Beyond Iraq

Lasting issues for the US in the Middle East

Authored by: Lawrence J. Korb , Daniel de Wit

Handbook of US-Middle East Relations

Print publication date:  September  2009
Online publication date:  May  2014

Print ISBN: 9781857434996
eBook ISBN: 9780203859377
Adobe ISBN:




In his State of the Union Address on January 25, 1980, President Jimmy Carter stated that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This declaration, which has since become known as the Carter Doctrine, stated in plain and forceful terms that the Middle East is a region of critical importance to US national security.

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Beyond Iraq


In his State of the Union Address on January 25, 1980, President Jimmy Carter stated that, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This declaration, which has since become known as the Carter Doctrine, stated in plain and forceful terms that the Middle East is a region of critical importance to US national security.

In the intervening years, the region has only grown more important for American security concerns. For example, since the Carter Doctrine was first announced, US petroleum imports have nearly doubled, from 1.9 billion barrels in 1980 to 3.7 billion barrels in 2007. 1 Petroleum, or oil, imports from the Persian Gulf alone have increased by 600,000 barrels per day. 2 Clearly, the Middle East remains central to the US and world economies, and threats to the region’s security and stability can affect nations across the globe.

Yet the Middle East is also a region in the midst of tremendous change and uncertainty, presenting numerous challenges for the US both in the present and into the future. The Middle East will be a region with which the US will have to be engaged for years to come, regardless of whether President Obama brings about a swift end to the American troop presence in Iraq or whether the US abides by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, which states that all US troops must be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. US leaders cannot ignore the region, and navigating the proper course through all of the challenges it presents will require American engagement using all of the tools at the nation’s disposal, as well as a broad, balanced, and coherent strategy for policy in the region.

While the US will face many issues in the Middle East in coming years, the most serious challenges will come from five key areas. First among these is the rise of militant Sunni extremism. It is becoming increasingly clear that this threat has come to take the form of an insurgency stretching across much of the Eastern Hemisphere, from East Africa through the Middle East and South Asia to Indonesia and the Philippines. While the ideological embodiment of this insurgency is most readily identified with the al-Qaeda terrorist group, violent Sunni extremism is really a much larger and more diverse movement. This fact presents both challenges and opportunities for US efforts to confront the jihadist threat. In order for the US to prevail, its leaders must have a solid understanding of the movement’s motivations, intentions, ideological appeal, and decentralized organization. They must also be willing to employ all of the tools available to them over the long term, with the full understanding that military power alone cannot defeat the insurgency, and that the war cannot be won with a quick and decisive victory.

The second major challenge is the increasingly militant activism of the Iranian-inspired Shi’ite Islamists in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere throughout the greater Middle East. The US overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 eliminated two of Iran’s greatest strategic threats in its immediate neighborhood. After the US spurned its efforts to negotiate in 2003, Iran became far more active in attempting to expand its “Islamic Revolution” and assert its hegemony throughout the greater Middle East. Not only have Iran’s efforts threatened stability in Iraq, where tensions between Shi’ite and Sunni groups are the source of much of the violence still plaguing the country, they are a serious impediment to political reconciliation and governance. Unless the US can counter this threat, militant Shi’ite activism will also be a major cause of instability and insecurity in the Middle East.

The third issue that will tie the US to Middle Eastern affairs well into the foreseeable future is that of oil security. For better or worse, oil remains the driving force behind the global economy. While the US does not import the majority of its oil from the region, the Middle East supplies such a large amount of petroleum to the entire world that a disruption in the oil flow would be devastating not only to US economic interests but to economic stability around the globe as well. Since the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine, the US has committed both its diplomatic influence and its military might to ensuring the free flow of oil from the Middle East. Given the increased importance of oil to the world economy since the inception of the Carter Doctrine, this is a commitment which the US cannot afford to scale back. Thus, the US government must develop a comprehensive strategy that makes use of all of the instruments of national power to secure the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, particularly with the new threats that the region now faces.

The fourth major challenge is the Israel–Palestine conflict, which remains a source of anger, resentment, and instability in the region and indeed among Muslims the world over. Israel’s position as the closest American ally in the Middle East, and the centrality of the Arab–Israeli conflict as a critical source of anti-American sentiment, necessitates a renewed US engagement to attempt to bring about a lasting, equitable peace agreement that is brokered between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The fifth and final problem that the US faces in the region, and one which in many ways exacerbates the difficulties posed by the others, is the chronic economic and political underdevelopment throughout much of the greater Middle East. The states in the region have by and large failed to integrate themselves into the globalized economy, and thus many of them suffer from serious poverty and economic stagnation. This is compounded by the fact that nearly all of these states are ruled autocratically. Although their leaders have been able to amass incredible wealth through oil exports, the majority of people in much of the Middle East are forced to live in conditions of abject poverty. At the same time, globalization has led to an infusion of Western culture and a breakdown of old cultural and social norms, leaving many in the region feeling as though their very society is under attack from the West. To counter this trend, the American leaders will need to be open and honest in their calls for political reform in authoritarian states with which the US has long been allied. Because countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been allies of convenience for the US, most American leaders have failed to press firmly for political reform in these countries and throughout the region. This must change if real progress is to be made.

