Many Americans would like to detach themselves from a violent, chaotic Middle East. So would many Israelis, for that matter.
We recently participated in a blue-ribbon panel, the U.S.–Israeli Commission on the Eastern Mediterranean, that discussed America’s impulse to disengage from the region. The Obama-Clinton team adopted a policy of “pivoting” toward Asia — that is, away from the Middle East. Donald Trump has denounced the Iraq war and the U.S. intervention in Libya. In his foreign-policy statements — castigating America’s NATO allies, for example, and America’s trade agreements — he rejects traditional U.S. internationalism. We considered the appeal of isolationism. The key question, we concluded, is not whether or why it’s desirable but whether it’s an option at all.
Cosponsored by the University of Haifa and the Hudson Institute, our commission was diverse. It included, for example, the former chiefs of the U.S. and Israeli navies, Admirals Gary Roughead and Ami Ayalon. It included former Republican civilian officials and former Democratic senator Mary Landrieu. And it included an economist, a business executive, and a historian, all with divergent political views. The following points, however, are the consensus of all the commissioners.
The Eastern Mediterranean is in extraordinary flux. Many of the transformations under way are negative. Iran’s policy of nuclear hedging is giving impetus to the spread of nuclear weapons to multiple countries. ISIS achieved substantial economic and political power in Iraq and Syria and retains formidable ability to conduct and inspire terrorism abroad, despite its recent loss of ground in Iraq. Islamist extremist groups are fighting across the Middle East to upend political institutions, challenging the nation-state as such. The Syrian refugee crisis is aggravating the region’s epidemic of Arab political instability and straining European immigration policies.
While the Obama administration has aimed to disengage from the region, the next U.S. administration may try to reduce U.S. involvement there further.
The desire to disengage from the Middle East is an especially strong element of the general American isolationist impulse. After decades of leading the democratic world in the Cold War and in multiple wars since 9/11, many Americans would like relief from world affairs. They would prefer to have nothing to do with foreign wars, with lands that breed jihadists, stagnate in corruption, or have populations that reject modernity or hate the United States. The preference is easy to understand, but it’s not realistic. The issue is not whether isolationism is desirable; it is whether it’s possible.
To put the question more precisely: Can Americans preserve their security, prosperity, and civil liberties without maintaining an active role in the world — and specifically in the Middle East and its environs? The answer is no. As Americans try to “pivot” away from the region’s problems, those problems, history teaches us, will follow after them and likely worsen.
Why is isolation not an option? The region’s wealth will necessarily influence interests around the world; and so will its pathologies. The West cannot be indifferent to the conquest of a country with large oil reserves (and therefore large revenues), which helps explain why George H. W. Bush organized a war to free Kuwait from Iraqi forces in 1991. Imagine if ISIS or al-Qaeda were to take power in Saudi Arabia and control its bank accounts; no amount of “homeland security” could then neutralize the resulting terrorist danger. Similarly, even though America and other Western countries tried to stay out of Syria’s civil war, the conflict’s ill effects reached them in the form of terrorist murders and millions of refugees.
Neither the Middle East nor any other large region can be quarantined. Nuclear or biological weapons developed there could strike anywhere, and cyber attacks launched from there could infect computers anywhere. Isolation is impossible in the world of Internet, easy travel, and miniature means of mass destruction.
High technology aside, there’s the question of who will protect freedom of navigation on the seas. Since the sun set on the British Empire, the United States has been instrumental in keeping the world’s seas open to commerce. No other country or alliance is ready and able to substitute. Without open sea lines of communication, much of the world’s trade would cease to flow. If, in hopes of disengaging from the Middle East or cutting its defense budget, the United States were to relinquish this essential role, the harm to the global economy, including America’s economy, would be catastrophic.
In other words, disengagement from the Middle East would not isolate the United States; it would simply forfeit America’s ability to shape events. This is not an argument for any particular kind of engagement — it does not, for example, militate for U.S. ground troops to be deployed to Syria. But it is an argument against believing that non-intervention would spare America from paying a price for what happens in the region.