The United States is in deep trouble in the Middle East. Despite Barack Obama's promises to withdraw from Iraq, the debacle there shows no sign of ending soon. Hamas rules in Gaza; Iran is quickly moving to acquire a nuclear deterrent. We need a radically different strategy for the region.
Fortunately, there is a strategy that has proved effective in the past and could serve again today: "offshore balancing." It's less ambitious than President Bush's grand plan to spread democracy throughout the Middle East, but it would be much better at protecting actual U.S. interests. The United States would station its military forces outside the region. And "balancing" would mean we'd rely on regional powers like Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to check each other. Washington would remain diplomatically engaged, and when necessary would assist the weaker side in a conflict. It would also use its air and naval power to respond quickly to unexpected threats. But—and this is the key point—America would put boots on the ground only if the local balance of power seriously broke down and one country threatened to dominate the others.
This approach might strike some as cynical. It would do little to foster democracy or promote human rights. But Bush couldn't deliver on those promises anyway, and it is ultimately up to individual countries to determine their own political systems. It is hardly cynical to base U.S. strategy on a realistic appraisal of American interests and a clear-eyed sense of what U.S. power can and cannot accomplish.
Offshore balancing is nothing new: the United States pursued such a strategy in the Middle East quite successfully during much of the Cold War. America helped Iraq contain revolutionary Iran in the 1980s. Then, when Iraq's conquest of Kuwait in 1990 threatened to tilt things in Baghdad's favor, the United States assembled a multinational coalition to smash Saddam Hussein's military machine.
The strategy has three particular virtues. First, it would significantly reduce the chances that we would get involved in another bloody and costly war like Iraq. America doesn't need to control the Middle East with its own forces; it merely needs to ensure that no other country does.
Second, offshore balancing would ameliorate America's terrorism problem. Foreign occupiers generate fierce resentment. Keeping America's military forces out of sight would minimize the anger created by having them stationed on Arab soil.
Third, offshore balancing would reduce fears in Iran and Syria that the United States aims to attack them and remove their regimes—a key reason these states are currently seeking weapons of mass destruction. Persuading Tehran to abandon its nuclear program will require Washington to address Iran's legitimate security concerns and to refrain from overt threats.
A final, compelling reason to adopt this approach is that nothing else has worked. After the Gulf war, the Clinton administration pursued a "dual containment" strategy: instead of using Iraq and Iran to check each other, the United States began trying to contain both. As a result, both came to view the United States as a bitter enemy. The policy also required the United States to deploy large numbers of troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which helped persuade Osama bin Laden to declare war on America.
Offshore balancing wouldn't eliminate all the problems we face in the Middle East. But it would be considerably less expensive in both human and financial terms. It's not a foolproof strategy, but it's probably as close as we can get.