Stuck in the Middle Eastern Sand: The United States, Asia, and Post-Cold War Threat Inflation

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James A. Russell

Associate Professor, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School

In late 2011, the Obama administration with great fanfare announced its intention to “pivot” (subsequently characterized as a “rebalance”) to Asia as a foreign-policy and national-security priority. Citing the rising economic, political and military power of China, the administration sensibly sought to refocus America’s strategic priorities to reflect the growing importance of Asia in global affairs. As noted by the National Intelligence Council in various reports, the transfer of wealth from West to East on an unprecedented scale suggests a fundamental change in the global strategic environment that should be met by a corresponding shift in America’s strategy and policy.1 While the United States has long been involved in Asia’s political and military affairs, the pivot metaphor served to enable a reinvigoration of existing alliances and the establishment of a more robust political and military framework to serve, protect and further American interests in Asia.2

Context is everything in strategy and global politics, and a number of important assumptions support the intention to pivot to Asia. First, the growth of China’s economic, political and military power constitutes the most significant change in the global strategic environment since the end of the Cold War. With the rise of Chinese power has come, on the one hand, an all-encompassing economic partnership between China and the United States that has made the two states mutually dependent. China depends on access to the U.S. market for its manufactured goods and the United States is equally dependent on free and unfettered access to these goods while simultaneously investing in the Chinese economy. The rise of Chinese power, on the other hand, comes in a geopolitical context that has provoked jitters throughout Asia. Countries like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and other states have consciously reached out to Washington for reassurance and commitment to their defense. Accompanying the policy are plans to station more Navy ships, Army and Marine Corps units, and Air Force planes to locations in the Pacific. The rebalance represents a logical response to the evolving market for security and stability in Asia that demands America’s attention.3

Global politics, however, is in some respects a zero-sum game. Implicit in the idea of the pivot is that the enhanced focus on Asia will inevitably mean less effort in another area. Even the world’s lone superpower does not have limitless resources. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has found itself increasingly focused on the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. A plethora of foreign-policy priorities has conspired to keep the United States mired in the Middle East: the long-festering Arab-Israeli dispute, the Iranian nuclear program, the decade-plus war in Iraq and its aftermath, and the latest crisis du jour with the rise of the Islamic state in what used to be Iraq and Syria. Some critics suggest that the United States must “fix” the Middle East before it can turn its attentions to Asia.4 The rebalancing has been greatly restricted by the layers of Middle Eastern mud and Persian Gulf quicksand that have kept the United States bogged down as Asia’s political, military and economic rise gathers momentum.

This article argues that the U.S. posture can be explained by several interrelated and interdependent factors: Cold War history, the region’s persistent and ongoing wars, and a rudderless strategy that is part of a broader intellectual breakdown. As previously noted, the Obama administration’s desire to pivot makes sense as a measured response to fundamental changes in the international system. An important shaping factor surrounding the pivot is the widespread perception of a general decline of American power around the world.5 The United States is seen as entering a period of global retrenchment after 14 years (and counting) of unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with empty coffers at home, broken alliances abroad, and a dysfunctional domestic political environment that has sapped the country’s will and energy. America’s battlefield failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and its inability to extricate itself from the Middle East’s myriad problems certainly reinforce the perception of declining power.

An irony is that, by many measures, the United States remains in an ascendant global economic, political and military position and arguably faces no near-term direct threats to its primacy. According to the World Bank’s 2013 figures, the U.S. GDP of $16.8 trillion made America the largest economy in the world by far, accounting for 22 percent of the world’s economic output of $78.8 trillion.6 It maintains one of the world’s largest and most capable armed forces, over 2.3 million personnel (active duty and reserves): most importantly, it can move that military thousands of miles from its shores and keep it in the field. Last, but not least, the dollar remains the currency of choice in the international system, reflecting the overall confidence of global markets (and states) in the unrivaled strength and stability of America’s political and economic system. The United States faces no direct military threats on its borders and no peer competitor to challenge its global preponderance over the next decade. Many of these realities seem lost, however, in the debate over America’s supposed decline.


