A U.S. Pivot Away from the Middle East: Fact or Fiction?

This commentary has been lightly edited from remarks prepared by the author for an Arab Center keynote address held on May 18, 2023.

One Saturday morning 21 and a half years ago, I got a call from Bill Burns. At the time, Burns was assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, and he had a problem. He had to give the keynote address in a few weeks’ time at the Middle East Institute’s annual dinner, talking about the present and future of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and I was a few weeks away from starting as his special assistant. He wanted me to help draft his speech, and I did.

Now, 21 and a half years later, Burns is the director of Central Intelligence after a distinguished career in diplomacy and public service. I, however, have not moved much, and I am still drafting speeches about the future of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

But when I thought about Khalil E. Jahshan’s invitation to talk with you today, it struck me the topic of this conference is an interesting bookend to the talk that Director Burns gave in the fall of 2001. Although it wasn’t clear then, the United States was about to pivot hard toward the Middle East. The question we’re addressing today is whether it is now pivoting away, and what it would mean if the United States were to do so.

To start with, it wasn’t clear to anyone in October 2001 that we had been ignoring the Middle East. I wrote a lot of speeches in those days, and almost all of them had four components: the three I’s—Israel, Iraq, and Iran—and then some fourth element that would change based on the occasion or recent events. Each of those three I’s had moments of commanding tremendous U.S. government attention and presidential bandwidth. Sometimes they did so for weeks at a time. Although the U.S. Central Command’s force presence in the Middle East was less than it is now, it was still substantial, with troops scattered throughout the region and materiel prepositioned in the event of conflict.

The point I want to make here is that the U.S. presence in the Middle East, and its attention to the Middle East, was considered to be durable and significant prior to the supposed U.S. pivot toward the region, even if it was in many respects less than it is today. I am not sure many in the region thought it was inadequate.

But after 9/11, the narrative arose in the United States that its presence in the Middle East had indeed been inadequate. The United States did more than merely surge troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to fight wars there. It spent more than a decade deeply engaged in counterterrorism operations, sometimes with the full cooperation of host governments, and sometimes without it. Under the Bush administration, it made the pursuit of human rights a key element of U.S. strategy toward the region, deploying a “forward strategy of freedom.” Under the Obama administration, there was a steady but somewhat more cautious effort to ensure that the 2011 Arab uprisings spread greater democratization throughout the region.

There are some in the United States who have argued that all of this came to constitute a success. Not only was there not another mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil, but al Qaeda has been devastated and its leaders killed. The salafi-jihadi ideology behind the attacks on the United States is in retreat. Americans are safer.

And yet, I look at the U.S. government’s record through its pivot to the region over two decades, and I see efforts that consistently fell short of their ambitions. Outside of Saddam Hussein’s rule, it is hard to name a challenge that existed in 2001 that is not still a challenge today, from radicalization to human rights to cross-border tensions. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems even further from being resolved, and the Palestinian authority is weakening. Iran continues to pose a proliferation threat, and its proxies and agents throughout the region continue to threaten American partners and American interests. After decades of concerted effort, U.S. credibility has taken a hit.

In the Middle East, the Iraq experience looms large. More than one million American soldiers served in Iraq, and alongside them tens of thousands of civilians. Monetary costs so far total more than a trillion dollars, and by some estimates will approach three trillion dollars by the time all benefits are paid to the wounded. We will never know how many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, but we do know more than 4,440 American soldiers were killed, and more than 32,000 were injured. And yet, robust U.S. efforts over more than a decade built neither a vibrant democracy nor a strong economy, and Iranian influence in the country has risen significantly.

And it is hard to look at the consequences of the Arab uprisings and take much solace. For decades before 2011, the United States pressed governments to allow more space for civil society groups. Before and after the uprisings, the United States government provided seemingly endless trainings for party workers and community workers. But few of those who participated in those trainings played significant roles in the efforts to transition away from authoritarianism. Even in the shadow of U.S. engagement, those efforts have faltered. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have been killed, tens of millions have been forced from their homes, and civil wars set off by those protests continue to simmer. It is hard to think of a single country in the region that is more democratic now than it was in 2011.