The confluence of these issues in this strategically vital region of the world means that US policy must be broad based and made with a view towards long-term success rather than short-term solutions that cause more problems later on. Moreover, each of these issues is closely linked with others, a fact which US leaders must take into account, lest the actions they take to resolve problems in one area exacerbate the problems elsewhere. This means that US policy towards the Middle East must take into account the weak political and economic environment and use all of the elements of national power in an integrated manner to resolve these issues as part of one unified strategic package. Rather than focusing only on narrow goals such as “fighting terror,” US leaders must craft policy options that will advance US national security and foreign policy objectives, with the understanding that simply going from one crisis to another without an overall strategic framework to guide policy planning will, in the long run, only breed more threats to American interests. Without such a strategic concept guiding the policymaking process and a focus on more than just terrorism or oil, the US will only create more problems than it solves and will never truly be able to interact with Middle Eastern states in a normal, peaceful, and mutually beneficial manner.

The global Islamist insurgency

For more than seven years, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, countering the threat of another violent attack by militant Sunni extremists, usually labeled simply as “terrorists,” has been the central focus of US policy in the Middle East. Soon after the attacks, the administration of President George W. Bush made it clear that terrorist groups would be treated as an enemy to be fought through force of arms rather than simply a criminal element to be arrested and prosecuted. This campaign became known as the “global war on terror.”

The US began by targeting the al-Qaeda network, the group which had perpetrated the attacks of 9/11, attacking its base of operations in Afghanistan, where it was sheltered by the extremist Taliban regime. Through the combined application of precise air power and special operations units fighting on the ground with indigenous forces, the Taliban were routed in a matter of months. Their sanctuary destroyed, al-Qaeda’s leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri fled across the Pakistani border into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with many of their followers.

It initially seemed as though the enemy had been dealt a decisive defeat, and was all but completely destroyed. However, the US government was soon distracted preparing to invade Iraq, giving al-Qaeda and its allies much needed breathing room. At the same time, the US invasion of Iraq inflamed anti-American sentiments among Muslims the world over, and seemed to validate al-Qaeda’s primary message, which claimed that the US was at war with Islam itself. 3 Among Muslims, sympathy for al-Qaeda skyrocketed, and the group was given a new lease of life. Consequently, it was able to morph from a covert network into the umbrella organization for, and public face of, a global Islamist insurgency. 4

The distinction between global terrorist network and global insurgency may seem inconsequential. However, it goes to the heart of the nature of the Islamist threat. When al-Qaeda was a terrorist group in the strict sense, it had a networked organizational structure with distinct leaders and followers. This structure still exists to a very limited extent inside Pakistan’s FATA region, and the group is still able to operate as a terrorist network, albeit a smaller one. 5 However, it is now more important and more threatening in its ability to provide ideological and inspirational support to like-minded groups across the Islamic world.

These affiliated groups collectively represent a global Sunni Islamist insurgency: a popular movement that seeks to radically change the political status quo through extraordinarily violent means. 6 They inspire one another through their actions, and they support each other logistically and with ideas on producing innovative weapons and effective tactics. Terrorism is one tactic that they use to advance their goals, but it is not the only one. Crucially, no one group directs any of the others. The connections between insurgent cells across the world are ad hoc and tenuous. 7 The fact that this is, like all other insurgencies, a popular movement means that simply targeting the leadership will not yield meaningful results. Until people can be persuaded not to support it, new leaders will constantly fill the void when old ones are killed or captured. 8

In fact, forceful efforts to kill or capture terrorist leaders may prove to be extremely counterproductive if they generate sympathy for the insurgency among ordinary people and lead them to either join its ranks or provide it with support and sanctuary. Yet the fact that it is a popular movement provides a different sort of key to defeating it. The distinguishing feature of insurgencies versus other rebel and terrorist movements is that they survive and thrive by co-opting, through both intimidation and persuasion, the support of the populace in the region in which they operate. If the counterinsurgent force can separate the insurgency from the general population, and then persuade the population to support peaceful political systemsrather than violence, it can cut off the insurgency’s support system and the movement will be unable to operate effectively.

This requires an integrated approach that combines development assistance, political reform, security, and, crucially, information operations to change the perceptions of the people. 9 Traditional military power, or “kinetic” power, is useful only if employed in a limited fashion to provide security for the general population from insurgent intimidation and to precisely target insurgent leaders when doing so won’t evoke sympathy for insurgent groups. 10 If done successfully, such efforts will allow US forces to build close relationships with the people, producing goodwill and driving a wedge between them and the insurgents. In many cases, such relationships will yield far more intelligence on insurgent activities than can ever be found with all of the technologically advanced surveillance tools at the disposal of the intelligence community. 11 This kind of operation needs to be employed by small teams of integrated military and civilian units wherever these militant groups are actively trying to base their operations and co-opt the support of local populations. Examples of such operations being employed in the real world include the activities of Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. By employing these kinds of integrated operations, the US may prevent the Islamist insurgency from taking root among vulnerable populations around the world, thereby preventing the Islamists from spreading their beliefs and limiting the number of enemies that the US faces.