America’s regional posture in the Middle East and Persian Gulf remains firmly rooted in the legacy of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, when the region was carved up into defacto spheres of influence .. While the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, symbolizing America’s hard-won Cold War victory, the politics of the Middle East remained largely unchanged. The region’s bitter and long-running interstate conflicts continued, ranging from the Arab-Israeli dispute, the Sunni-state rivalry with Iran, and the undeclared wars with both Iraq and Iran during the 1990s.7 The brutal and inconclusive 8-year Iran-Iraq War served as an exclamation point to the region’s chronic troubles as states around the world rejoiced at the end of the superpower rivalry. Desperate for cash, Saddam Hussein sent his armies south into Kuwait in August of 1990, starting yet another war that continued in fits and starts until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 after a decade of costly and inconclusive military forays into southern Lebanon. Six years later, Israel once more invaded southern Lebanon for a 30-day engagement with Hizbollah that once more ended in a draw.

The Cold War era featured another important aspect of American foreign policy that indelibly marked its regional relations: bilateral political liaisons built primarily through security-sector interactions and institutions. As part of a global strategy to contain the spread of communism, the United States built collective defense mechanisms through bilateral and multilateral treaties, forward deployed military forces around the world, and mounted extensive arm-train-and-equip programs with allies and coalition partners. The Middle East certainly featured in this general approach, though it lacked a critical element that was present in other parts of the world: a collective-defense organization. American political leaders quickly realized as they constructed their global defense system after World War II that the Middle East’s complicated interstate politics meant that a system of collective defense was neither feasible nor desirable.8

Instead, the United States based its regional approach on bilateral relationships with selected states, many of whom were regional rivals (as in the case of the Arab states) or on opposing sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute. That approach was initially enunciated as the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957 and subsequently endorsed by various succeeding presidents. Under the Eisenhower Doctrine, the United States sought to build local security-sector institutions through arms sales, training, military exercises so as to minimize the need for the presence of large numbers of American military personnel to protect and further American interests.9 Twelve years later, in 1969, the Nixon Administration repackaged the Eisenhower Doctrine as part of a post-Vietnam approach to global security that reemphasized the importance of building host-nation military capabilities. Under the auspices of the Nixon Doctrine, America’s arm, train and equip programs went into overdrive with its favored regional allies Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran.10 The latest iteration of these doctrines is the Obama administration’s focus on building up host-nation counterterrorism capabilities around the world, which will find particularly fertile ground in the Middle East and provide yet another avenue of security-sector cooperation with regimes intent on coercing and quashing their internal opponents.11

In the early 1970s, as the arm-train-and-equip programs gathered momentum, the United States gradually realized it would need to assume broader geostrategic responsibility for the region. Events forced America’s hand. The British withdrawal east of Suez in 1971 — preceded by Britain’s Vietnam-like rush for the ships in Aden harbor in November 1967 — the Arab oil embargo in the aftermath of the 1973 War, the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan combined to create different regional strategic circumstances. The United States responded by taking on the role of guarantor of regional security as enunciated in the Carter Doctrine in January 1980. This doctrine formally committed the United States to defend the region from external aggression while simultaneously preserving the momentum of bilateral security-sector relations built up over the preceding 20 years. Just as significant, Carter set in motion the bureaucratic and institutional processes to create the Central Command (in Tampa, Florida) to address and coordinate America’s regional security strategy and corresponding military buildup.

While the Carter Doctrine focused on defending the region from external aggression, the United States slowly but surely got drawn into acting as referee to the virulent inter-state disputes that characterized regional politics.12 The United States backed the Sunni states that financed Iraq’s war against Iran in the 1980s, while simultaneously embarking on sustained and unsuccessful efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute. The twin pillars in Saudi Arabia and Iran that had been the basis of American strategy in the 1970s gradually gave way to the tri-pillars in which Tel Aviv, Cairo and Riyadh faced off against the new Islamic Republic of Iran.

