Renewing U.S. Security Policy in the Middle East

This RAND report offers a new framing of U.S. national security interests in the Middle East in light of changed political, security, and economic contexts. The authors argue for a new approach to managing U.S. security interests in the region that avoids the pattern of recurring reactive military engagements that have drawn in the United States for decades. This approach recognizes that the Middle East sits at the crossroads of multiple vital U.S. interests and that problems that start in the Middle East spread worldwide.

The authors contend that the United States should not deprioritize or disengage from the Middle East but should instead manage the full range of its interests there. These include the traditional goals of preventing terrorism, protecting global energy markets, and dealing with Iranian nuclear proliferation and other malign activities, as well as additional interests related to addressing great power competition, regional conflicts, the human and financial costs of conflict, civilian displacement, climate change, the well-being of allies, and chronic instability.

To safeguard its interests, the United States should rely less on military operations and more on diplomacy, economic development, and technical assistance. A reshaped U.S. strategy that both maintains the Middle East as a priority and rebalances military and civilian tools can help steer the region from one where costs to the United States prevail to one where benefits to the American people—as well as people in the Middle East—accrue. Completed before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the report has not been revised subsequently.

Key Findings

While great power competition with Russia and China has led to calls to deprioritize the Middle East in U.S. foreign and security policy, the United States has a wide set of vital security interests there that should not be neglected

  • Changes in the Middle East political, security, and economic context require modified U.S. priorities.
  • The Middle East sits at the crossroads of multiple vital U.S. interests; problems that start in the Middle East spread worldwide.
  • The United States could better manage its security interests in the region by reducing reliance on military tools and increasing reliance on civilian tools.

The authors’ “top-ten list” of U.S. security interests in the Middle East includes traditional interests and some that have not typically been viewed as security considerations

  • Terrorist groups are degraded, but still have capabilities.
  • Although the United States now relies less on energy from the Middle East, its allies still depend on that energy.
  • The Middle East is a hot spot for nuclear proliferation threats.
  • The Middle East is a theater for great power competition.
  • Conflicts and aggression in the Middle East strain the world order and affect U.S. security.
  • The United States’ militarized approaches to the region have had high human and financial costs.
  • Weak rule of law and lack of economic opportunities lead to chronic instability that spills over to the rest of the world.
  • Civilian displacement is harmful and destabilizing.
  • Climate-change effects exacerbate other security challenges.
  • The United States benefits from the well-being of its allies and partners.

Recommendations

  • Develop a U.S. interagency Middle East strategy that keeps the region as a priority while relying more on civilian tools.
  • Develop substitute approaches to manage risks when reducing the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East.
  • Maintain an integrated, long-term strategy with regard to Iran.
  • Maintain an integrated, interagency program for countering violent extremism.
  • Mediate the end of conflicts, and broker pragmatic solutions to civilian displacement.
  • Focus U.S. development assistance on addressing two main causes of the Arab Spring protests: lack of economic opportunities for youth and government corruption.
  • Facilitate regional interactions, mutual assistance, and security dialogues.
  • Invest in putting the linchpin countries of Iraq and Tunisia on the path to success.
  • Improve trust in the United States as a strong, effective, reliable partner of choice.
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