At the global level, these operations need to be combined with efforts to sever the links between the various Islamist insurgent groups around the world. By interdicting these connections, the US and its allies can “disaggregate” the global insurgency into smaller local insurgencies that cannot benefit from each other’s support. 12 Cut off from outside support, these localized insurgencies will be far more vulnerable to integrated counterinsurgency operations of the sort described above. Additionally, the US can use the vast informational tools at its disposal to exacerbate tensions within and between various Islamist groups in order to splinter them further from each other and weaken them individually. 13 Once an insurgent group is cut off from the others and separated from local Muslim populations, it will be both unable to operate effectively or spread its ideology, and extremely vulnerable to kinetic force applied precisely by American or allied military units. Then the US will be better able to more easily capture or kill those militant Islamists still committed to using violence, and in the long run undermine the global insurgency.

The rise of Shi’ite extremism

While the US has been focused on the global insurgency composed of Sunni extremist groups, another source of regional instability, and a threat to US interests, has emerged in the form of Iranian-led and -inspired Shi’ite extremism. The threat to US interests from Shi’ite extremists first emerged in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution. However, in the intervening decades, the threat from Iran was largely contained by US military power, and in no small part by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, with which it fought a devastating eight-year war. Since the US invasion of Iraq, Iran has become far more active in its pursuit of regional power. Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, in defiance of not only the US but the European Union (EU) and the UN Security Council. 14 There is also evidence that it is supporting radical Shi’ite groups in Iraq by providing money, weapons, and training. In fact, US military commanders in Iraq have stated on numerous occasions that the most deadly weapons being used against American and Coalition troops are of Iranian origin. 15

Iranian-supported Shi’ite extremism is not confined to the Persian Gulf area. In Lebanon, the Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which is simultaneously a terrorist group, an elected political party, and a social support network, has become increasingly active in its efforts to secure political power and to confront Israel. While Hezbollah has a long history of terrorist attacks against Israeli and American targets from Saudi Arabia to Argentina, Iranian funds, arms, and training have allowed the group to increase its operational capabilities dramatically. Rather than only carrying out bombings of civilian and military facilities, Hezbollah has now developed the capability to wage open guerilla warfare against Israel’s strong conventional military, which it did in 2006. More recently, the group has taken Lebanon to the brink of a second civil war by using its well-armed and trained militia to advance its political goals. Iran also supports and arms the Palestinian group Hamas, allowing that extremist group to take a more forceful stance against Israel than would otherwise be possible, including launching rockets into Israel from Gaza. Thus, Iran has been able to undermine the peace process and enflame anti-Israeli sentiments throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite elements in the Middle East are quickly becoming one of the greatest sources of instability in the region. This is most clearly visible in Iraq, where, similar to the situation in Lebanon, violence between sectarian groups nearly plunged the country to the brink of civil war in late 2006. 16 In another similarity to the situation in Lebanon, many of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq are, like Hezbollah, fighting as Iranian proxies. Iran wants to end the US occupation on terms favorable to itself, which means weakening the US as much as possible, and ensuring that the new Iraqi government is Shi’ite led, and in lockstep with Iranian interests. 17 It has sought to accomplish this by aiding and arming the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), the militia of Iraq’s extreme Shi’ite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. The resulting violence has likely claimed far more lives than the anti-Coalition insurgency. And while the new Iraqi government has recently succeeded in challenging al-Sadr and his group, sectarian tensions remain the biggest source of insecurity, and the most serious impediment to Iraqi political progress. 18 Until Shi’ite and Sunni groups can come to some form of meaningful political reconciliation, lasting political progress in the country will not be likely.

On a broader level, Iranian actions have alarmed many of the Sunni states in the region, especially as Iran continues to enrich uranium, and as the Iranian regime has continued to support Shi’ite militias in Lebanon and Iraq. Throughout the Middle East, Sunni governments fear that Iran is bent on regional hegemony and expanding its “Islamic Revolution,” and may use force to advance these ends. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, it may well step up its activism even further, confident that its nuclear capability will prevent neighboring governments, and the US, from using force against it.

