Trending Topics:

An Unlikely AMEXIT: Pivoting away from the Middle East

Middle East
on 15 Comments

The Case for Disengagement

A few years ago Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect. The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly and unsuccessfully engaged in Middle Eastern politics creating incentives to adjust foreign policy priorities. The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W. Bush that reached its climax with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq, which continues to cause negative reverberations throughout the region. It was then that the idiocy of ‘democracy promotion’ gave an idealistic edge to America’s military intervention and the delusion prospect of the occupiers receiving a warm welcome from the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unanticipated resistance.

In retrospect, it seems evident that despite the much publicized ‘pivot’ the United States has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and its fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against DAESH. In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob, proposes a gradual American disengagement from the region. He makes a highly intelligent and informed strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major American engagement in the region, and that to maintain the commitment at present levels adds to Middle East turmoil, and its extra-regional terrorist spillover, in ways that harms American interests.

Why Disengagement Won’t Happen

Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognize changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment based on an assessment of changed geopolitical circumstances. Actually, the high degree of American involvement in the Middle East was itself the result of an adjustment to changed circumstances. After the Soviet collapse, the earlier geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed superfluous and outmoded, and the Middle East with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence, risky nuclear proliferation potential seemed then like a region where a strong American commitment would solidify its role as global leader. This perception was reinforced after the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq, which the neocons hoped was but a prelude to a more elaborate political reconfiguring of the region by way of regime-changing interventions. [See ‘Clean Break’ for a fuller understanding of the Israeli oriented neocon mindset] The Iraqi undertaking failed miserably during the state-rebuilding occupation that followed upon the attack and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The master plan involved reconstructing the government and economy of Iraq to serve Western interests while at the same time supposedly democratizing the country. It totally backfired. This American pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of a persisting failure to understand the changing circumstances of the post-colonial world, and especially the altered balance between the military superiority associated with foreign intervention and the resourcefulness of territorial resistance.

So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings immediate major practical advantages? Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favorable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement seem geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘losing the Middle East,’ as if it was ever America’s to lose!

More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps, most significant, is the militarist bias of American foreign policy that is even unable to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures. This refusal to think outside the military box prevails in American policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or DAESH center on the single question of how much American military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts. What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11. Real threats to American interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for the resolution of most disputes, virtually requires the United States to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily whenever the occasion arises.

Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over American domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies. Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence. As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too uncertainty to risk any further disengagement. This is coupled with the claim that the rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq was actually premature, and led to a resurgence of civil strife that has persuaded the Obama administration to redeploy American troops both to aid in the fight to regain territory occupied by ISIS and to help the government to establish some degree of stability.

Why Disengagement Should Happen

Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue American disengagement. Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (e.g. DAESH) magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place. In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.

Unfortunately, for America and the peoples throughout the Middle East the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire that is partly responsible for generating extra-regional terrorism of the sort that has afflicted Europe in the last two years. And so although disengagement is a sensible course of action, it won’t happen for a long, long time, if at all. Unlike BREXIT, for AMEXIT, and geopolitics generally, there are no referenda offered the citizenry.

This post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published by Al Jazeera English on July 10, 2016.

Richard Falk
About Richard Falk

Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He is the author or co-author of 20 books and the editor or co-editor of another 20 volumes. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on "the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967."

Other posts by .

Posted In:

15 Responses

  1. DaBakr
    July 15, 2016, 9:42 pm

    Another leftist trots out the tired old Eisenhower speech on the industrial military industry. If Eisenhower were alive today he would have smacked somebody like a Falk silly. Even if the speech was preciant in many ways(which it was) Eisenhower would have been the last person to disengage unless maybe Falk forgets who first sent American ‘advisors’ to Vietnam

    • Mooser
      July 15, 2016, 11:45 pm

      “If Eisenhower were alive today he would have smacked…”

      Wow, it must have been such a thrill, really inspiring, to know the great General personally, and have him divulge his deepest thoughts to you.

      • DaBakr
        July 16, 2016, 10:53 pm


        again proving your inanity about history, education and anything but the throwaway ‘quip’ -usually excruciating but unsurprisingly adored by the true beilevers here.
        funny how accepting of the man, how knowing all these mw commenters became and how clearly he thought and they claimed he came to understand the evil of zionism when the book on truman came out last year.
        and guess what? just like eisenhower- truman would have smacked falk right upside his head too. maybe yours as well.

