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The Road to Smart Power in the Middle East


Published September 30, 2021

Despite public reluctance, the United States must remain engaged in the Middle East. Chinese expansion, Russian intrusion, and Iranian proxy wars threaten the region with imminent disaster. By taking steps to push back against these forces, the United States can promote the freedom of the people in the Middle East as well as American national interests.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do China, Russia, and Iran threaten the freedom of people in the Middle East?
  2. What are some challenges to US involvement in the Middle East?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Promoting Human Rights Abroad, Defending Them at Home,” by Russell Berman via The Caravan. Available here.
  • Read “The Mideast, with No Illusions,” by Russell Berman via the Hoover Digest. Available here.
  • Read “The Iranian Nuclear Deal Needs to Be Fixed and Rewritten, Not Just Revived,” by Russell Berman via The Hill. Available here.
View Transcript

While twenty years of ongoing conflict may have exhausted public interest and political will to engage in the greater Middle East, it doesn’t change the fact that abandoning the region to Chinese, Russian, and Iranian designs would be a disaster for the people living there.


Like it or not, the United States must remain engaged in the Middle East. We have entered a new era of great power competition with China, while Russia continues to try to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West. And Iran seeks hegemonic control of the region.


If China and Russia succeed in reducing and eliminating American influence in the Middle East, they will be encouraged to act elsewhere. China will be encouraged to force us out of East Asia. Russia will proceed with its campaign to subvert NATO and drive us out of Europe. Both actions would have serious consequences not only for the freedom of people in those regions but also for American national interest.


One reason we lack a stable foreign policy consensus is because the political class has failed to make a consistent and compelling case for why we should be engaged in the Middle East. The public is therefore understandably reluctant to shoulder additional cost.


Without strong public support, the scope of any future US engagement in the region will necessarily be limited. Budget constraints following Covid-19 spending also mean we will not have the resources to pursue grand strategies.


What America does in the future will have to be more modest and require less spending.


Despite these constraints, there are steps we can take to push back against Chinese expansion, Russian intrusion, and Iranian proxy wars.


First, while the United States can provide leadership, success in the region requires regional partners to take on more responsibility. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and potentially Iraq all need to step up and show greater leadership.


This is easier said than done, and comes with a host of challenges. But as the Abraham Accords demonstrate, traditional fault lines are changing, partially in response to Iranian aggression.


Second, the future role of the United States in the region should assume a minimal presence of US forces. Americans are quite skilled at providing training and intelligence, but the real fighting should be undertaken by our regional allies. The point is to find a way to remain engaged in the region, while relying on local actors to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden.


Third, we need an active information-campaign strategy, not only in traditional media but online as well.


The population of the Middle East is young – much younger than in Western countries. Soft power efforts – that is, shaping how a country views us using diplomacy and culture rather than coercive force – are much less costly than conventional military approaches to security.


And we must be active to counter Russia, which is engaged in ambitious disinformation campaigns against the United States. We did this very successfully in the Cold War, and we can do so again.


Finally, the United States should be in the forefront of human rights promotion in the Middle East. The US stands for free speech, women’s rights, the ability to elect leaders, and to challenge abuses by the government. While leaders of autocratic countries oppose those ideals, their people do not.


We can be confident that neither China nor Russia will take up the banner of human rights. Partnering with our regional allies and limiting direct military involvement will go a long way toward promoting freedom in the Middle East and to defending American national interests there.