In the 1990s, following the ejection of Saddam Hussein’s armies from Kuwait, the United States and its new Gulf allies jointly built a physical infrastructure to accommodate America’s forward-deployed military forces. By the end of the decade, the United States had prepositioned enough heavy military hardware to equip an armored ground division to defend the Arabian Peninsula. Prespositioning sites in Qatar and Kuwait were combined with Maritime Prepositioning Ships to give the United States the ability to quickly assemble a formidable ground force to deal with an invasion until more help arrived. The U.S. Air Force quickly developed the base at Al Udeid in Qatar, and in the mid-1990s, relocated the Combined Air Operations Center from Prince Sultan Air Base to the new one. Over the next decade, the UAE also hosted an Air Force base at Al Dhafra for Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance operations. The U.S. Navy also put down roots with its Fifth Fleet Headquarters at Manama to coordinate maritime security and strike operations off continuously deployed aircraft carriers. During the period, American ships routinely docked at the piers of Jebel Ali in the UAE, providing yet more visible evidence of the American commitment to regional security and stability. The military infrastructure proved instrumental to U.S. operations aimed at containing Iraq during the 1990s through enforcement of the UN-mandated trade embargo, the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq, and the periodic bombardment of Saddam’s suspected WMD sites.13

These Cold War-era tentacles attaching the United States to its key regional allies developed over decades, dating back to decisions taken in the 1950s that sought to build security partnerships with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Tens of billions of dollars in American defense equipment was sold or given to these states via the security-assistance and foreign-military-sales-programs. The results of these relationships is today on display throughout the region, with militaries that are overwhelmingly armed, trained and equipped by the United States.

Of particular note, and unlike the Sunni Arab states, Israel was delighted to receive all the most advanced American military equipment it could lay its hands on. It became the region’s principal conventional military power. Unlike the Arab states, however, Israel used this position of unparalleled military strength to its advantage as it set about annexing territories on the West Bank seized in the 1967 War. Enabled by America’s arms, money and virtually limitless political support, Israel had no incentive to reach accommodation with the disenfranchised and divided Palestinians under occupation.

These U.S.-regional security-sector partnerships have developed an institutional momentum that is not easily disrupted or changed in significant ways by elected political leaders. The organizational routines built over decades that feature sales, training, exercises, military education and a host of other activities have developed a logic all their own. Perhaps more important, the participants in these partnerships have seen no reason to alter them. With the exception of Israel, all the regional states happily outsourced their external protection to the United States and developed their own military institutions equipped with American-made arms, while focusing their main effort on stifling and coercing their political opponents at home. These host-nation security-sector institutions became important parts of the political patronage network as a source of jobs, political favors and institutional support for the governments.

The unanticipated result of this Cold-War history was that the United States found itself initially as a perhaps unwitting partner in a Faustian bargain. A series of bilateral partnerships to deny territory to the Soviet Union evolved into a region-wide commitment to guarantee the security of states that did not get along with each other and had no collective defense organization. Following the basic approach outlined in the Eisenhower Doctrine, the United States built security-sector relationships on a bilateral basis throughout the region. Each one developed its own momentum and logic over time, entrenching the United States in the region.


America slowly but surely took on the role of security guarantor and regional referee in the region’s disputes in the second half of the twentieth century. Thus the United States today finds itself deeply committed to a varied list of client states, few of whom share strategic interests and political objectives. The United States remains invested in attempting to referee two of the main interstate ongoing wars: the Arab-Israeli dispute and the Sunni state confrontation with Iran that is playing itself out in the Syrian civil war. It has also become deeply involved in the internal conflicts now raging across the region’s landscape. The 12-year involvement with Iraq that began in 1991 after ejecting Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait finally burst into flames in 2003 with the U.S. invasion, a war that lasted for eight more years. Taken together, these two periods constituted 25 years of nearly continuous American military operations directed at Iraq. In 2014, yet another phase in this 25-year war began when the United States resumed military operations to counter the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Officials are now speaking of another “long war” to defeat ISIL.

