Monday, February 22, 2016

Fight Or Flight

GsGf's long time Middle East militaries cat unleashed a killer bit 'bout - you guessed it - the Middle East.

Specifically, the modern Middle East has rarely been tranquil, but it has never been this bad. 45 is going to face a choice in the Middle East: do much more to stabilize it, or disengage from it much more. This piece was originally published in Foreign Affairs.

Grasping the real choices that the United States faces in the Middle East requires an honest understanding of what is going on there. Although it is fashionable to blame the region’s travails on ancient hatreds or the poor cartography of Mr. Sykes and Monsieur Picot, the real problems began with the modern Arab state system. After World War II, the Arab states came into their own. Most shed their European colonial masters, and all adopted more modern political systems, whether secular republics (read: dictatorships) or new monarchies.

None of these states worked very well. For one thing, their economies depended heavily on oil, either directly, by pumping it themselves, or indirectly, via trade, aid, and worker remittances. These rentier economies produced too few jobs and too much wealth that their civilian populations neither controlled nor generated, encouraging the ruling elites to treat their citizenries as (mostly unwanted) dependents.
This model clunked along for several decades, before it started falling apart

If the first-order problem of the Middle East is the failure of the postwar Arab state system, the outbreak of civil wars has become an equally important second-order problem. These conflicts have taken on lives of their own, becoming engines of instability that now pose the greatest immediate threat to both the people of the region and the rest of the world.

For one thing, civil wars have a bad habit of spilling over into their neighbors. Vast numbers of refugees cross borders, as do smaller, but no less problematic, numbers of terrorists and other armed combatants. So do ideas promoting militancy, revolution, and secession. In this way, neighboring states can themselves succumb to instability or even internal conflict.
So... Fight or Flight?

Ultimately, the greatest challenge for the United States if it steps back from the Middle East is this: figuring out how to defend U.S. interests when they are threatened by problems the United States is ill equipped to solve. Because containing the spillover from civil wars is so difficult, stepping back means risking the near-term collapse of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey. Although none of these countries produces much oil itself, their instability could spread to the oil producers, too, over the longer term. The world might be able to survive the loss of Iranian, Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or Algerian oil production, but at a certain point, the instability would affect Saudi Arabia.

The great benefit of a policy of stepping back is that it would drastically reduce the burden that the United States would have to bear to stabilize the Middle East. The great danger, however, is that it would entail enormous risks. Once the United States started writing off countries—shortening the list of those it would defend against threats—it is unclear where it would be able to stop, and retreat could turn into rout. If Jordan or Kuwait slid into civil war, would the United States deploy 100,000 troops to occupy and stabilize either country to protect Saudi Arabia (and in the case of civil war in Jordan, to protect Israel)? Could the United States do so in time to prevent the spillover from destabilizing the kingdom? If not, are there other ways to keep the kingdom itself from falling? Given all these uncertainties, the most prudent course is for Americans to steel themselves against the costs and step up to stabilize the region.

That said, what the United States should certainly not do is refuse to choose between stepping up and stepping back and instead waffle somewhere in the middle, committing enough resources to enlarge its burden without increasing the likelihood that its moves will make anything better. Civil wars do not lend themselves to half measures. An outside power has to do the right thing and pay the attendant costs, or else its intervention will only make the situation worse for everyone involved, including itself. The tragedy is that given the U.S. political system’s tendency to avoid decisive moves, the next administration will almost inevitably opt to muddle through.

Given the extent of the chaos in the Middle East today, refusing to choose would likely prove to be the worst choice of all.