Since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. policymakers have predominately viewed the Middle East through the lens of terrorism. However, the real problem, and the actual driver of what ails much of the region today, is the rise of state-based competition.
A U.S. strategy that views the Middle East exclusively through the terrorism lens, and that largely applies U.S. power through a counterterrorism-centric approach, will fail to address — and perhaps even exacerbate — instability. We have already witnessed this with the collapse of multiple states and the expansion of terrorist groups in the region. This approach may also reflect a strategic blind spot for the United States, because many of the state and non-state actors in the region tend view the key challenges as state-centric in nature.
Nevertheless, the new administration appears poised to continue the counterterrorism-centric approach of the two previous administrations — risking a further expansion of the instability that we are witnessing in the Middle East today.
Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda core and its affiliates and Hezbollah exploit instability created by these inter-state competitions in order to expand their sanctuaries, further their operational and political goals, promote their ideology, and recruit more adherents.
This suggests that a Middle East with less terrorism and greater stability is one in which competition among regional states is reduced. Said another way, U.S. policy should focus on maintaining stability where that exists, managing and/or containing instability where that exists, and preventing Iran and Saudi Arabia from going towards their worst desires: direct military confrontation.
Luckily, the United States is uniquely positioned to positively effectuate a reduction in state-based competition (which is truly saying something, given the complexities of the Middle East, not to mention the United States’s recent history in the region).
Ultimately, the United States has to help regional actors see inter-state competition — and the associated conflicts — as antithetical to their interests. Regional actors have to fully appreciate the negative externalities that accompany instability, such as terrorism and failed states, which are the by-products of these proxy wars. And state actors have to believe that these conflicts will ultimately threaten regime survival in the long run.
I will concede that getting actors in the region to see this reality in all circumstances is easier said than done. However, there is a facet of regional competition that the United States could have a decisive impact on: confronting Iran.
Let’s imagine how our policy toward Iran might change if we were to put the reduction of interstate competition at the core of our strategy.
The United States would have to re-focus our policy toward rolling back Iran’s malign activities. That means forcefully confronting Iran’s harassment of commercial traffic in key maritime choke points, which could include military action, but would certainly require multilateral pressure and diplomacy.
If the United States presses Iran in places like the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, this would reassure both the Israelis and the Gulf states that we take their concerns seriously and are willing to act in defense of our mutual interests — thus reducing the risk of unbounded escalation if these partners act on their own. This would also force Iran to factor into its strategic calculus the risks of escalation — not just with Saudi Arabia but with the United States, which could bound how far it might go.
In parallel, the United States would also have to re-engage with Saudi Arabia. We would have to take steps to re-affirm that we share the nation’s threat perception and understand its core security interests. In doing so, this would allow the United States to better manage how Saudi Arabia reacts to provocations by Iran.
When Saudi Arabia perceives that the United States has pulled back (which it incorrectly assumed during the previous administration), it believes it must take action alone to address its perception of the threat. However, Saudi Arabia has tended to take action in a manner that ultimately undermines its strategic goals and long-term interests. This reality is most prominently reflected through Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military action in Yemen.
A critical step that the United States could take to bound Iranian malign activities and Iran’s expanding influence in the region could include more frequently exercising U.S. contingency plans in the Arabian Gulf region — with the full complement of surge military capabilities.
Another step could include the United States locking in its enduring military presence and associated activities with the government of Iraq before the end of the military operation in Mosul. The United States is now at the height of its influence there. This could include negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement or new terms that would both govern U.S. presence in Iraq and symbolize a broader commitment from the Iraqi polity for U.S. presence there. These would be important steps to securing long-term U.S. interests and, more immediately, serve as a counter weight to Iranian influence in Iraq.
In the final analysis, the standard axioms remain as true as ever with the Middle East: “There are no easy answers” and “it could still get worse.” That said, it equally remains true that the United States is an indispensable nation in the region. Counterterrorism must remain an important part of the United States’s activities, but reducing and rolling back state-based competition — particularly from Iran — must become a strategic focus. This approach would benefit U.S. interests as well as going a long way to furthering stability in the region.
This is precisely a role that the United States can do — and do well.
Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as a professional staff member with the House Armed Services Committee for five years. He is a West Point graduate, combat veteran and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. His work has been published by The Washington Post, National Review, The Hill, The Huffington Post, and Foreign Affairs.
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