These many challenges can be resolved only through renewed US diplomatic engagement in the region. The US must be willing to talk with all parties, including Iran, in order to reconcile tensions and disagreements between Sunni and Shi’ite parties in the region. As Iran is an important power behind Hezbollah and the more militant Shi’ite groups in Iraq such as the Jaysh al-Mahdi, engagement with the Iranian regime can provide the key to dealing with these groups. Given Iran’s ability to foment violence and instability in Iraq, it is unlikely that the US will be able to resolve Iraq’s many problems and bring its troops home in the near future without dealing with Iran’s involvement in the country. Direct engagement provides the quickest and cheapest way to accomplish this end. This does not mean that the US must bend to Iran’s every wish. Indeed, it will be critical that the US protects its own vital interests. That being said, negotiating with Iran and finding points of common ground should be possible. In the long run, Iran will not benefit if Iraq becomes a failed state. It therefore has a stake in ensuring that a stable, viable government is formed within its neighboring country. The US can begin by engaging with Iran on this point, and moving forward from there. Direct talks with Iran, without preconditions, will be difficult and frustrating, but, in the long run can result in the Iranian regime playing a more positive and constructive role in the region.

Oil security

Before the collapse of many of the world’s economies, the price of oil per barrel reached record highs. In fact, some analysts were predicting that it would go as high as $200 per barrel. While these record high prices were felt by consumers every time they put gas in their cars, they also had a serious impact on other sectors of the economy. For example, the airline industry was hit hard by the skyrocketing prices in aviation fuel, resulting in higher transportation and travel costs, as well as cutbacks in airline services. 19 The rise in domestic food prices was also due in part to the rising costs of transporting produce to markets. 20

Still, oil remains central to the world economy, and disruption to the flow of oil would have a devastating ripple effect, impacting economies around the world and making economic recovery more difficult. Thus, the secure flow of oil from the Middle East remains a crucial national security priority for the US and its allies. US efforts to maintain oil security are even more important in light of the chronic instability affecting the region in recent years. While the Carter Doctrine has guided the US commitment to Middle Eastern oil security throughout the cold war, it was originally geared toward countering potential Soviet aggression in the region. In the three decades since the Doctrine’s inception, the threats to the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf have changed and grown far more complex. Today, the greatest threats to US oil interests come in the form of terrorist attacks from Islamist militants, as well as the possibility of aggressive action by an Iranian regime intent on expanding its power in the region. The Carter Doctrine, which ensured a US commitment to oil security, through military force if necessary, remains relevant. However, the nature by which the Doctrine is employed must change to keep pace with the times. 21

The US military presence in the Persian Gulf will remain critical well into the future. The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, is the centerpiece of this force. 22 The Fleet maintains at least one Carrier Strike Group (as the old Carrier Battle Groups have come to be known) in the Gulf at all times. Additionally, the Fleet maintains a Marine Expeditionary Unit—Special Operations Capable (MEU—SOC). These highly mobile units from the Marine Corps are specifically designed to maintain a forward presence and respond quickly to a crisis. 23 With these forces stationed in the region, the US has a significant forward presence and can easily deter conventional aggression from Iran, target terrorist groups should US leaders obtain actionable intelligence on their whereabouts, or respond to a sudden crisis should one occur. These are all important missions, but to be truly effective in countering the threats currently facing oil interests in the region, the US military will have to undertake new and unconventional roles that can better counter the asymmetric threats in the region. 24

The US military forces in the region are well positioned to take on new roles that can build relationships with regional militaries as well as increase US standing among the regular Muslim population. 25 Known in the military as “Phase 0” or “shaping” operations, these missions can take the form of humanitarian assistance, combined training exercises, and military-to-military diplomacy. 26 As discussed above, the critical factor in isolating the Islamist insurgents threatening US interests, and thus securing oil flow for the US and the world, is the ability of the US to sway the general populations in strategically vital regions to its side. Recent history has proven that “shaping” operations are incredibly effective in this regard. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the US Navy sent the hospital ship USNS Comfort to the coast off of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in order to deliver much needed medical supplies. This resulted in a dramatic improvement in American standing among what had previously been a population with a very negative view of the United States. 27 Similarly, the Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa has conducted shaping operations in combination with kinetic counterterrorist operations that have proven highly effective. 28 These “Phase 0” operations comprise development missions (using naval engineers to dig wells and build medical clinics and schools), medical civil action programs, and combined training operations with host nation militaries.

Oil security will also depend to a great extent on renewed diplomatic activity. While aggression from “rogue states” and terrorist groups threatens to disrupt the flow of oil, there is also the danger inherent in the growing competition for the world’s petroleum reserves. Specifically, as China’s economy grows, it demands more and more oil, which it is finding primarily in the Middle East and Africa. European countries and Japan also buy most of their oil from these regions. Given the fact that oil consumption is absolutely critical to the continued prosperity of each of these countries (not to mention the US), there is the very real possibility that conflict could break out over access to Middle Eastern oil reserves. In order to prevent this, the US should seek to bring these countries into a co-operative international framework to secure the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. 29 China is rapidly increasing the size of its navy, which could in the long run lead to a major confrontation over access to the Gulf and to major shipping routes. Bringing China into a co-operative agreement to use its military capabilities in a positive manner could forestall such a future confrontation. In the long run, an international framework for oil security would give countries around the world a stake in peaceful access to oil, and be a disincentive to taking it through force of arms. Establishing such a framework will require much more active use of American diplomatic tools to engage relevant partners, and the continued presence of the American military in the region, as a deterrent force and as quick first responder in a security crisis, should other avenues fail.

