The American Foreign Policy exchange, part 2: On what America can do in the Middle East

August 24, 2016

Robert J. Lieber is Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University, where he has previously served as Chair of the Government Department and Interim Chair of Psychology. In addition, he chairs the Executive Committee of Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization. He is author or editor of seventeen books on international relations and U.S. foreign policy and has been an advisor to presidential campaigns, to the State Department, and to the drafters of U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. He was born and raised in Chicago, received his undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. He held fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. He also has taught at Harvard, Oxford and the University of California, Davis, and has been Visiting Fellow at the Fondation nationale des sciences politiques in Paris, the Brookings Institution in Washington, and Fudan University in Shanghai.

The following exchange will focus on Professor Lieber’s new book Retreat and its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Part 1 can be found here.


Dear Professor Lieber,

In your previous answer you wrote the following:

Disorder has many causes, but the United States now faces a more dangerous world with the rise of hostile powers, fanatical terrorist movements, and worsening regional conflicts in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Meanwhile, our allies seek reassurance or begin to hedge, while senior military and intelligence leaders warn of increasing domestic threats. The evidence of recent years provides strong evidence that America’s active engagement remains crucial both for the maintenance of a liberal world order and our own security and national interests.

I would like to ask you to elaborate about the type of “active engagement” you believe the US should show in the the Middle East:

Some advocates of minimizing America's role in the region might argue that America doesn't have a dog in the race in tumultuous places like Syria or Egypt. Moreover, they can claim that any visible military presence – or any clear support for any specific players – in one of the countries currently in turmoil could have the exact opposite effect from what America strives for. Actively showing support for undemocratic monarchs or dictators, for instance, could end up helping those who oppose these leaders, giving extremists a 'co-conspirator' to blame and adding fire to the anti-America sentiments which are already omnipresent in the region. 

What type of active American engagement do you think we should be seeing at the moment? What is the interest behind it, and how can we know America's active measures will not backfire (like they have in the past)?




Dear Shmuel,

The claim that America doesn’t have a national interest in these foreign conflicts is simplistic and provides a rationale for retrenchment and neglect. President Barack Obama, in his extensive Atlantic magazine interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, has observed – as paraphrased by Goldberg – that, “[T]he Middle East is no longer terribly important to America’s interests.” This view is shortsighted and fails to take into account the many ways in which U.S. national interests are deeply affected by events in the region.

Specifically, since at least the end of World War II in 1945, America has had a longstanding series of national interests in the Middle East. Initially these included the supply of oil to itself and to the world economy, the security of allies and other friendly countries, regional stability, and the avoidance of territorial control by hostile powers.  In subsequent decades three more concerns became part of this agenda: prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, counterterrorism, and – often more in rhetoric than in practice – promotion of freedom and human rights. In my book, Retreat and Its Consequences, I examine each of these criteria in greater detail. I conclude that, with the partial exception of oil supplies which have not been seriously affected, each of the other U.S. national interests in the Middle East has been adversely impacted since January 2009 – i.e., the coming to office of the Obama administration.

There is another conceptual flaw in the notion that the Middle East is no longer very important to U.S. national interests. In fact, conflicts in the Middle East are not confined to the states in which they occur. The chaos and wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen has spilled over in ways that affect their neighbors, endangering the stability and security of adjacent countries. The upheavals in Iraq and Syria have allowed ISIS and al-Qaeda to metastasize and spread in various forms to parts of North Africa and the sub-Saharan countries of the Sahel. Nor are the effects confined to those regions alone. The horrific human toll in Syria has left more than half the population as internal or external refugees. More than a million from Syria and migrants or refugees from elsewhere in the region have poured into Germany. This phenomenon and the spillover of refugee pressures into Germany’s European neighbors have fostered an angry radical populism in European politics. This is contributing to a destabilization of the European Union, the creation and advancement of which had been a long time objective of the U.S.

Growing influence by hostile actors in the Middle East also poses a threat to American national interests. Iran has emerged as the dominant power in its region and its leaders remain deeply antagonistic to the United States and to western values. The threat from ISIS and al-Qaeda has increased as fighters with European and even some with American passports return from the Middle East.

Russia too has emerged as a leading external power in the Middle East. The Putin regime also seeks to reassert domination over its neighbors in Eastern Europe, not only in Ukraine, and in ways that challenge both the United States, but the entire post-World War II order in Europe.

Engagement by the United States, well short of full scale war, could have included a range of very feasible measures.  In Iraq, this would have meant not pursuing a hasty and complete withdrawal in December 2011. This left the Maliki regime unrestrained in its antagonism of the Sunnis and corruption of the Iraqi army.  These measures drove the Sunnis back into insurgency and collaboration with the ISIS forces which had expanded in the worsening Syria conflict.  In Syria, support for moderate rebels early in their uprising against Assad might have caused his defeat.  In addition, collaboration with the Turks in no fly zones and creating of safe zones for refugees within Syria and adjacent to the Turkish border could have alleviated some of the worst suffering.  More egregiously, Obama’s abandoning of his “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons badly damaged his and America’s credibility with adversaries and weakened US deterrence and reassurance of allies.

The choices America faces, as in your question above, often involve false dichotomies in which the alternative to inaction or retrenchment is posed as major war on the scale of Iraq in 2003. This is a false choice and it obscures the reality that there is a very extensive range of policy responses available to the United States.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Print Issue: Breaking Barriers | May 17, 2024

In their new book, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew,” Emmanuel Acho and Noa Tishby bring their vastly different perspectives to examine the complex subject of antisemitism in America today.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.