"Cry 'Havoc!' said he who fought chaos with chaos and let slip the dogs of war." — Congressman Francis Underwood, "House of Cards"
"Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder." — Littlefinger, "Game of Thrones"
Chaos is a frightening concept, though it is clearly appreciated in today's pop culture if the "House of Cards" and "Game of Thrones" references speak to the present zeitgeist. Stability, by contrast, is a soothing concept. The U.S., as the preeminent power in the world, is inevitably concerned with stability. The Middle East is no longer stable and, barring a miracle of probably divine origin, it will not be for a long time to come. Battles over who is at fault are irrelevant. What does matter is how the U.S. deals with the reality, as gruesome as it might be, on the ground.
Since the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the initiation of the Carter Doctrine after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. has also been the predominant power in the Middle East.
This order is dying, and in its death throes instability reigns. The problem today is that the U.S. continues to want to maintain the liberal world order on the cheap. It wants to disengage from the Middle East and pivot to Asia.
On one hand, this is reasonable. The U.S. no longer needs Middle East oil as much as it did previously, thanks to the shale revolution in North America, and Asia is clearly the region of the world where global power is flowing. However, simple disengagement is not a sufficient response.
Into the vacuum of the American Middle East withdrawal, new problems emerge. Most prominent, and chilling, for the moment is jihadist terrorism complete with beheadings, amputations, mass shootings and even crucifixions, as we have seen in Syria and now Iraq. However, over time, renewed great-power competition, whether between the U.S. and Russia or the U.S. and China, will reemerge and become prominent as it was prior to Kissinger's "Shuttle Diplomacy," which pushed the Soviets out of the region and firmly ensconced the U.S. as the region's main arbiter.
Today, to deal with both of these unenviable contingencies, the U.S. should adopt a strategy out of its historical character but strategically sound under the present, constrained circumstances: Embrace the chaos.
The more the Middle East begins to look like Europe's Thirty Years' War, as this author has indicated before, the more there is a need to rethink the historic view of the U.S. as the grand regional stabilizer. As this author previously has written:
"Today, the United States is stuck trying to contain Iran without the military flexibility to be serious, thus looking a bit like a paper tiger. Tomorrow, it could seize the geopolitical initiative by being the decisive weight on the scale of Sunni-Shia relations. Both would be forced to cultivate relations with the United States in order to maintain its support."
Essentially, the U.S. should accept the chaos and seek a way to keep its national interests in focus.
The U.S. cannot blindly support Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki without embracing Iran. Yet it can't embrace Iran without tearing its relations with Sunni powers in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, potentially asunder. In other words, it cannot decisively choose one side in the conflict. But it can help both sides remain competitive and, potentially, reliant on the U.S.
While this likely will elongate the conflict, similar to how Cardinal Richelieu navigated the shoals of the Thirty Years' War, it also keeps the jihadist threat focused in its own region and can prevent other great powers from stepping in to the region to further their own agendas. While it will cause the price of oil to obviously rise, the cost will not disproportionately impact the U.S. relative to other powers, again due to its growing energy security in the form of shale. In fact, it is more likely to impact its chief geopolitical rival — China — and that is part of the point.
China is sowing its oats in the South China Sea and dealing with generational domestic transformations. Everyone knows that a Sino-U.S. geopolitical competition is well under way, even if it is not politically correct to admit it. However, the recent contretemps at the Shangri-La Dialogue means such admissions are rapidly coming more and more to the foreground.
One way to mitigate that competition would be to make the cost of China's obvious revanchism in their neighborhood higher. Higher Middle Eastern oil prices, the region where China gets more than 50 percent of its imports, would facilitate this. Meanwhile, the U.S. can help regional allies like Japan by using its natural gas glut and sending abroad.
There can be no doubt that embracing Middle Eastern chaos represents a firmly realpolitik view of foreign policy. For a nation that often seems called to act in a quasi-Messianic fashion where it can save other countries from themselves, this will no doubt be a particularly bitter and difficult pill to swallow.
Unfortunately, given the U.S.'s tenuous domestic challenges, the ability to save the world is no longer at its fingertips, nor is it necessarily even desired by the American people themselves. Yet, every nation has national interests that must be preserved. Chief of those for the U.S. is to not be pushed out of East Asia by a rising China. Secondary among these is to avoid catastrophic, 9/11-scale terrorist attacks on its own soil.
Embracing chaos in the Middle East, paradoxical as it might seem, can, if adroitly exploited, accomplish both. Naive isolationism, naive internationalism and naive interventionism do not accomplish either. Nor will they ultimately change the bloody facts on the ground in the region.
Lawson is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.