After heading the coalition to eject Iraq from Kuwait, the United States assumed principal responsibility for enforcing the ceasefire conditions imposed on Saddam’s regime, embodied in UN Security Council Resolutions 661, 686, 687 and 688. These resolutions called for a trade embargo (661) and demanded, among other things, that Iraq give up all its weapons of mass destruction. The United States periodically attacked Saddam’s purported WMD infrastructure during the 1990s in response to Iraq’s non-cooperation with UN weapons inspectors that sought to verify Iraqi declarations that it had already disarmed. In parallel, the United States patrolled no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq that served both military and humanitarian purposes. Operation Provide Comfort (1991) which subsequently became Operation Northern Watch (1997) saw American and coalition aircraft patrol the skies north of the thirty-sixth parallel to ensure that Saddam Hussein respected the rights of Iraqi citizens in the north. In 1996, the United States formally assumed responsibility for protecting the Kurds across the line of control in northern Iraq. Operation Northern Watch operationalized this commitment. Operation Southern Watch, in which the coalition patrolled Iraqi airspace south of the thirty-fourth parallel (from 1996 onward) was intended primarily to monitor Iraq’s military movements and prevent the buildup of forces on Kuwait’s frontier. In Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, UN weapons inspectors finally departed from Iraq for the last time as the United States mounted a series of strikes to again punish Iraq for non-cooperation with the UN. The attacks followed the formal U.S. adoption of a policy of seeking regime change in Iraq.14

While intended to “solve” America’s Iraq problem, the 2003 ground invasion represented the most costly and debilitating phase of its 25-year war. Instead of a decisive final phase of its confrontation with Saddam Hussein, it turned into a quagmire as body bags and splintered body parts accumulated in places like Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Al Qaim and Mosul – locales most Americans had never heard of. The United States departed with its tail between its legs in 2011, leaving a trail of wreckage behind it: 4,487 American dead and more than 32,000 wounded; anywhere between 120,000 and 150,000 dead Iraqi civilians, and over 1 million mostly Sunni Iraqi refugees who had fled to neighboring states. While the United States initially invaded Iraq to locate Saddam’s hidden WMD, it eventually decided that the purpose of the war was to install democracy. This required not just the refereeing of disputes between regional states but further expanded America’s role to one of refereeing Iraq’s internal politics in the violent contest for power that followed the 2003 invasion.

The United States entered Iraq’s internal political fray as a stranger in a strange land. The landscape of internal war and political contention in Iraq in some respects represented a broader morass into which the United States had unwittingly stumbled.  The Middle East’s wars of national liberation and state formation had never really been settled, despite the end of the Cold War. The United States thus found itself a participant in several overlapping and competing national wars of liberation and state formation, all of which sought a common variable: political power and authority over a geographic area with borders that had been mostly drawn by Western imperial civil servants.

The oldest of these wars is the unfinished war of Israeli independence launched in 1948. Israel’s borders are still in question, due to its ongoing annexation of territory that may one day become part of the state. It seems clear that the annexation fits within the governing Likud party’s vision of “greater Israel,” which includes the Palestinian territories that stretch all the way to the Jordan River. It shares this objective with Hamas — a state that stretches from the river to the sea. Hamas is a classic radical religious nationalist movement that seeks to create its own state and, like Israel, is prepared to use force to achieve its goals. Thrown into this mix is the Palestinian Authority, the group that initially took up arms to achieve Palestinian independence but which as of late has tried in vain to achieve its objectives at the negotiating table. The United States has proven itself unable to referee this war and has pursued counterproductive policies that have virtually eliminated any incentive for the most powerful state in the war (Israel) to seek peaceful accommodation with its adversaries. The endless stream of American money, political support and military equipment has only meant that Israel has had to take no responsibility for its persistent and ongoing violations of international law that are turning the Jewish state into an international pariah.

