Policy Roundtable: The Future of the Middle East

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: In recent years, U.S. interests in the Middle East have shifted while the region has undergone significant transformation of its own. Together, these reasons necessitate a re-evaluation of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

While the forthcoming presidential election has helped reignite debates about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, most domestic policy discussions play along the same lines. Politicians either criticize the war in Iraq and advocate for a full-scale withdrawal from the Middle East, or else advocate “regime change in Iran because it plays well at home.”

But the reality is more complicated than these debates suggest, and any changes to U.S. Middle East policy must be significantly nuanced. The Texas National Security Review assembled a group of experts “to begin sketching out the specifics of U.S. interests in the Middle East and potential policies to achieve them.”

Andrew Miller discusses the declining importance of the Middle East to U.S. strategic and economic interests. On the one hand, U.S. foreign policy has justifiably come to be dominated by relations with Russia and China, and less with the less powerful countries and renegade groups in the Middle East.

Additionally, the region itself has grown less important to American interests. America is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, terrorists pose a smaller threat to the United States, and the Middle East no longer matters to the transport of goods. Still, the United States has up to 70,000 troops in the region and is committed to spending $30 billion a year to maintain the status quo.

Given this disjunction, Miller recommends the United States downsize its human and economic commitment to the region while acknowledging that the Middle East still poses a threat, so as to not unilaterally withdraw.

Steven Cook focuses on Turkey’s evolving Middle East policy, eschewing the traditional idea that Turkey is either allied with Western interests in the Middle East or else has been “lost.” Cook offers a different explanation, suggesting that Turkey’s approach to the Middle East has changed in response to the changing geopolitical status quo, the rise of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, and the continued domestic debate over Turkish identity.

Ultimately, Cook concludes that “the door closing on E.U. membership in 2006 and a series of incoherent U.S. policies on the Syrian conflict have encouraged Turkey to diversify its security partnerships away from traditional NATO allies.” Specifically, Miller highlights increased alliance with Russia and its novel partnership with Qatar, ultimately concluding that “Turkey, in short, will likely be an important actor in the Middle East well into the future. It just may not play the role that the United States wants it to play.”

Similarly, Ariane Tabatabai “cautions that we should not expect regime change in Iran to spur a dramatically new approach to the same set of economic prospects and security concerns.” Tabatabai compares Iranian foreign policy before and after the 1979 revolution, and ultimately concludes that “regardless of who is in charge in Tehran, Iran’s behavior is likely to remain consistent for decades to come.” Thus, she cautions the United States to abandon any hope of effecting regime change in Iran, even if it were willing to foot the bill.

Finally, “Ori Rabinowitz considers the possibility that declining U.S. engagement in the region could spur a renewed push for nuclear weapons, thereby challenging Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly.” He identifies Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia as three likely “proliferators,” and suggest the possibility of “ an Israeli-Saudi-Emirati alliance, in which Israel’s nuclear capabilities play a role as a regional deterrent against Iran,” assuming the Saudi’s don’t make a nuclear push that alienates Israel.

While each participant in this roundtable takes a different focus and arrives at different conclusions, they all echo a similar point: on nearly every conceivable level, the Middle East is changing, and U.S. security, economic, and diplomatic interests along with it. As a result, the time has come for the United States to adjust its approach to the region.

Read the full roundtable here.