My argument here is not that the United States has been a consistently malign force in the region, using its military might and coercive economic strength to its advance racist and imperial ambitions in the Middle East. I’ve seen that argument, and I reject it. But I do think that the urgency and immediacy of challenges the United States faced in the Middle East in the post-9/11 era meant that U.S. policy in the region was too often guided by hubris rather than humility. Americans admire audacity and bold ambitions, and the post-9/11 environment engendered a lot of both.

Part of the problem, in my view, is we approached the region’s problems from the wrong perspective. A premise of post-9/11 U.S. activity in the Middle East was that the more people in the Middle East understood about the United States, its politics, and its lifestyles, the more they would want to replicate it in their own countries. As a consequence, one major focus of U.S. policy was trying to inspire Middle Easterners to be more like Americans.

But in its fear and fury after 9/11, many in the U.S. government paid too little attention to the fact that many in the Middle East already had their own aspirations. To many of these people, not only was the United States not relevant to achieving those ambitions; sometimes, it actually seemed to be obstructing them.

As the United States pivoted to the Middle East, it invested people, money, and time into the region. But it paid too little attention to the fact that the passion of even the most zealous U.S. public servants, soldiers, and contractors pales in comparison to the passions felt by people whose entire futures—and whose children’s futures and their children’s futures—are tied up in what happens in their country. Locals have to live with the consequences of their actions, while U.S. officials rotate in and out, rarely staying for more than three years. Three years is but a blink of an eye for those who have spent decades under repression, and who are necessarily thinking decades into the future.

Seizing on this reality, even ineffectual authoritarian governments have been able to position themselves as their people’s champions against the overreach of foreign powers. In times of crisis, nationalism rises, and foreign-born solutions are a hard sell.

Add to this the fact that many people implementing U.S. policy in this period were relative newcomers to the region. 9/11 had the effect of discrediting Middle East experts, both within the government and outside in the field of Middle East studies. In the eyes of many policymakers, they had failed both to predict and prevent 9/11. The sudden and vast demand for personnel to prosecute U.S. policy meant a surge in instant experts. Too many of them were overconfident about what they knew, and insufficiently aware of how much they didn’t know. The security demands of U.S. government employees in a post-9/11 world meant that many of them remained clustered in U.S. embassy compounds and military bases. Few of them were able to develop personal relationships or gain much context. What was obvious to many locals about people and groups around them—about religion and sect, tribe and region, let alone history and relationships, was a cipher to most Americans working in the region. And language became a huge distortion field, super-empowering the relatively few Middle Easterners who were comfortable in English.

There were exceptions to all of this: superb U.S. public servants who either started with deep knowledge or acquired it, local partners who risked—and in many cases, lost—their lives for the American project, and a huge number of local citizens who just put their heads down and tried to get through the day. In retrospect, though, the conviction that because Americans suddenly felt an urge for it, the Middle East would follow an Eastern European model, with salafi jihadism substituting for communism, was quixotic.

Depending on your perspective, this tale is either depressing or tragic. To some, the eventual outcome was obvious. But it seems to me that there was a different vision for the United States to embrace in the weeks after 9/11, and we would do well to remember that vision today.

Which brings me to the speech then-assistant secretary Burns gave 21 and a half years ago:

“As we conduct an unrelenting international effort against terror and violent extremism, it is very important to remind ourselves of the wider conflict in the region—between moderate and often silent majorities who want simply to live in peace and dignity, and militant minorities who seek to exploit frustration and bitterness. Those extremist minorities offer a purely destructive agenda; our challenge, it seems to me, is to make common cause with moderate majorities and our allies in the region in pursuit of a positive vision of peace, prosperity and security.”

Burns went on to outline a strategy that would proceed along four principal fronts: diplomacy, economics, politics, and security. You can imagine his focuses for the first and last: Arab-Israeli diplomacy for the former, and regional non-proliferation efforts for the later. 