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict

The long-running conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors has been a source of violence, anger, and instability in the Middle East for over sixty years. Since the mid-1980s, the fighting has been transformed from conventional warfare between Israel and Arab states to irregular warfare between Israel and various Palestinian militant groups, especially Hamas. Yet this has not resulted in a meaningful increase in stability throughout the region. Indeed, the fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization has had a direct destabilizing effect upon both Lebanon and Jordan at various points in recent decades. The UN Development Programme’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report calls the conflict

one of the most pervasive obstacles to security and progress in the region geographically (since it affects the entire region), temporally (extending over decades) and developmentally (impacting nearly all aspects of human development and human security, directly for millions and indirectly for others). 30

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians undermines US interests in several ways. To begin with, since the attacks of 9/11, it has become clear that serious instability, even on the other side of the world, and especially in a region as important as the Middle East, can be a major threat to US interests. Lasting tension and violence only breed hatred and extremism. The Gaza Strip in particular has, since the Hamas takeover in the summer of 2007 and the ensuing Israeli blockade, become a cesspool of poverty, desperation, and extremism. 31 While food and supplies are able to enter the Strip, there are few prospects for economic self-improvement or social mobility. Even well-educated people have great difficult finding jobs or opportunities to better themselves. 32 Thus, people from every level of society share a similarly bleak existence in which they have little hope for their futures. This is exactly the sort of situation that breeds hatred and religious extremism, especially when the local authority is already a religious party identified as a terrorist group by both the US and the EU. 33

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been used on numerous occasions by Islamist groups as a propaganda tool. Harping upon it draws recruits and brings legitimacy to their causes. In 2007, some 70 percent of Palestinian people polled in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey said that suicide bombing, even against innocent civilians, can be justified. 34 In Lebanon and Jordan, some 34 percent and 23 percent, respectively, supported such tactics. 35 Clearly, if the US is serious about decreasing support for terrorist groups in the Muslim world, resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and thus drying up this immense source of support for extremist groups, should be an absolute priority.

US involvement in resolving the long-running dispute is important for other reasons as well. Not least among these is that Israel is an important American ally in the region. Therefore, the US government has a very real interest in ensuring Israel’s security. At the same time, ending the plight of the Palestinian people and enabling them to live normal lives, free of violence and in a politically independent state, is a moral imperative for the United States.

Since the collapse of President Clinton’s peace talks at Camp David in 2000 through the end of the Bush administration, US efforts towards resolving the conflict have been half-hearted and ad hoc at best. President Bush initially stated that his administration would stay out of the conflict entirely. This changed after 9/11, when US leaders finally began to corre-late the regional instability and anti-Americanism bred by the conflict with specific security concerns. President Bush then took the major step of putting US diplomatic support behind a two-state solution that would guarantee a sovereign Palestinian state. Yet his administration’s “Road Map for Peace” failed to produce any meaningful results. In November 2007, the Bush administration tried to renew the peace process by hosting a major conference in Annapolis. For the first time, a two-state solution was jointly agreed upon by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. However, it also met with heavy opposition from right-wing Israeli parties, 36 and Hamas called for a boycott of the conference altogether. 37 By the time President Bush left office, the Annapolis Conference had accomplished very little. Moreover, on December 27, 2008, the Israelis responded to Hamas’ firing rockets into Israel with a four-week campaign of launching air and ground attacks against Hamas and its followers in Gaza.

The Bush administration also did not get involved when, in the summer of 2008, Qatar began mediating talks between Israel and the Palestinians, while Turkey began mediating between Israel and Syria. Yet this should not be taken as a sign that a US role is not important. US diplomatic influence, specifically with Israel, will be critical in bringing the sides together in order to develop a lasting peace agreement. 38 In particular, US leverage is necessary in managing the complex negotiating process with countries throughout the region. This leverage cannot be exercised sporadically at major summit conferences as has been the case in past years. Rather, the US should have skilled diplomats on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Territories working constantly to bring the sides together to find some way in which the core issues separating these two parties can be resolved. 39 The Obama administration took a good first step by appointing a high-level diplomatic envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, to work directly and continuously with the parties in the region. Sustained close diplomatic engagement, instead of large conferences held only on an irregular basis, will be critical if the US is meaningfully to aid in the process of resolving the conflict, or at least prevent it from getting worse. By engaging more closely and substantively on these issues with state leaders throughout the Middle East, Senator Mitchell can also begin to rebuild the United States’ shattered image among so many of the people throughout the region. Renewed and sustained diplomatic engagement will prove invaluable not only for the immediate goal of ending the conflict and establishing a viable Palestinian state at peace with Israel, but also for advancing US national security and foreign policy goals well into the future.