The other main war for national independence in the Middle East involves the myriad struggles for political authority in Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where (except in Saudi Arabia) the security sector created during colonization seized political power after the external powers departed. Libya is also engaged in a war of state formation that, as in Syria and Iraq, will likely take a number of years. So far, the United States has shown little interest in refereeing it despite heading the international coalition that helped topple Muamar Qadhafi.

Egypt’s internal battles between the security sector and the Islamists, which raged for over 20 years before briefly subsiding in the 1990s, look as if they may start up again, due to irreconcilable goals for the shape and identity of the state. The United States has been a participant in this war since weaning Cairo from the Soviet orbit in the Camp David Accords of 1979 and has become the principal benefactor for Egypt’s ruling security elite. If and when the shooting starts again in Egypt between the regime and the disenfranchised Islamists, the United States will undoubtedly back its clients in the army. For its part, Algeria won its civil war against the Islamists in the 1990s. In Tunisia, there may be a process of peaceful transition away from the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali to some form of representational government that involves all political parties. In Syria, Iraq and Libya, the national wars of liberation and state formation are still underway. ISIL must be seen as an unfortunate but perhaps inevitable consequence of the battle for power in Syria, which has seen the Gulf-state support network funnel arms, people and money into the fight against the Assad regime.

Involvement in the domestic politics of these countries gathered momentum after the 9/11 attacks and the proclamation of the “war on terror” as a strategic priority for the United States. In its global campaign against Islamic extremists around the world, Washington increasingly found itself sucked into the morass of domestic politics of the Arab world, whose governments had been battling Islamic extremists in fits and starts throughout the second half of the 1990s. The United States thus became involved in the internal struggles for political power that burst into sight in the Arab Spring after smoldering for decades under authoritarian and autocratic rule.

America’s regional strategic posture can be tied to the perhaps unintended consequences of its Cold War-era security relationships. Whether the United States realized it or not, its efforts to build security -sector partnerships throughout the Middle East meant that it became involved in their domestic politics. The American approach to fostering these regional elites drew upon the imperial French and British models of control based on the principle of divide and rule. Under this model, the elites were empowered based on sectarian, religious or tribal affiliation by integrating them into the security sectors and public administration. These institutions, in turn, became instruments of the patronage networks established by the elites and powerful tools for the elites to maintain coercive power over their populations.


America’s involvement in regional issues reflected a strategic intellectual fog that gripped the nation’s foreign policy and national-security strategists at the end of the Cold War. One symptom of the malaise was the creation of a series of ideologically and politically driven threats in the form of so-called “rogue” states — Iraq and Iran (plus North Korea) — to justify the need for the huge Cold War-era military and accompanying defense budget. During the 1990s, two of the world’s poorest states, Iraq and North Korea implausibly became identified as the principal threats to the United States. Iran also landed at the top of the list, despite its weak conventional military. If the 1990s saw the fires lit in the intelligence community to produce inflated threats that helped head off a reduction in the military budget at the end of the Cold War, the twenty-first century has seen those fires rage out of control. Threat inflation has now become an accepted industry in the Washington policy community.15 The latest example of this phenomenon is the hysteria surrounding the putative danger posed by an irregular militia in deserts thousands of miles and two continents away from the Western hemisphere.

The legacy of America’s strategic obtuseness can be traced back to the post-World War II era, when the advent of nuclear weapons made the prospect of total war unthinkable. While a rich strategic theoretical literature developed that examined nuclear strategy and deterrence, there was little corresponding attention devoted the problem of fighting limited wars for limited objectives.16 The result was a series of haphazard ad-hoc decisions to fight in places like Korea and Vietnam, in which the objectives of using force became less and less clear to political and military leaders alike. The promulgation of the Weinberger and Powell doctrines in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting that America should only fight wars in which the stakes justified the commitment of overwhelming force, did little to clear the conceptual clutter.

