It’s no secret that the Middle East is an extremely turbulent region of the world. For American foreign policy, it’s like a whirlpool that keeps pulling us in.
The region spreads from North Africa to Afghanistan, an area as large as the continental United States. It’s the cradle of three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has vast oil resources, with more proven reserves than any other part of the world.
Intense rivalries divide the region’s powers, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Middle East always seems to be one step away from a war that nobody wants and that no one can win. There’s always a feeling that something has to give.
Certainly, the prospects are challenging. Across the Middle East we see violence, corruption, economic inequality, poverty and high unemployment. Protests are met with repression; liberty and freedom are in short supply. With populations growing, crucial resources are scarce, especially water.
There are signs of hope: outstanding individuals and groups who stand up for freedom and human rights. But the obstacles are formidable.
That is not an argument for the United States to withdraw from the region. We have vital interests in the region: the security of Israel, overall stability, and the wellbeing of our other regional friends and allies, among them Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We can’t solve the Middle East’s problems, and nation-building in the region is a bridge too far. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do.
At the heart of much of the conflict in the Middle East is the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. On this issue, U.S. leadership is urgently needed. We can’t dictate or control the result, but we can push the parties toward sharing power and strengthening the institutions of civil society.
The Middle East peace plan released by the Trump administration falls short. It endorses disputed Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories and totally aligns with the goals of Israel’s conservative leadership while doing little for the Palestinians. It’s too one-sided to be helpful.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one reason it’s difficult to get U.S. policy in the region right. Not surprisingly, our Middle East policy has been subject to widespread criticism for as long as I can remember.
Given the challenges, the arguments for the United States to give less attention to the region can seem compelling. But we can’t walk away. Our interests matter too much, and we can offer positive economic and political contributions.
U.S. policy in the region should aim to stop the killing, resolve conflict, reduce corruption, promote respect for human rights, and promote economic growth. We should be in the forefront of addressing the needs of the people for education, health care, and freedom.
We should resist Iran’s efforts to extend its influence, either directly or through proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Together with allies, we have a stake in fighting terrorism, resisting nuclear proliferation, ensuring the free flow of oil and other goods, and enhancing Israel’s security and its relationship with its neighbors.
We can’t remake the Middle East in our own image, nor should we try. But that should not discourage us from trying to improve life for the people of the region.
By Lee H. Hamilton