      • Mooser
        July 16, 2016, 11:49 pm

        “just like eisenhower- truman would have smacked falk right upside his head too. maybe yours as well”

        Yeah, okay, you send Eisenhower over to slap me, chump. When he gets here, I’ll let him.

        Yup, you n’ Dwight. You were this close!

        DaBakr, what are your posts doing, besides increasing Mondo’s contributions? And yielding “hits” and “UPVs”?

      • amigo
        July 17, 2016, 4:18 pm

        Duh baker , speaking of Israeli History , you didn,t happen to learn your,s in Beersheba , by any chance.

    • Talkback
      July 17, 2016, 7:58 am

      DaBakr is not the only one having massive problems with “leftiest”. They had to erase them in Nazi Germany to commit atrocities against others, too. Why would it be different in DaBakr’s terrorist state.

    • John O
      John O
      July 17, 2016, 2:30 pm

      You’re confusing Eisenhower with Patton – who really did use violence on traumatised soldiers back from the front.

    • Don
      July 18, 2016, 2:57 pm

      You are right, DaBakr, someone’s view of history is inane, but anyone who actually types two words (Eisenhower and Israel) in to Google will discover, in about 5 minutes, that it is you.

      Eisenhower never needed to disengage, because he was intelligent enough to not engage in idiotic wars in the first place.

      And when Israel, England and France did so engage…he ordered them (he did not ask them) to disengage. Or have you no familiarity with the “Suez Crisis”.

      ANYONE (even you, DaBakr) who takes the time to study even a little bit about Eisenhower would be able to confidently assert that Eisenhower would have loved Richard Falk’s views.

      Maybe next time you could actually study a topic before spouting opinions that are the precise opposite of historical reality.

      • DaBakr
        July 21, 2016, 5:43 am

        Guess you forgot about ol Ike and Viet Nam. Mr. Inand in the flesh

  2. Boomer
    July 16, 2016, 8:25 am

    There is a lot of truth in this analysis, though its passing references to Israel seem rather benign, rather accepting of the propaganda line that “what’s good for Israel is good for America.” So much so as to partially undermine the elements of truth. For example, consider the sentence near the end:

    “Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence.”

    “Share.” Really? Our relationship is one of sharing? I guess a parasite and its host share resources. So maybe by some definitions it is a “sharing” relationship. But it’s not the word I’d pick.

    • Citizen
      July 18, 2016, 7:28 am

      Share with Israel the burden and risk of managing ME turbulence? By making tiny Israel, the size of a mid-size US city, the biggest recipient of US aid in our entire history–with a new $50 billion package being now negotiated even as both major political parties are dumbfounded by the rise of Bernie & Trump because they’ve been so out of touch with just how bad the US economy is for average Americans? Iran and Russia are wiling to share the burden of fighting ISISl, and they are doing it now, much more effectively than we are. Yet the Iran Deal is being sabotaged, Iran still demonized just as Putin is demonized, and we cause turmoil on Russia’s border in Ukraine? Having read a lot of Falk in the past, this article of his seems oddly subdued–why did he change?

      And we have, e.g., English, Australian, Canadian, troops fighting “in the trenches” against Isis with us, but Israel is not doing so–it’s only strafing and bombing Assad’s forces, helping ISIS, as similarly, it cares for terrorist troops in its hospitals. ISIS shows it’s ready to kill everybody, it seems–except Israelis. Something stinks.

  3. plimespo
    July 18, 2016, 11:15 am

    Mr. Falk’s article is a helpful and perhaps realistic analysis as far as it goes, but there are some gaps and questions.

    “Real threats to American interests in the ME”? What they are is not explained. I guess we know some of them: endless war and all its benefits to the military, the national security establishment, black ops thugs, arms manufacturers, the gun lobby, Israel and its U.S. benefactors and associated parasites, maybe a relatively few American jobs. Yes, big dollars are involved for those interests, but American interests in the ME should be measured in terms what is best for the American people as a whole, including those in need of jobs, health care, a functioning American infrastructure, for example.

    “Share ME burdens with Israel”? As other commenters have noted, Israel is not sharing that burden, but they’re getting a big portion of the carrots we hand out in the ME.