The creation of the volunteer force after Vietnam represented a an attempt to address the problem of fighting limited wars for limited objectives. It sought to divorce the armed services from society, improve its professionalism and performance in the field, and avoid the “stab in the back” to the military when the public soured on these limited wars. But this did not solve the basic strategic conundrum of helping political and military leaders decide when and under what circumstances to fight limited wars.

Then came the 9/11 attacks and the substitution of slogans for sound strategic thinking. Terrorists were quickly substituted for the nuclear-armed red menace and became identified as a central threat to the republic. Strategy was replaced by slogans: “wars of necessity,” “wars of choice,” the “long war,” “coalitions of the willing,” and the “war on terror.” These terms exacerbated the conceptual muddle that already surrounded strategy, and fed the overreaction to the 9/11 attacks and the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The decision to re-engage in Iraq in 2014 with a new bombing mission directed at ISIS is but the latest example of the disintegration of strategic thinking. Military leaders have aided and abetted these ill-informed decisions with bad advice and misplaced confidence in new technologies and clever tactics that sought to apply engineering concepts on the battlefield called “effects based operations.” 17 The United States is now eschewing direct intervention by ground forces in lieu of airstrikes and the insertion of special forces — despite the repeated failure of these instruments throughout the region over the last decade.

The historical and political context of America’s latest bombing campaign in the Middle East contains intertwined strands that stretch back into the twentieth century. These missions recall unsuccessful attempts by Britain and France in the Post-World War I period to control regional politics by bombing restive locals. They, like us, could not or would not commit ground troops as an instrument to maintain order. Britain turned over administration of its domains to the Royal Air Force, which routinely machine-gunned and bombed protesting locals from above throughout the region in the interwar period. In a series of celebrated engagements in the 1920s, the RAF repeatedly drove back Saudi Ikwhan raiders in southern Iraq. France employed similar tactics during its occupation of Syria. U.S. strategy regrettably remains uniformed by these and other historical examples in yet another symptom of intellectual dysfunction.


It is clear that if the United States is to shift its strategic emphasis towards Asia, it will have to confront its Cold War legacy in the Middle East and disengage from the many regional roles it has taken on over the last half century. There are compelling arguments that this disengagement should proceed — the quicker the better. Despite a lack of tangible results, the United States continues to take on responsibility for disputes that are beyond its capabilities. Outsiders cannot solve the most significant of these disputes: the generational fight for political power and authority that is sweeping through the region. The United States runs the risk of placing itself on the wrong side of history by continuing to back the security-sector establishments that it has helped to create in the Arab States. It is time to abdicate as the regional referee and turn responsibility over to the states to resolve their own differences.

Second, the Cold War era has left the United States with some allies of questionable strategic relevance. There is no such thing as “friends forever” in international politics. The underlying Cold War-era calculus that drove these partnerships has changed. The oil fields of the Persian Gulf no longer need defending, as they did in the Cold War; it may be time to abrogate the Carter Doctrine commitments. Gulf-state oil will continue to flow to the markets without a significant American military presence. Moreover, the international community has already established a de facto Gulf maritime police force to ensure the continued flow of these energy supplies through the many combined operations coordinated out of fifth Fleet Headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.

Third, the Cold War-era has left the United States with the three pillars — Egypt, the Gulf States and Israel — all engaging in behaviors that may not serve American interests. The Gulf States continue to directly and indirectly aid Sunni extremist groups that are virulently opposed to the West. While these states deny it, they have provided money, arms, materiel, recruits and religious extremism has to the Syrian civil war.

For its part, Israel, enabled by American money and political support, continues to illegally annex territories in the West Bank and shows no interest in peaceful accommodation with its adversaries. Today, the United States has few genuine strategic interests at stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. While solving the dispute may have been important has a mechanism to keep the Sunni-Israel pillars of American strategy afloat in the Cold War, that rationale has vanished in the twenty-first century. What we are left with is a petty dispute over relatively small pieces of real estate that matter to regional parties but are of little strategic significance to global security and stability. 

