Debated: Does America Pay Too Much Attention to the Middle East?

The President of the Council on Foreign Relations says yes. The head of the Woodrow Wilson center says no.

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In a Sunday panel on the Middle East, former diplomat Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the amount of attention paid to the Middle East by the architects of U.S. foreign policy doesn't make strategic sense, and that we should pull back from the region. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman, who heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, retorted that the U.S. cannot afford to focus less on the Middle East.

What follows is a lightly edited version of their exchange.

Richard Haass:

What I think we're seeing is actually the return of strategy. And we're seeing something of a corrective. The United States has allowed its foreign policy to be distorted by the greater Middle East. Next year, November 2014, we're going to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the end of the Cold War, and it'll be on 11/09/2014.

And if anyone had predicted that the United States in this quarter century, its principle investments in the world, would be the greater Middle East, and this would be where upwards of over 3 million Americans served, if you add up the two Iraq Wars and the Afghan War, and if you add up the total cost, it would have been inconceivable.

But that's what we've done.

Strategically I think there's a powerful argument for adjusting American foreign policy in two ways. Less in the Middle East. I'm not saying disengage. I'm not saying ignore it. I'm saying less in the Middle East -- let's talk about degrees -- more in Asia, and more here at home. If you're thinking about national security, to me, that is a far more sensible approach. There's a difference between that argument and those who say, you know, I think there is a little bit of intervention fatigue. Part of the problem that the neocons to some extent have wrought is when you overreach, and you try to remake other societies in the way we did in Iraq -- and it wasn't just the neocons, it was also Barack Obama. We tripled U.S. force levels in Afghanistan. This is one of those issues that crosses political lines, the parties don't always line up neatly, you've got people on the left and people on the right who favor, say, doing lots of things in Syria.

I think there's a healthy reaction -- at times, overreaction, I think sometimes it goes too far -- to that kind of intrusive, ambitious, nation building abroad. So I think that's what we're seeing. Personally I think Rand Paul goes too far. When things begin to veer into a kind of isolationism that doesn't discriminate, it's obviously dangerous to our national security. But I do think it is time for a corrective.

Jane Harman

When Americans are asked would you rather spend x billion dollars on Afghanistan or Iraq, or use those dollars to employ Americans at home, the answer is obvious. No one has really made the case -- and here's something I'm sad about -- for why we need to continue to focus on regions like the Middle East. I don't disagree with Richard that there are limited brain cells, and a lot more of them have to be put on Asia. However, if we don't help get the Middle East right, I don't think we'll ever get out of there. And what was missing from the last panel was any real conversation about Israel. And I want to bring it up right now, because it's something Congress cares about. Congress focuses on that, it's one of the only things Congress supports on a bipartisan basis. And it is why I believe the peace process -- if John Kerry can pull this off, I will nominate him for sainthood.

I know, Richard, you're gloomy, and many are, about how it will ever conclude. But the peace process will secure Israel's place in this churn of a Middle East. And if it's not secured soon, I fear it never will be secured.

Richard Haass

I agree with the basic point: of course Israel and the Palestinians would be better off if there were a two-state solution. No one is arguing that. So let's just posit that. We agree. The real question then is, what is the centrality this issue should have given everything else in the world that's on potentially our strategic plate. Secondly given the prospects of success, because that's what you have to think about.

Centrality? I would say it's low. When I look at the principle strategic threats facing the United States, and the opportunities, one is Asia, the Asian Pacific, the great powers, where history is beginning to come alive. We do not want 21st Century Asia to resemble 20th Century Europe. It's that simple. When the tectonic plates are moving, political and military nationalism is beginning to get introduced, it's not simply an economic arena, unless the United States is actively involved watch this space, watch the interplay between Chinese, Japanese, South Korean nationalism. If North Korea does not get rid of its nuclear weapons, watch what happens... secondly, if I'm right, the biggest national security challenge in addition to all this is what happens here at home. We've got restore the foundations of American power. If we don't have that right, we won't have the resources to deal with a lot of the external challenges, if we don't restore the foundations of our power, and that deals with everything from the economy, to our schools, to our infrastructure and immigration.

And even if we were to succeed on it, it wouldn't affect the dynamics of the Iranian nuclear challenge, it wouldn't affect the war in Syria, it wouldn't affect the quest for political order in Egypt, Saudia Arabia, or anywhere else, and on the off chance I'm wrong on all of this, and clearly there are people on this panel who think I am, then the problem with their argument is the prospects are bleak.

Virtually none of the preconditions for diplomatic success are in place. if one assesses the leadership, its strengths and its orientation on the Palestinian side, if one assesses the makeup and orientation of the Israeli government -- and one other thing that none of us have talked about, look at the strategic environment Israel is operating in: you've got Iran moving toward nuclear weapons; the two countries it has peace with, Egypt now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, who knows what happens there; Jordan suddenly the throne looks a little bit shaky. You've got the civil war spilling into Lebanon. Hezbollah is down there. [Inaudible] in Gaza. This isn't a strategic environment in which any Israeli government is going to take tangible risks for peace. So, part of what you have to do as a diplomat is to survey your opportunity cost against your prospects, and I would just say that there are considerable opportunity costs for focusing on the Middle East. I don't see it affecting critical issues in this part of the world, and I simply don't believe the prospects are good no matter how hard a talented secretary of state works.

Jane Harman

You talk about the great power game, and I think it's worth talking about: what are the other great powers out there? China, obviously, and Russia punches above its weight in kind of evil ways. But both of them have eyes on the Middle East. We have to understand that. we have strategic interests in the Middle East, including defending our best Democratic ally in that region, Israel. But we used to be reliant on Middle Eastern oil. We have military bases there in Qatar and other places. The headquarters of our central command is there. I do agree that we've gotten these long wars wrong. I voted to go into Iraq believing the intelligence. The intelligence was wrong. therefore, I was wrong. It wasn't misrepresented. I made a big effort to try to understand it. And on Afghanistan everybody wanted to go in except one person. We took our eyes off that war and prosecuted it badly. But I'm still saying we have to keep our eye on the greater Middle East. We will be sucked back there because China and Russia will move into the vacuum if we leave. And oh, by the way, there's so much money in the gulf states, using that money to provide arms to people they choose in Syria, and they're giving money to Egypt in ways that are at least keeping the Morsi government alive. I just think we have to deploy our global brain cells across the world, and when we do that, the Middle East has to be a portion of those brain cells.

We cannot move away from it.

Richard Haass

There's no one saying it shouldn't be a portion, but strategy is about proportions. We can't do everything, everywhere, every time. We've gotta make strategic choices. And I'm simply saying whether it's the hours in the day for a secretary of state, or the resources of an administration, given everything that's out there, in terms of opportunities and challenges, I don't think that the argument right now -- maybe at some other points -- is to put massive amounts of calories into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Jane, I think you've got the Middle East wrong in another way, which is, I would like China to do more in the Middle East. Part of the problem with China is that it still sees itself as a developing country. it thinks it has a pass. It thinks it has no serious international obligations. Well China right now has the biggest straw drinking Middle Eastern oil. It's not the United States. We're moving toward North American energy self sufficiency. One of the challenges for Chinese foreign policy and national security is to get serious about the greater Middle East, because China is far more vulnerable to revolution in Saudi Arabia, quite honestly, than anybody else.