But to me, just as important as the speech’s scope was its tone. Burns had this to say on economics: 

“The region cannot be healthy socially or politically so long as its economies are in crisis. While we will not offer a single model, we owe it to our friends to advocate policies that enhance private sector involvement, diversify their economies, and steadily narrow the gap between haves and have-nots. Young people must emerge from educational systems with appropriate skills for the marketplace, not merely the skills that the educational systems are now best equipped to teach.”

And on politics, he said this:

“Politically, the truth is that many political systems in the region do not function effectively as mechanisms for citizens to express and work out their discontent. Political structures all too often serve to insulate the regime and governing elite from change, rather than to lead it. The voices of publics are all too often ignored, until they raise them to a shout. While we ought be mindful of the limits of our influence and certainly of the imperfections of our own system, and the delicacy of encouraging political change, we should work with our friends to support efforts to open up avenues for political participation and deepen respect for the rule of law, and the rights and sanctity of the individual. Every society can find ways to improve public participation and respect for basic freedoms, consistent with its own political culture and traditions.”

Imagine if the vision laid out in Burns’s speech had been the organizing principle for the U.S. government in the years after 9/11. Burns noted that the region’s challenges are not new, but we “must . . . engage them in a persistent, integrated, determined and creative way.” He argued “We will seek to understand better, and to show respect and fairness. We must never forget to listen. We are an activist people and an activist government. . . . But to be partners, we must also be listeners. We have no monopoly on wisdom in the Middle East, and I have always thought that a little humility goes a long way in the exercise of American power and American leadership.”

To me, the intervening 21 and a half years have served to highlight the wisdom of Burns’s approach then. His approach recognizes the enduring power of the United States, and the enduring interests the United States has in the Middle East. I think that remains true, not only because of the region’s energy resources, but also because of its population and its role in global trade and global security.

It recognizes the central importance of partnerships, not only with governments, but also with increasingly empowered populations. It emphasizes humility and listening, not because we don’t have answers in mind, but because our partners have answers in mind, too, and success can only come from listening to each other. 

And equally fundamentally, it is a strategy that is predicated on patience. It recognizes that many of the Middle East’s challenges evolved over many years, and they will take many years to resolve. In fact, many of those challenges are more likely to evolve rather than resolve, but it is in the U.S. interest both to demonstrate partnership and play a useful role driving these challenges toward better outcomes. 

Given Burns’s current position, it is perhaps not surprising that a talk two weeks ago by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at the Washington Institute echoed many of these themes. The two most important threads running through the talk were partnerships and deterrence. Similar to what Burns said two decades ago, Sullivan argued that the administration’s Middle East strategy “is realistic and pragmatic, incorporating hard lessons learned to eschew grand designs or unrealistic promises of transformational change. But it is also ambitious and optimistic about [what] the United States and our allies can achieve together over time. It recognizes that enduring progress often comes through a series of practical steps, and that laying the foundation over months and years for greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of the region and for the American people is the best course of action for American policy.”

Too often policy debates in the United States have devolved into messaging debates. Facing scarce resources, bureaucratic inertia, and institutional constraints, the U.S. government sometimes settles for crafting the right words to describe its intentions rather than developing robust policies that advance its interests. For too long, I fear we have relied too much on messaging to assure our Middle East partners we are not abandoning them. I am persuaded that a renewed emphasis on doing things differently in the Middle East and using our language to connect the dots for our partners will lead to better outcomes for the United States and regional partners alike.

There are many who counseled 21 years ago that we should race into the Middle East. Many of those same people now counsel that we should race out. In my judgment, they’ve been wrong both times. The United States was deeply engaged in the Middle East before it pivoted in, and it will remain deeply engaged. There is no pivot out. But now, as then, the United States is unable to solve the region’s challenges. The best it can hope for is to help improve them. That’s not only a worthy task. It is necessary one.

Jon B. Alterman is a 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