Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

A Survey of AEI's Work on the Middle East

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

A Survey of AEI's Work on the Middle East

Article excerpt

June 2018

In 1999, anti-Americanism in Arab politics seemed at the forefront of US challenges in the Middle East. After all, even in Egypt and Jordan (major beneficiaries of US assistance), a palpable anti-American bias was evident in government, the press, and the public. That anti-Americanism was wrapped up in the never-ending "ism" romance of the Middle East: fascism, socialism, modernism, authoritarianism, militarism, and, yes, Islamism. But as they did with so much else, the events of 9/11 upended our calculus about the region, and they upended how the US government, policymakers, and thought leaders looked at the Arab world. Suddenly, Arab anti-Americanism was neither the prime narrative nor the best tool for understanding the threats emanating from the region; at best, it was a symptom of the larger problem. Indeed, there is a narrative arc from AEI's interest in the question of anti-Americanism in 1999 to the current focus on issues relating to drivers of conflict and social unrest in the Middle East, on Shi'ite and Sunni sources of extremism, on the nature of Salafi-jihadi extremism, and on the mechanics of winning in places like Iraq and Syria.

A Question of Principles

After 9/11, much of Middle East scholarship focused on understanding the why and the who behind the terrorist attacks. Then-AEI Research Fellow David Wurmser explained in October 2001 that "at its core, al Qaeda is a product of Saudi dynastic politics" and that bin Laden emerged from a dangerous strategic shift underway since 1995. (1) But understanding the facts of the attacks did little to advance a set of policies that could obviate future attacks. In 2002, I testified before the House Armed Services Committee:

The clash of ideology is key. Up until now, we have focused on narrow
questions: Have you frozen bank accounts? (A few.) Have you arrested
people and provided intelligence? (A bit.) Are you assisting us with
our military requirements? (Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar are, Saudi Arabia
is a bit, others aren't much.) But too much of this assistance is
temporary, based on the aftermath of September 11 and eked out by
insistent US diplomacy.
These are only battles in a larger war, and when it comes to many of
our Arab partners, we're never certain they're going to be with us when
the time comes to fight the next battle. They are not allies in the war
on terrorism because they will never embrace the principles that
winning the war requires. (2)

This question of principles quickly became the heart of AEP's work on the Arab world and indeed on the broader Muslim world on questions relating to terrorism. After the US invasion of Iraq and contrary to popular tropes about that conflict, AEI scholars led with a new and important set of arguments: War was not enough. Ousting dictators would never ensure security for the United States or its allies. Rather, it was what was built after those wars that would ultimately matter. This is the central concept in the counterinsurgency arguments that our scholars made in 2003 and onward. As Thomas Donnelly and then-AEI Research Assistant Vance Serchuk explained in their December 2003 piece, "Fighting a Global Counterinsurgency":

Too much of the Pentagon's interpretation of transformation remains
fixated on winning decisive battles rather than fighting small wars. As
a consequence, the military has failed to devote sufficient resources
to thinking about protracted, low-level insurgencies, much less develop
a robust capability--in the form of doctrine, training, and
equipment--to combat them effectively....
In keeping with classic counterinsurgency theory, progress in these
conflicts is predicated not simply on lobbing precision-guided
munitions at terrorists or overthrowing rogue regimes; rather, the
defense of the liberal international order ultimately requires that the
United States aggressively expand its security perimeter into these
terrorist redoubts, providing a measure of safety for the local
populations and cementing their support. … 
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