During September's annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a meeting with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Egypt. There, Pompeo discussed the Trump administration’s proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance, a grouping of eight Arab states and the United States ostensibly tasked with combating terrorism, cyberattacks, and Iran’s malign behavior in the region. Many observers have likened MESA to an Arab version of NATO.
Theoretically, an Arab NATO could benefit the Middle East’s security. Washington’s misadventures in the region — from a preventative and ill-conceived war in Iraq to a botched humanitarian intervention in Libya — have overstretched our military, drastically increased our debt, and distracted Washington from foreign policy problems more directly connected to America’s security and prosperity. The region has been an enormous burden on America’s shoulders, with $5.6 trillion spent and thousands of American lives lost over the last 17 years.
The Arab states have far stronger interests — it’s their backyard, after all, not ours — and the wealth (the GCC has a $1.4 trillion GDP, three times more than Iran’s $439 billion) to take more responsibility for the defense of their own neighborhood. Any proposal that accelerates the shift toward a more self-sustaining region should be both applauded and enabled by U.S. policymakers.
However, under no circumstances should the United States be an active member in this security alliance.
Far from transferring more responsibility to regional powers who are best placed to solve their own disputes, United States involvement in MESA would pile on another unneeded security burden and increase our involvement in a fanciful attempt to solve the region’s intractable, sectarian conflicts — many of which are proxy conflicts unrelated to U.S. national security.
Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington, vital U.S. interests in the Middle East are narrow: defend the U.S. homeland from transnational terrorist groups who operate in the region, prevent any nation from dominating the region, and ensuring the international oil market is not disrupted to the point where it could harm the U.S. and global economy. United States inclusion within an Arab NATO would make many of these prime objectives more difficult to accomplish, confusing the interests of the American public for the interests of governments in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Doha, Qatar.
U.S. officials must recognize policy in the Middle East is not solely about containing any one state, but ensuring that no country — be it Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or the UAE — is able to dominate the security landscape as a regional hegemon. To the extent MESA is programmed to be an anti-Iran alliance rather than a regional coordinated forum where governments can cooperate on shared security threats, there is a significant risk that an otherwise stable equilibrium among Middle Eastern states will be disrupted.
While a poor and contained Iran is unquestionably a boon to Riyadh’s influence in the Middle East, it is not vital for the United States, which has more than enough power to protect Americans from Iranian threats. There is a significant difference between a balancing coalition led by Arab states against Iran and the United States adopting the interests of other nations so they can use U.S. military power and taxpayer dollars to “bandwagon.”
The United States should not pick sides in a region-wide, centuries-old sectarian dispute. It is neither wise or necessary for Washington to assist Riyadh’s campaign for regional primacy — doing so would simply provide the Saudis with more leverage to wield over Washington’s head. Pursuing a balance of power in the Middle East provides the United States with more freedom to operate and forge constructive relationships with all of the region’s governments, regardless of its sectarian composition.
Blindly backing one over the other limits America’s foreign policy flexibility and curtails its ability to exploit sudden changes in the geopolitical environment that may arise in the future.
Anti-Saudi countries aren’t automatically anti-American. But if we bend to Riyadh and conflate their interests with our own, we limit our ability to forge productive relationships and remove policy options that would benefit Americans. The Trump administration picking winners and losers in the region’s sectarian problems is the antonym of realist-based statecraft, a foreign policy that leaves enough room open to do business with friends and adversaries alike.
Participation in MESA would also draw Washington deeper into the region’s quicksand at a time when it should be pivoting to deterring great power conflict, as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy prescribe. As we’ve seen in Yemen, the U.S. would be on the hook for whatever military adventure the alliance’s other partners decide to partake in, leading Washington dangerously astray into conflicts that have no bearing on U.S. national security.
In its current form, MESA is less a partnership than a trapdoor for the United States. Washington does not need another permanent security obligation in the Middle East — it needs to extricate itself from the region’s sectarian troubles and allow the countries of the region to solve their own deep-seated political ailments.
The Trump administration should welcome Middle Eastern governments who want to deepen their military and intelligence cooperation and embrace more responsibility for the security of their own neighborhood. The region’s security, after all, can only be addressed by the people who live there. But the White House should stop deceiving itself — it is not America’s responsibility to solve these problems for them.
A failure to shift the burden to those who should bear it would suck even more U.S. attention and resources into a part of the world that has seen too much over the last decade and a half. Time for Washington to focus more on our middle class than the Middle East.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities.