Having served on many foreign policy committees and panels during my 34 years in Congress and for years afterward, I vividly recall that American policymakers continually devoted a great deal of time and effort to challenges in the Middle East.
Much of this was during the Cold War and its aftermath, when the U.S.-Soviet conflict involved existential issues of war and peace, arms control and nuclear proliferation. Yet day after day, leading national security officials were consumed with Middle Eastern affairs.
Why? It starts with oil. Middle Eastern nations dominate OPEC, which by some estimates controls 80% of proven crude oil reserves. Oil is essential to industrialized economies, so it’s not surprising the Middle East commands outsized attention.
Along with the region’s natural resource wealth comes a worrisome level of political, social and economic instability. The West fears few things more than instability, hence its concern with the region.
We keep a wary eye on the region because its volatile politics could bring instability to Central Asia, Southern Europe and North Africa. It is a region of deep traditionalism, characterized by conservative values, resistance to social, economic and technological change and suspicion of liberalization and democracy.
Moreover, the U.S. support of Israel is a hallmark foreign policy priority. For the U.S., the stability and security of Israel is paramount. The Middle East is a region of complex ethnic, religious and linguistic groups, including interactions within and among Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Religious conflict has always been prominent, for example, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli claims to Jerusalem, a city sacred to all three faith traditions, as its capital.
Anti-American sentiment is prominent in the region for many reasons, among them our support of Israel and our occasional backing of brutal dictators.
To the United States and our Western allies, the Middle East is important not only for the above stated reasons but because of its strategic location on vital trade routes and naval passageways.
Our engagement in the Middle East includes complex alliances with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Since 9/11, we have been deeply concerned about the threat to our security from Iran’s expanding influence, and the terrorism perpetuated by al-Qaida, the Islamic State group, and Hezbollah.
Not surprisingly, our engagement has been costly, including American casualties and money spent.
While the U.S. has been a significant player in the Middle East for decades, our appropriate role has been the constant subject of debate at home. Some Americans contend we should just pull out, while others argue for various degrees of more forceful engagement.
Today, this debate centers on Syria: Should the U.S. help rebels fighting the Assad government? Should we be concerned about growing influence by Iran and Russia? Or should we leave the Syrians to their own devices?
Understandably, Americans want to prevent terrorist attacks and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Other policy goals like promoting democracy and human rights, protecting economic growth, and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are also priorities.
So, most Americans understand how important the region is to U.S. interests. It’s not likely that our involvement will lessen in the decades ahead. The kind of national security meetings I described will continue — and our top diplomats and policymakers will be heavily focused on this challenging region for a long time to come.
By Lee H. Hamilton