    “Failed to anticipate the counterrevolutionary aftermath to the Arab spring”? Mr. Falk is not giving Obama, Hillary Clinton, Congress and the Israel Lobby enough credit. They directly fostered and financed that counterrevolutionary aftermath with monetary bribes to military and fascist leaders, such as in Egypt, in part so Egypt would help keep Gaza an open prison camp.

    “Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance” No, no, no! Washington understands this very well, but intentionally foments this extremism in a “false flag” effort to generate fear of terrorism in America and justify our unending wars in the ME.

    “Negotiate an aid package to Israel”? There’s no negotiation, only groveling in an effort to see which politician can get the most support from the Israel Lobby.

    I’ll grant Mr. Falk may well be right about the unlikelihood of our exit from the ME, but here’s one long-term scenario which might rear its not-so-ugly head:

    Unfavorable publicity will grow about Israel and the Israel Lobby through their opposition to any criticism of Israel and U.S. aid to Israel, the threat or reality of a global recession will make people realize charity begins at home, the American populace will start to connect the dots between all the money we spend abroad and the resulting inability to address serious problems right here in the good old U. S. of A., and finally will awake to what things like BDS represents and the power the Israel Lobby exercises to the detriment of the American people as a whole.

    Then, this populace and the voters may increasingly believe that the U.S. tried to be reasonable and give Israel a reality check in a nice way through BDS, for example, but it didn’t get the message.

    So the voters may demand, as a vote for Jill Stein and the Green Party would start to do, that the U. S. send a more unvarnished message, such as: No country, not even the U.S., has a right to exist. It exists because it has taken steps to protect itself. That’s what the U. S. has done. That’s what Israel should do, instead of hiding behind the U.S. and private supporters like AIPAC and the Israel Lobby.

    Now that would be an actual existential threat to Israel. It has shown for decades it is unreasonable by not solving one of the greatest problems in the Middle East and threats to security worldwide, the Palestinian situation, in a way which recognizes the rights of and protects the Palestinians, thereby working toward Israel’s own long-term viability.

    Israel needs the stick as well as the carrot. Israel is feasting on carrots from the U.S. to the tune of billions and almost unlimited affirmation and media support. They have no incentive to work out a framework for resolution of the conflict, even one which will benefit it in the long run.

    So the U.S. will have to cut off monetary aid, weapons sales, trade and other things until Israel give the Palestinians their rightful land, including pulling back the settlements. Then security for all parties could be maintained by Israel’s own defenses and international peacekeepers on the Palestinian side, all at a much more reasonable cost, because the threat of an apocalypse in the region will have been materially diminished.


    True, Israel might try to go it alone, but so be it. The U.S. can use all that money at home. Let the Zionists and Israel Lobby fund its isolation and pipe-dream in the desert.

    This is what I believe it will eventually come to unless Israel and the Israel Lobby wake up and smell the coffee.

  4. slandau
    July 19, 2016, 1:38 pm

    David, I agree with your scenario. It may be occurring with more of a wimper than a bang, but we may be looking now at the end of the jewish state within ten years.

    Israel is a ridiculous and dangerous place to live, and anyone with sense will leave. The economy is already precarious, but as soon as US aid can no longer be used to pay all the salaries in their bogus “start up nation”, they will dust off their second passports and vamoose.

    Leave it to Obama, on his way out, to figure out this subtle move. By requiring 100 percent of Israel foreign aid now be spent in the US, their scam will come to a gradual end, but they can’t openly complain, because the overall aid went up. 3D Chess. Obama may be the greatest statesman of our time, a consummate, underestimated strategist and (ultimately) a pacifist, as we all imagined and “hoped” 8 years ago, if he can pull off a gradual, peaceful end to I-P.

    By just restructuring the aid agreement, he has stopped billions of dollar of US gov’t cash, year upon year, from being transferred to GoI. The money can be used for any purpose, including building settlements or paying stipends to Price Tag operatives. If 1000’s of engineers lose their job once the new rules kick in (as is predicted), it might just tip the balance. As fascism settles in, and only the apocolyptics remain, we can take military control of their arsenal, and begin truth and reconciliation.

    It is useful and fun to spin scenarios of what could possibly come next.

    We put Christian Scientists in jail for failing to bring their kids to the doctor when they get sick, but it is OK for Americans to bring their many small children to live on contested territory, exposing these minor US citizens to unnecessary danger, and furthermore teaching them to hate and attack the impoverished, stateless Palestinian they have knowingly and (apparenly) gleefully dispossessed?

Leave a Reply