Remarks at a symposium, “After Bush: America’s Agenda in the Middle East,” at Harvard University on September 23, 2008.
One may say that American interests in the Middle East remain the same, only more so. For some time we have had a primary interest—and primary responsibility—for the security and stability of the region of the Persian Gulf. A more recent primary interest is protecting ourselves from terrorism rooted in this region. We have other interests as well, such as preventing the region from going nuclear. But this is subordinate to and derivative from these two primary concerns. (A third interest is more general and does not apply exclusively to the Greater Middle East: the maintenance of our credibility.)
The most important reason for our interest in Gulf security and stability is well-known: the reserves of oil and natural gas to be found there. But this is often discussed in a narrow, polemical, and even totally irresponsible fashion—through slogans like “No blood for oil.” Yes, we want to protect our access to the fuels which run our economy. But the same resources fuel everyone’s economy. This is why I refer to it not only as an interest but as a responsibility. As matters stand now, our efforts in the region amount to a responsibility for the whole world. There is no one else to perform this function, as everyone would quickly find out were we to abandon it. And our tasks are not limited to safeguarding these resources in the ground, but also as they move around the world. Here too there is no one else prepared to do the job—one performed by the U.S. Navy—not only in the seas around the Gulf but further afield, for example in the Strait of Molucca.
As for terrorism, our most recent experience of its threat to us is rooted geopolitically in the dysfunction of the Middle East region, its apparent incapacity to deal with its own problems and thus its inclination to export those problems. Such was the character of the events of 9/11. According to bin Laden and others, they attacked the “far enemy,” us, as a way to get at the “near enemy,” their presumed adversaries in their own region. The circumstances to which they appealed, and the dysfunction they represented, went back many years, including the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war. Our interest in protecting ourselves from terrorism thus amounts to an interest in the management, if not the resolution, of the dysfunction of the region.
Our pursuit of these interests is defined concretely in terms of the challenges we face. One somewhat general challenge is the expansion of the region of concern and the drift of its center of gravity eastward to embrace Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are now obliged to look at our tasks in terms of a larger interconnected whole and from a different center of focus. The main factor which continues to draw our attention to the western part of the region—Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria—derives less from its intrinsic threats to our security than from the Gulf itself, and the effort of Iran to make that area a zone of conflict.
Our immediate concrete challenges are two: to bring our current engagement in Iraq to a reasonably successful conclusion, and to do the same in Afghanistan. But overarching these objectives are the challenges of Pakistan and Iran. The problem with regard to Pakistan is clear: it will be difficult if not impossible to secure Afghanistan and defeat Al Qaeda without dealing with the latter’s base in Pakistan. At the same time there is a related risk of a breakdown of order in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country.
Serious as this is, the most serious challenge we face is Iran. For unlike the case of Pakistan, where the problems are partially if not exclusively those of omission, the problem of Iran is one of commission. With the exception of radical Sunni Islam, we have no more emphatically hostile enemy than Iran and its allies and proxies (for example, Syria and Hezbollah); we have no foe more ambitious and aggressive and determined to do us ill; and we have none which, through its pursuit of nuclear weapons, has the near-term capacity to change the entire structure of the Middle East region and our assumptions regarding its security. We have none which conceives of its ambitions in revolutionary terms and is as determined to expand its influence and power in the region—and for that matter the Muslim world. We have none that has as many instruments at its disposal to pursue those ends.
To add to our difficulties, we have already tried several different approaches to contain this problem: negotiations since the summer of 2003 and action at the United Nations. To this one may add our unilateral actions in the international financial and commercial sphere. None of these measures has been particularly successful, and at this point none is likely to succeed. Iran has continued its pursuit of nuclear weaponry and has made considerable progress over the past five years.
We have complicated our own efforts by succumbing—perhaps only briefly—to a false sense of security. By this I mean the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of November 2007, whose opening sentences declared that Iran had ceased work on weaponization in 2003. This was highly misleading even in terms of the contents of the NIE. Since then we have had several reports from the IAEA which contradict it, by documenting the accelerating work on uranium enrichment, and by suggesting the likelihood that Iran is in possession of the advanced technical knowledge necessary for manufacturing a nuclear weapon.
There are at least two other factors which now complicate our efforts to address the challenge of Iran. The first is the likelihood that Russia will actively obstruct our efforts. The second is the growing uncertainty in the Gulf itself about the relative balance of forces and American capacity and resolve. By this I mean the growing inclination of certain countries—most notably Saudi Arabia—to seek accommodation with Iran. The most dramatic expression of this was the Mecca conference. Apart from the specific national interests this involved, it confirmed the regional preoccupation with establishing Islamic legitimacy.
By emphasizing the challenge of Iran and the complications it entails, I do not want to suggest that we are helpless. We remain a very powerful country with many assets in the region. These include the desire of many parties that we remain engaged and forceful. But they are now in the business of hedging their bets.
One thing which has changed the betting line a bit over the past few months has been Iraq—our willingness to stick with it and the success which has resulted from that decision. And that has also presented a problem and even setback—however temporary—for Iran. Contrary to a great deal of talk, Iran cannot welcome another majority Shiite country on its borders over which it does not have control; the extent of its influence has diminished somewhat in the last year. In addition, it has other liabilities, both economic and social, as well as the discontent of its public.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a nuclear Iran is the primary concern. This will present us in the relatively near term with important questions: Is there some means by which we can prevent this? If not, and we are obliged to accept its eventuality, what will we have to do to restructure our approach to the region?