To Improve Its Middle East Policy, the U.S. Must Look Beyond States

April 2, 2019 | Samuel Tadros
About the author: Samuel Tadros is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a distinguished visiting fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Hoover Institution.

While the Middle East remains as messy as ever, writes Samuel Tadros, Washington cannot afford to ignore its problems even though it cannot solve them. It can, however, improve its approach to the region:

It is natural to see states as the building blocks of the [Middle East] and, indeed, of the international system. But that assumption puts the U.S. in a weakened strategic position as it approaches the region. While the United States looks at the map and sees states and borders, both the peoples of the region and U.S. adversaries see a map composed of overlapping communities with national aspirations or attempts at survival.

This is hardly new. The reality is that the state system in the region has always been weak and has nearly collapsed in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The inherent weakness of the Middle Eastern state is the result of its failure to find an answer to the [challenges] of modernity and offer sustainable governance to its people. This internal collapse has in turn led to the breakdown of the regional order, an order the United States has long sought to maintain. . . .

In lieu of a grand strategy, more modest goals are appropriate: short-term steps to protect U.S. interests and counter adversaries; a limited goal of protecting order where it exists and where a local buy-in is present; and circumscribed efforts of partnership with local actors in areas where order has collapsed that have a chance of producing results.

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