Chronic underdevelopment

Perhaps the biggest challenge that the US faces in the Middle East, and one which is, in many ways, a causal factor for other problems, is the serious political and economic underdevelopment faced by nations throughout the region. As Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan, points out in his new book, The Arab Center, regional stability and US interests are threatened by the presence of poverty and the lack of good governance, political reform, women’s rights, religious and cultural diversity, access to education, and economic opportunity for millions of individuals across the Middle East. 40

The Arab Human Development Report makes a similar point by illustrating the often debilitating lack of economic development throughout the Middle East. 41 According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), this situation is in many ways due to the dearth of participatory democratic governments throughout the region (which the report characterizes as a state of political underdevelopment). The Programme’s report points out that “the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings in the Arab institutional structure [which] are an obstacle to building human development.” 42

Underdevelopment is, ironically, often felt most strongly in states where autocratic rulers have access to great wealth in the form of oil revenues. 43 Because these autocratic governments are able to amass their own personal fortunes through the sale of oil, and are under no pressure from the US or the international community to share the revenues nationally or invest in any sort of human capital for their people, the economies in their states stagnate while they are able to live comfortably. As Fareed Zakaria put it in The Future of Freedom, “easy money makes it unnecessary to do the hard work of creating a modern society.” 44 The result is that the majority of the population in these countries is forced to live in poverty with few market-able skills and little hope for self-improvement or social mobility. According to the UNDP, some 65 million adult Arab men are illiterate, a rate that is much higher than even much poorer countries. 45 At the same time, the region is showing a “youth bulge,” with some 38 percent of the population under fourteen years of age. 46 This means that, even if states do provide for good educational programs, national economies will be unable to absorb their talents, and they will be unable to find jobs commensurate with their skill levels. In combination, these factors lead to incredible frustration and anger, as people’s very lives seem stagnant and hopeless.

These problems are compounded by the common sentiment that the Islamic cultural heritage, to which a majority of people throughout the Middle East belong, is under attack. This sentiment is in many ways tied to the rise in the last decade of globalization and the increasing volume and speed of information flows across the world. Globalization in its fullest sense means interconnected markets and increased trade, bringing incredible economic potential. However, this process requires major investment in both human and physical capital, which autocratic governments, even when they become rich from escalating oil revenues, are often unwilling to provide. Furthermore, integrating into a globalized economy entails relinquishing some control, which these autocrats are unwilling to do. 47 Moreover, the internet and satellite TV have brought in a massive influx of Western culture, and at the same time allowed Middle Easterners to learn about the dramatic economic growth taking place around the world, from which they themselves remain disconnected. 48 The result is the sense that their very culture is under threat from Western values and cultural norms, which traditionalists see as decadent and corrupt. They find themselves confronted with what they see as truly negative aspects of globalization, without seeing many of the benefits.

In years past, this situation would have been viewed by many simply as a matter for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to deal with: a sad fact of life in the modern world but not one meriting the full engagement of the entire foreign policy establishment. More recent events have proven that the chronic underdevelopment and deep-seated feelings of frustration and even hatred that ensue are related directly to the greatest challenges that the US will face around the world in the coming decades. As such, the problem of underdevelopment merits the full attention and resources of US leaders. Sarah Sewall, a noted human rights and foreign policy expert from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, summed up the new global security paradigm by paraphrasing James Carville’s famous comment about the 1992 presidential election, writing: “It’s stability, stupid.” 49

To begin with, US policymakers must develop policies that will combine the tools of development projects and direct investment with the more traditional national security instruments of intense diplomatic engagement and military activities. This sort of “sustainable security” will seek to build up the Middle East and enable regular people in the region to lead more productive lives in which they have hope for their own improvement and that of their children. 50 This will require making development a major pillar of the US national security and defense strategies. It will also require major reform to disentangle the complex foreign aid system in order to make it more manageable and allow policymakers to better use foreign aid programs in conjunction with other tools to advance major strategic goals. 51

At the same time, the US government must begin to engage more closely with like-minded governments in the region and elsewhere in order to press for long-term political reform. Too often in the past, US leaders have remained close to autocratic Middle Eastern regimes in the name of securing American access to oil. This trend has continued recently as many autocrats have allied themselves with the US in the so-called global war on terror. The US must stop turning a blind eye to the nefarious actions of many autocratic Middle Eastern regimes if meaningful and lasting change in the region is to be realized. Rather, American leaders must use the need that many of these regimes have for US military assistance to begin to push slowly but firmly for political reform within dictatorial states so that the many problems bred from political underdevelopment can be alleviated.

