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Seeking Stability at Sustainable Cost: Principles for a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East

Polls suggest that two instincts about the Middle East have come to dominate American public opinion: The region is the gravest threat to U.S. national security, and the United States should avoid greater involvement there. The implicit tension between these views reveals an uncertainty about how, why, and even whether the United States should be involved in the Middle East going forward. And that uncertainty, yet again ignited by the Assad regime’s April 4, 2017 use of chemical weapons and the subsequent retaliatory U.S. missile strike, has provoked a vigorous debate about U.S. interests in the region and the costs and benefits of engagement there.

This debate is necessary. Pointing to historical patterns of U.S. foreign policy is insufficient to guide future strategy or to justify new expenditures of blood and treasure. A realistic reassessment of what core national interests, if any, the United States still has in the Middle East, and whether those interests can be reasonably secured, is critical for policymakers charged with matching means with strategic ends, and for the American public, who is asked to support and pay for those policies. The Bipartisan Policy Center convened this task force precisely to reevaluate U.S. interests, objectives, and strategy in the face of intensifying instability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq. We have come to conclude that while the United States has enduring and largely unchanged vital national interests in the region, the strategy for protecting those interests must be updated in light of the complex and pernicious threats emanating from the region and a pragmatic assessment of how they can be mitigated.

Pointing to historical patterns of U.S. foreign policy is insufficient to guide future strategy or to justify new expenditures of blood and treasure.

The United States has a profound and continued interest in ensuring a reliable supply of oil from the Middle East to global markets, in countering terrorism, in opposing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and in supporting the security and prosperity of its allies. The Iranian government and radical Sunni terrorist groups represent the two principal threats to these interests, due to their attempts to destabilize and ultimately revise the regional order. While these two forces are independent actors, they are also inextricably interrelated: Iranian expansionism fuels Sunni extremism, and Sunni extremism facilitates Iranian expansionism.

A reassessment of core national interests the United States still has in the Middle East is critical for policymakers.

These two threats can neither be ignored nor resolved rapidly, no matter how forcefully they are targeted. In the aftermath of the strike against a Syrian airbase, it remains the case that success in the Middle East can only come through long-term U.S. engagement that seeks to establish a sustainable order capable of resisting key threats at a sustainable political, military, and financial cost. The stronger the regional order, the less likely and less costly future U.S. interventions will be. In pursuit of a sustainable regional order at sustainable cost, the task force proposes the following strategic principles for American policymakers deciding how to address the Middle East’s challenges. In subsequent studies, the task force will propose specific policies that conform with these guidelines.

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