Ten years after Seal Team Six put an end to
Osama bin Laden’s
terrorist career, most observers think of America’s 21st-century Middle East policy as a succession of ghastly failures. Certainly ambitious efforts by both Republican and Democratic presidents to transform the region fell far short of success. Yet if the Middle East is less peaceful and no more democratic than it was in 2001, the U.S. has dramatically reduced the ability of regional upheavals to provoke major crises around the world. While withdrawing entirely would be unwise, America can defend its vital interests with less risk and a more focused strategy than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
As the Biden administration addresses the remaining issue that poses a major threat to U.S. regional interests—Iran’s quest for regional superpower status based on its nuclear program and support for militias and terrorists—it should reflect on what Washington and its allies have gotten right over the past 20 years.
The first achievement involves one of the great unheralded successes of our time: America’s prevention of major new international terrorist attacks on its soil. With help from key partners around the world, U.S. security institutions have kept Americans largely safe since 9/11. To appreciate the value of this achievement, think what the world and the U.S. would look like if 9/11 had been only the first of a succession of massive attacks.
The second decisive success is that fracking has dramatically reduced the Middle East’s ability to roil world energy markets. The days are long past when even minor crises in the region could send energy prices surging around the world. Middle East oil still matters, but emirs and ayatollahs can no longer cause global economic upheavals by manipulating prices through the oil cartel.
In the third place, as the raid that killed bin Laden demonstrated, America’s reach has grown very long. Stunning advances in drone technology and precision weapons targeting are part of the story. So too are the extraordinary capabilities of U.S. special operations forces. Add to that the ability of very small numbers of American forces to increase vastly the battle effectiveness of local allies by hooking them up to the information available through integrated communications and surveillance, and the U.S. ability to project a lot of power with a small presence is a game changer in the Middle East and beyond.
Finally, neighboring Arab states now consider Israel an ally to be cultivated, not a foe to be crushed. The leading Arab states and Israel aren’t exactly friends, but they are forming something at least equally valuable in international relations: a partnership that both sides consider essential to their continued security.
These are big wins and Americans should take more pride in them than we do.
One large problem remains. The vital interests of the U.S. in the region haven’t changed much over the decades. America needs oil to flow freely to world markets, the terror threat to stay contained, Israel to remain safe, and for no single power to be able to dominate the Middle East. Iran’s drive for regional primacy threatens all of these.
Since 2013, when the talks between the Obama administration and Iran became public, the question of how to manage Tehran’s regional and nuclear ambitions has been the most contentious foreign policy issue in U.S. politics. Both sides in this debate make important points. Critics of the Obama approach were right that a weak stance toward Iran creates incentives for aggressive policy in Tehran while driving Israel and its Arab allies toward desperate measures. And Trump critics are right to observe that too rigid an American posture could make the option of an attempted nuclear breakout irresistible to Iran. Either path could lead to an ugly and dangerous war that would entangle the U.S.
Given President Biden’s determination to return to some form of the JCPOA, guardedly pursuing negotiations with Tehran while mending fences with allies and strengthening the Arab-Israeli coalition is the most hopeful feasible course. But pulling it off will require a rare mix of sound judgment, steely will and diplomatic finesse.
That task will be much harder if Americans approach the Middle East in a spirit of defeatism. When the U.S. pursued transformational goals in the Middle East, it generally failed. But building on American strengths and focusing on the country’s core interests and Washington’s relations with allies has worked pretty well.
Washington is unlikely to transform Iran into a peaceful and friendly state. Yet focused and determined American policy—aligned with key local allies—can and will frustrate Iranian attempts to overturn the current regional order.
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Appeared in the May 4, 2021, print edition.