When it comes to autocratic states that do not directly align themselves with American goals, the US has seen democratization as the “long-term antidote” 52 to terrorism, and has pushed for elections in Egypt and the Palestinian Territories. However, this often results in the elections of groups inimical or even openly hostile to US interests. Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that states, which quickly democratize and focus only on elections without first developing a functioning civil society or liberal political institutions, become “illiberal democracies;” that is, states with governments elected through democratic means that nonetheless rule autocratically. 53 Avoiding this outcome will require political reform to liberalize societies— developing strong civil societies and protections for civil liberties—before pushing for elections. Such “liberal autocracies” have a much easier time transitioning into modern liberal democratic states than do those that democratize quickly without having an open, free social system first. 54

Conclusion: working through the complexity

As troubling as each of the above issues may be, the real danger lies in their complex interconnectedness. Each of these challenges is related in some way to the others, and working to resolve one should inevitably involve dealing with the others. For example, securing the flow of oil has in the past meant aligning ourselves with the dictatorial rulers of oil-rich nations. This has, however, only strengthened the hand of these rulers and led to heightened anti-Americanism, which can in turn breed recruits for Islamist insurgent groups. Likewise, countering those insurgent groups will require resolving the developmental problems in the region. Unless the US government can develop a strategy to deal with all of these challenges in a co-ordinated way, the nation will only make more problems for itself.

Developing an integrated strategy towards the Middle East will require the ability to comprehend not only the issues and the interplay between them, but also the Middle Eastern culture and social history. Decision makers on the ground must be able to understand the way in which people in the region view the US and American policies, and be able to explain our goals to people in the region. This does not mean that the US must calibrate its policies specifically to suit the wishes of Middle Easterners, but rather that US leaders understand the culture of the people of the Middle East, and be able to advance US goals through measures that take cultural issues into account. More than 2000 years ago, the Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu said that the key to victory lies in knowing both one’s enemy and oneself. This is a lesson for both diplomats and military commanders, and is no less true today than it was when it was written.

A broad strategy for Middle East policy will require a number of concrete steps, both in Washington and abroad:

  • First, President Obama must take strong steps to reform the organizations responsible for foreign assistance and diplomatic engagement. In recent years, the Defense Department’s (DoD) stake in development assistance for foreign governments has increased from about 5 percent of overall spending to more than 20 percent. 55 This is in part because of DoD-led efforts to combat the Islamist insurgency through attempts to “build partner capacity,” or bolster the abilities of friendly states to counter terrorist groups within their own territories. 56 However, it is also due to the fact that the DoD has more resources and a far better operational capacity than USAID and the State Department, the civilian agencies normally tasked with development programs and on-the-ground diplomatic engagement. 57 The result is that the US military, rather than the civilian diplomatic corps, has become the face of the US around the world, especially in the Middle East. The Obama administration and Congress can begin to redress this deficiency by giving the State Department and USAID the funds they need for requisite staffs and resources for their projects. This does not mean that the DoD should be forced out of the process entirely. Capacity-building programs are important, but they should not be undertaken at the expense of development and diplomatic engagement activities.
  • Second, in order to co-ordinate the many activities that a broadly based strategy would entail, reforms to the interagency process are necessary. As advancing US strategic goals can no longer be accomplished through either purely diplomatic or military means, but must rather employ a combination of the two in conjunction with development programs, military and civilian elements from a variety of agencies need to be able to work together in a co-ordinated manner. The DoD has begun this process with its new Africa Command (AFRICOM), which, although a combatant command, has been expressly organized in order to facilitate co-ordination between military and civilian agencies. Indeed, one of the two principal deputies reporting to the AFRICOM Combatant Commander will be a diplomat of ambassadorial rank. 58 This sort of interagency structure should be expanded to the Central Command, which is responsible for operations in the entire greater Middle East.
  • Third, more authority should also be given to the diplomatic country teams operating out of each US embassy. These interagency teams, led by an ambassador or chief of mission, provide the US government with the ability to closely co-ordinate policies for a specific country across numerous civilian agencies as well as the military (each country team includes at least one military attaché, who reports to the ambassador but co-ordinates with the regional combatant command). 59 By making the country team the main operation element or “command post” (as one Senate Foreign Relations Committee report put it), 60 the US would not only put the State Department firmly in charge of foreign policymaking during peace time, but would also allow close co-ordination between multiple parts of the government when engaging with foreign countries.

On a broader level, the absolute key to developing a broad Middle East strategy designed for long-term success is the understanding that US policy cannot focus solely on the immediate threats to American security and vital interests abroad. The government must retain the diplomatic and military capacity to respond effectively to a crisis, but it must also be able to do so in a way that will not jeopardize long-term foreign policy goals. Since 9/11, the overriding focus has been on “fighting terror” and securing access to oil. Indeed, oil security has been the guiding principle of US policy toward the Middle East since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. But, by focusing only on such narrow goals and implementing quick fix solutions, US policymakers have managed to help create many of the challenges that the nation faces today. The only way to avoid continuing this dangerous trend is to develop an integrated, long-term strategy designed to engage with the Middle East along the entire spectrum of mutually important issues. Until America’s leaders develop such a strategy, the US will never move past the crisis of the moment, and serious, long-term progress for both US interests and the Middle East more generally will stagnate.


Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Crude Oil Imports from All Countries.”

Energy Information Administration. “Total U.S. Crude Oil Imports From Persian Gulf Countries.”

