Studying the Middle East During a Middle East Crisis
July 20, 2014
By Justin Taleisnik, SAS’16
NGOs estimate that Syrian leader Bashar al Assad has now killed over 170,000 of his own people. The Taliban have made a modest resurgence in Afghanistan. Iran’s nuclear weapons program hangs in the balance pending negotiations. Human rights abuses and popular uprisings are commonplace. And this list hardly scratches the surface of the intricate issues afflicting the region.
Given this grim outlook of the Middle East, it is easy for Americans to be pessimistic and to simply look the other way. President Obama, top foreign policy experts, and a large segment of the American population have made clear their intention to pivot toward Asia, focus more intensely on domestic issues, and drawdown our involvement in Middle East more generally, reallocating resources in some new arrangement. In fact, a recent Pew study found that the majority of Americans seeks to be less involved—in varying degrees by issue—in most issues in the Middle East. Put simply, enthusiasm for dealing with this vital region has waned, due to factors such as fatigue from war and the perception of more pressing domestic issues.
Despite attempts to avoid the Middle East, recent events seem to indicate that the United States is inextricably bound to the region and its future after all. President Obama has deployed limited forces back to Iraq to serve in advisory and security roles to the Iraqi Security Forces as they attempt to beat back ISIS (or whatever they’re calling themselves now). Secretary of State Kerry has offered to help mediate a ceasefire between the Israelis and Palestinians. Foreign aid and military assistance to allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt continue to be indispensable to the long-term stability of the region. American involvement in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran reviewing its nuclear program is vital to American national security interests. Indeed, the US will not extricate itself from the Middle East anytime soon.
And while each crisis is different and presents new challenges, one fundamental question reappears in each case, irrespective of the details of the issue. On a basic level, the United States must ask itself: do we want to continue to play an active role in sculpting the outcome of these events, or accept that these events are largely outside of our sphere of control? Put more bluntly, do we seek to engage or disengage diplomatically and militarily in this complicated region?
At the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank formed to “promote pluralism, defend democratic values and fight the ideologies that drive terrorism,” we are faced with providing insight on this complex question. Every day, we seek to provide American leaders with information that can guide their views and decisions about America’s role in the Middle East. Members of the press, political leaders, government agencies, and other interested parties seek the counsel of our experts as these crises develop on a daily basis. During my time at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), I have helped respond to two Middle East crises in Iraq and Israel respectively. Unlike most issue areas, work in this field comes in waves, peaking suddenly, aggressively, and without notice. When a conflict breaks out, our organization produces “rapid-response research,” information intended to be factually accurate, pragmatically helpful, and extraordinarily fast. On the first day of both the Iraq crisis and Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the majority of the staff could still be found at the office late into the night producing relevant research to help people understand the complicated issues at hand. Working at this organization has provided me rare insight into the very complex foreign policy issues vexing policymakers in the US.
With the development of each of these crises and issues, I wonder: what should US policy be on this issue? Should we become more involved, or understand that the Middle East is a complex region where solutions cannot be imposed by outside parties? After six weeks at FDD, and multiple summers prior at Middle East foreign policy organizations, I can say that I don’t have the perfect answer to this question. US national interests—such as energy needs, ally protection, regional stability, etc.—are too heavily enmeshed in the region to disengage altogether. At the same time, the declining security of Iraq after eight years of US military operations and the abrupt violence erupting after months of U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians as two examples raise important questions about the effectiveness of an active U.S. policy in the region.
What I can say with certainty is that the only way to reach correct conclusions about the proper extent of US involvement in the region is by continuing to study it. As the Middle East continues to become more complex with each passing day, the work of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and other organizations studying these issues becomes ever more vital. The US is simply unable to disengage from the Middle East anytime soon, so our only option is to continue to work toward producing the best policies. No political flavor of the week should replace our focus on this region—the consequences are simply too grave to ignore.
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