the excesses of previous administrations, but it is wrong to focus its strategy wholly on subtraction. Not only will doing so lead to an unhelpful focus on the diminishing role of the United States, but it misses an opportunity to make the United States relevant to the region’s greatest challenge.

How the Middle East manages the global energy transition for the next three decades will profoundly affect U.S. national security, whether the United States wants it to or not. Aligning U.S. strategy in the Middle East with this process does more than merely give the United States a positive agenda in the region and flesh out a less military-heavy set of tasks. As an animating principle, it helps the United States invest in its own future, as well as the future of its allies and partners.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program