Fawaz Gerges, “Assessing al-Qaeda Performance and Threat,” Proceedings on Strategy, Analysis, and Technology: 2006 Unrestricted Warfare Symposium. Johns Hopkins University: APL/SAIS, March 14–15, 2006: 128.

Lt Col (Dr.) David Kilcullen, “Countering Global Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, November 30, 2004: 15.

Bruce Hoffman, “The Myth of Grassroots Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008.

Kilcullen, op. cit.

Kilcullen, op. cit.

Lt Col Michael F. Morris, USMC, Al-Qaeda as Insurgency. US Army War College Strategy Research Project, March 18, 2005: 6.

T. X. Hammes, “Information Operations in 4GW,” in Terry Terriff, Aaron Karp, and Regina Karp, eds, Global Insurgency and the Future of Armed Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Sarah Sewall, “Crafting a New Counterinsurgency Doctrine,” Foreign Service Journal, September 2007: 34.

Hy Rothstein, Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. Newport, RI: US Naval Institute Press, 2006: 102.

Kilcullen, op. cit.

Thomas Mahnken, “A Strategy for a Protracted War,” Proceedings on Strategy, Analysis, and Technology: 2006 Unrestricted Warfare Symposium. Johns Hopkins University: APL/SAIS, March 14–15, 2006: 57.

Joseph Cirincione and Andrew Grotto, Contain and Engage. The Center for American Progress, March, 2007: 1.

Greg Bruno, “Backgrounder: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.” Council on Foreign Relations. October 25, 2007.

Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “At Least 51 Are Killed in Blast at Baghdad Market,” The New York Times, June 18, 2008.

Vali Nasr, “Iran on Its Heels,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2008.

Brian Katulis, Lawrence J. Korb, and Peter Juul, Strategic Reset. The Center for American Progress, June 2007: 4.

“It’s an ill wind …,” The Economist, June 5, 2008.

Robert Gavin, “Surging Costs of Groceries Hit Home,” The Boston Globe, March 9, 2008.

For a more detailed analysis of US policy for oil security in light of modern threats, see Lawrence J. Korb and Ian Moss, Moving Beyond the Carter Doctrine. The Century Foundation, July 24, 2008.

Korb and Moss, op cit.

Send In The Marines: A Marine Corps Operational Employment Concept To Meet An Uncertain Security Environment. Headquarters: US Marine Corps, 2008: 15.

Korb and Moss, op. cit.

Korb and Moss, op. cit.

Derek S. Reveron, ed., Shaping the Security Environment. Newport, RI: US Naval War College, 2007: 3–4.

Korb and Moss, op. cit.

Steven A. Emerson, “Regional Security Initiative: Combined Joint Task Force—Horn of Africa,” in Derek S. Reveron, ed., Shaping the Security Environment. Newport, RI: US Naval War College, 2007: 79–80.

Korb and Moss, op. cit.

United Nations Development Programme. Arab Human Development Report, 2002, p. 1.

Taghreed El-Khodary, “Life in Gaza Today,” The Middle East Bulletin, June 12, 2008.

El-Khodary, op. cit.

US Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism, April 30, 2008.

Pew Global Attitudes Survey. A Rising Tide Lifts Mood in the Developing World, July 24, 2007.

Pew Global Attitudes Survey, op. cit.

Isabel Kershner, “Israelis Press Plan to Block the Division of Jerusalem,” The New York Times, November 15, 2007.

“Haniya urges Conference Boycott,” BBC News, October 6, 2007.

Brian Katulis and Mara Rudman, “Reviving U.S. Leadership in the Middle East,” The Middle East Bulletin, June 19, 2008.

Frederic C. Hof, “Neglected Diplomacy,” The Middle East Bulletin, May 5, 2008.

Marwan Muasher, The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report, 2004, p. 1.

United Nations Human Development Programme, p. 3.

Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003: 260.

Zakaria, op. cit.: 260.

United Nations Development Programme, Arab Human Development Report, 2002. p. 3.

Maj (USA) Brian A. Payne, Redefining the Global War on Terrorism: Developing a Clear Picture of a Fuzzy Objective. Ft. Leavanworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 2005: 14.

Payne, op. cit.: 13.

Payne, op. cit.: 13.

Sewall, op. cit.: 34.

Gayle E. Smith, In Search of Sustainable Security. Center for American Progress, June 2008: 5.

Smith, op. cit.: 17.

The White House, National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. February 2006: 9.

Zakaria, op. cit.: 120.

Zakaria, op. cit.: 261.

Integrating 21st Century Development and Security Assistance. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2007: vi.

Integrating 21st Century Development and Security Assistance, p. 1.

Smith, op. cit.: 19.

Integrating 21st Century Development and Security Assistance, p. 29.

Christopher Griffin and Thomas Donnelly, The Frontline Country Team. The American Enterprise Institute, June 2008.

Excerpts of this report appear in “Embassies as Command Posts in the War on Terror,” Foreign Service Journal, March 2007: 53–60.

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