America may still want peace in the Middle East, but it no longer needs it.
Since the 1970s the Middle East has been the linchpin of US foreign policy. The region was an essential source of oil and increasingly represented the primary source of international terrorism and conflict. In combination with the promotion of democracy, WMD disarmament, and the need to protect Israel as its most important ally in the region, the US search for peace in the Middle East was a cornerstone of US foreign policy for five decades. The most specific and high-profile component of the US promotion of peace has been its attempts to broker a lasting agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Broader approaches to creating peace and stability have included development assistance, nation-building efforts, and ultimately the First and Second Gulf Wars. All of this was done because Middle East Peace was essential to first containing the Soviets and then preserving a hard won US global hegemony.
Much has changed in the last 50 years however and it is time to recognize a simple truth: The United States will always want to see peace in the Middle East, but we no longer need it. America will continue to espouse the rhetoric of peace in the region through the promotion of democracy, protecting free trade, and sensitivity to human rights. But over the last ten years the United States has shifted its involvement in the region from directly attempting to create peace to indirectly managing conflict. The United States has officially rejected the role of ‘global policeman’ and is no longer willing to accept responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or Middle East peace and stability in general. The reason for this is a fundamental change in geopolitics and US national interests, as well as an entrenched cynicism regarding the potential of peace in the region ever being realized.
Initially 9/11 seemed to be a reinvigoration of America’s commitment to peace and stability in the Middle East region. The United States used traditional policies and methods like intervention and nation-building to combat the new threat of international terrorism posed by Al Qaeda. The country justified these policies with long-standing rationale based upon national interests that had been developed during the Cold War, solidified by our victory against the Soviets, and expanded upon during the post-Cold War glow of the 1990's.
Geopolitically however things were changing dramatically and would lead to a new framework of US foreign policy that is virtually unrecognizable when compared to Cold War traditions. Rather than dealing with conventional and nuclear threats within a traditional state versus state framework, the United States was now confronted by Al Qaeda and its use of terrorism as the primary threat to national security. Within the Middle East itself Israel had clearly “come of age” and was no longer in need of expansive US policies and actions to protect it. Further, the rapid strengthening of the US-Saudi relationship following the 1991 Gulf War gave America two strong allies in the region, both of which were ideologically committed to balancing against Iran.
Just like the geopolitical landscape, US national interests had also evolved dramatically during the decade following 9/11. The most important lesson of America’s attempts to engage Middle Eastern politics during the Cold War was that we needed to eliminate our reliance on oil imports from the region at all costs. One of the more overlooked aspects of the continued development of American global power is its incredible success in this regard, recently shifting from a net importer of oil and petroleum goods to a net exporter. America’s realization of energy independence over the last two decades has quietly transformed how the country calculates the value of Middle Eastern politics, and the Peace Process in particular, relative to US national interests.
The result has been a clear recognition that conflict in the Middle East no longer represents a direct threat to US energy stability, and thus no longer requires immediate and direct intervention to protect vital interests. Further, by being allied with the two strongest states in the region America has significantly increased its ability to act through proxies in key Middle Eastern situations such as Syria and Yemen. In the end, the elimination of “access to Middle Eastern oil” as a vital US interest has allowed America to be much more selective in its promotion of Mideast policy. And recent choices such as relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of Israeli ownership of the Golan Heights suggest America no longer considers Israeli-Palestinian peace to be the foundation of that policy.
The final nail in the coffin for the US promotion of peace in the Middle East was the failure of the Arab Spring in 2010. For a moment it seemed that America’s long-standing commitment to the promotion of democracy as a source of peace and stability in the region was finally going to pay off. Within a year however it had become clear that the populist uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East were in no case going to produce a democracy as America had hoped. Much more concerning was the reality that many of the movements had evolved into or been co-opted by insurgent and extremist groups to the point that things looked much worse for Middle East peace in 2012 than they had just two years earlier.
For US foreign policy it led to the realization that the liberal foundations of the promotion of peace in the region would never take root and grow in the way America hoped they would. Rightly or otherwise, an increasing number of Americans concluded that Middle Eastern states were either unwilling or unable to adopt American-style democracy. And when combined with the decline of oil as the chain keeping America tied to politics in the region America began to realize that it no longer needed to expend significant resources to promote peace. The result has been a move away from Afghanistan and Iraq style interventions to an ‘engagement from distance’ approach in the region which relies heavily on intelligence gathering and drone strikes.
More dramatically, the reduced role of Mideast peace in American foreign policy has led to a more overt and aggressive support of Israel in its conflict with Palestine. Where previous administrations saw a value in at least the appearance of a balanced approach to the Peace Process, the current administration has clearly sided with Israel setting the peace process back by decades, and potentially endangering it all together. In relation to the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen America has greatly increased its reliance on allies and proxies to promote and protect US interests in the region. This is partly due to the increased cost efficiency and decreased national responsibility America enjoys as part of the strategy. But it is also recognition of the relative unimportance of Syria, Yemen, and even Gaza in America’s foreign policy calculations. It is the realization of a truth that has been slowly dawning on the United States for the last 20 years: the Middle East is no longer the most important region of the world for American foreign policy.