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Studies 07 March, 2019

US Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East: Pumping Air into a Punctured Tire

Ross Harrison

Ross Harrison is a Senior Fellow (non-resident) at the Middle East Institute, is on the faculty of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he teaches courses on strategy, and the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches Middle East politics.

Harrison authored Strategic Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign policy and Business Professionals, which is a required strategy text at the U.S. National War College, as well as at many civilian universities. He also co-edited with Paul Salem a 2017 book, From Chaos to Cooperation: Toward Regional Order in the Middle East. Harrison has also been published in policy related journals such as The National Interest, Al Monitor, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Orient, Al-Jazeera and Parameters. He is co-editing a new book with Paul Salem, Civil Wars in the Middle East: Towards Ending the Conflicts, to be released in 2019.

Abstract

Theorizing the future of the Arab Gulf states and the broader Middle East requires a proper assessment of the state of power distribution in the region. Is there a new balance of power emerging in the Middle East, or is the distribution of power heading in a more dangerous direction?

This paper argues that a traditional, realist, balance of power concept is outdated given the realities of the Middle East today. This is because the nature of the competition between the major regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran is not in direct competition but rather indirect rivalry through proxy engagement in the states currently or previously ravaged by civil war (Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq). Because of these civil wars and the proxy involvement fueling them, the Middle East has become a degraded state system, not a state-centric system envisioned by balance of power theory. Winners and losers in this rivalry will be determined more by coalitional and hybrid warfare capabilities, and less by conventional military power indicators. Furthermore, since the greatest danger to the region is posed by this proxy competition in the civil war zones is unintended escalation, collective security and regional stability should be the endgames.

The U.S. not only has interests at the national level with allies Saudi Arabia and Israel but also at the regional level. Washington seems intent on bringing Iran to its knees and back to the negotiation table by re-imposing sanctions and using its relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel as cudgels to this end. Its support for the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), otherwise known as the "Arab NATO" is part of this initiative. This response is likely to further escalate tensions in the region by incentivizing Iran and Russia to deepen their ties, likely undermining US interests in regional stability.  This paper suggests instead a more balanced and nuanced approach that works towards an internationally supported collective security framework.

To read the full paper download the full PDF here.