Fourth, the intellectual fog gripping American strategy and policy must be pierced if the United States is to build a new approach that will support the necessary pivot to the Far East. Under this fog, the United States has inflated threats beyond all recognition, substituted slogans for strategy, proclaimed the age of the global battlefield, and sent robots to assassinate whoever the intelligence community deems an Islamic terrorist and an enemy of the state. America’s twenty-first century security strategy became unmoored by Osama bin Laden in the 9/11 attacks and the (continuing) overreaction by the United States. The result has been a hysterical and simplistic view of the strategic environment that casts a pall over America’s Cold War-era security-sector partnerships throughout the Middle East.


To successfully execute a pivot to Asia, some semblance of intellectual order must be restored to national strategy in which the nation’s long-term objectives are articulated and then supported with the commitment of resources and appropriate instruments to achieve them. There is little sign that this will happen soon. America’s broken and dysfunctional domestic political system does not lend itself to changes in national security strategy that would allow us to successfully pivot to Asia and reduce commitments in the Middle East. America’s allies in Asia better get used to this outcome and plan for it.


1 See for example Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World (Washington, DC: GPO, 2008) vi.

2 For further background on the origins of the pivot, see Kurt Campbell and Bryan Andrews, “Explaining the US ‘Pivot’ to Asia,” Chatham House, America’s 2013/01, available online at Also See Hilary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011. The military dimensions of the rebalance are addressed in Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, Department of Defense, Washington DC, January 2012.

3 As suggested in realist international relations theory. See Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Peace and Power, 7th Ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005); Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw Hill, 1979).

4 As noted by Vali Nasr, presentation at the Asia Society, June 18, 2013, link at

5 See general polling numbers in report Global Opinion of Obama Slips, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012.

6 The World Bank data sheet for 2013 at

7 The undeclared war with Iran of course pre-dates the dual containment period of American foreign policy in the 1990s. The US-Iran faceoff dates to the takeover of the American Embassy in November 1979 and the formation of the Islamic Republic following the fall of the Shah.

8 A history cogently addressed by Eli Podeh, “The Perils of Ambiguity: The United States and the Baghdad Pact,” in David W. Lesch and Mark L. Haas, The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics and Ideologies, 5th Ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2014) 90-110.

9 For background see Peter L. Hahn, “Securing the Middle East: The Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 36, No. 1 (April 2006) 38-47.

10 Detailed in many source such as Michael Klare, Blood and Oil: The Dangerous Consequences of America’s Growing Petroleum Dependency (New York: Henry Holt, 2004)

11 As detailed in Remarks by the President at the United States Military Academy Commencement Ceremony, May 28, 2014.

12 As emphasized in Andrew J. Bacevich, “The Real World War IV,” The Wilson Quarterly 29, No. 1 (Winter 2005) 36-61.

13 Evolution and history of this in Michael A. Palmer, Guardians of the Gulf: A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1833-1992 (New York: The Free Press, 1992). Also see James A. Russell, “Strategy, Security and War in Iraq: The United States and the Gulf in the 21st Century,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 18, No. 2 (July 2005).

14 A good history of the period is in Ken Pollack, The Threatening Storm (New York: Random House, 2002). Also see Michael Knights, Cradle of Conflict: Iraq and the Birth of Modern US Military Power (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005)

15 As noted by Steven Walt, “Uncle Sucker to the Rescue,” Foreign Policy, October 16, 2014.

16 The best piece on limited war remains Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957). For representative literature on nuclear deterrence, see Patrick Morgan, Deterrence: A Conceptual Analysis (New York: Sage: 1983); Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974); Philip Green, Deadly Logic: The Theory of Nuclear Deterrence (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1966).

17 Views encapsulated by such commentators as John Nagl, “America Needs a More Aggressive Strategy Against ISIL. Now,” Politico Magazine, October 12, 2014. In this piece, Nagl decries the departure of American military advisers in Iraq in 2011, arguing that if these advisers had somehow remained the Iraqi Army would not have disintegrated when confronted with ISIL fighters in the summer of 2014.

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