Magazine article Newsweek

Middle East: Know the Limits of U.S. Power

Magazine article Newsweek

Middle East: Know the Limits of U.S. Power

Article excerpt

The United States is in deep trouble in the Middle East. Despite Barack Obama's promises to withdraw from Iraq, the debacle there shows no sign of ending soon. Hamas rules in Gaza; Iran is quickly moving to acquire a nuclear deterrent. We need a radically different strategy for the region.

Fortunately, there is a strategy that has proved effective in the past and could serve again today: "offshore balancing." It's less ambitious than President Bush's grand plan to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, but it would be much better at protecting actual U.S. interests. The United States would station its military forces outside the region. And "balancing" would mean we'd rely on regional powers like Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to check each other. Washington would remain diplomatically engaged, and when necessary would assist the weaker side in a conflict. It would also use its air and naval power to respond quickly to unexpected threats. But--and this is the key point--America would put boots on the ground only if the local balance of power seriously broke down and one country threatened to dominate the others.

This approach might strike some as cynical. It would do little to foster democracy or promote human rights. But Bush couldn't deliver on those promises anyway, and it is ultimately up to individual countries to determine their own political systems. It is hardly cynical to base U.S. strategy on a realistic appraisal of American interests and a clear-eyed sense of what U.S. power can and cannot accomplish.

Offshore balancing is nothing new: the United States pursued such a strategy in the Middle East quite successfully during much of the Cold War. America helped Iraq contain revolutionary Iran in the 1980s. Then, when Iraq's conquest of Kuwait in 1990 threatened to tilt things in Baghdad's favor, the United States assembled a multinational coalition to smash Saddam Hussein's military machine. …

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