A Return to Offshore Balancing

As the new President takes office, the United States is in deep trouble in the Middle East. Despite Obama's promises to withdraw from Iraq, the debacle there shows no sign of ending soon, and it has made America's terrorism problem worse, not better. Meanwhile, Hamas rules in Gaza, Iran's stature is on the rise and Tehran is quickly moving to acquire a nuclear deterrent—which, despite a lot of tough talk, the United States and its allies have been unable to prevent. And America's image throughout the Middle East is at an all-time low. (Story continued below...)

All this is a direct result of the Bush administration's misguided policy of regional transformation. George W. Bush hoped he could implant democracy in the Middle East by using the U.S. military to topple the unfriendly regime in Baghdad—and maybe those in Damascus and Tehran, too—and replace them with friendly, democratic governments.

Things didn't work out well, of course, and it's now vital that the new president devise a radically different strategy for dealing with this critical part of the world. Fortunately, one approach has proved effective in the past and could serve America again today: "offshore balancing." During the cold war, this strategy enabled Washington to contain Iran and Iraq and deter direct Soviet intervention in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. As a Middle East policy, offshore balancing may be less ambitious than Bush's grand design was—no one promises it will lead to an "Arab spring"—but it will be much more effective at protecting actual U.S. interests.

So what would it look like? As an offshore balancer, the United States would keep its military forces—especially its ground and air forces—outside the Middle East, not smack in the center of it. Hence the term "offshore." As for "balancing," that would mean relying 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 signal a continued U.S. commitment to the region and would retain the capacity to respond quickly to unexpected threats, like Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But—and this is the key point—the United States would put boots on the ground in the Middle East only if the local balance of power seriously broke down and one country threatened to dominate the others. Short of that, America would keep its soldiers and pilots "over the horizon"—namely at sea, in bases outside the region or back home in the United States.

This approach might strike some as cynical after Bush's lofty rhetoric. 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, not Washington, to determine their 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 cannot accomplish.

Offshore balancing, moreover, is nothing new: the United States pursued such a strategy in the Middle East very successfully during much of the cold war. It never tried to garrison the region or transform it along democratic lines. Instead, Washington sought to maintain a regional balance of power by backing various local allies and by developing the capacity—in the form of the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), which brought together five Army and Marine divisions, seven tactical fighter wings and three aircraft-carrier battle groups—to deter or intervene directly if the Soviet Union, Iraq or Iran threatened to upend the balance. The United States helped Iraq contain revolutionary Iran in the 1980s, but when Iraq's conquest of Kuwait in 1990 threatened to tilt things in Baghdad's favor, the United States assembled a multinational coalition centered on the RDF and smashed Saddam Hussein's military machine.

Offshore balancing has three particular virtues that would be especially appealing today. First, it would significantly reduce (though not eliminate) the chances that the United States 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. Toward that end, offshore balancing would reject the use of military force to reshape the politics of the region and would rely instead on local allies to contain their dangerous neighbors. As an offshore balancer, the United States would husband its own resources and intervene only as a last resort. And when it did, it would finish quickly and then move back offshore.

The relative inexpensiveness of this approach is particularly attractive in the current climate. The U.S. financial bailout has been hugely expensive, and it's not clear when the economy will recover. In this environment, America simply cannot afford to be fighting endless wars across the Middle East, or anywhere else. Remember that Washington has already spent $600 billion on the Iraq War, and the tally is likely to hit more than $1 trillion before that conflict is over. Imagine the added economic consequences of a war with Iran. Offshore balancing would not be free—the United States would still have to maintain a sizable expeditionary force and the capacity to move it quickly—but would be a lot cheaper than the alternative.

Second, offshore balancing would ameliorate America's terrorism problem. One of the key lessons of the past century is that nationalism and other forms of local identity remain intensely powerful, and foreign occupiers generate fierce local resentment. That resentment often manifests itself in terrorism or even large-scale insurgencies directed at the United States. When the Reagan administration put U.S. troops in Beirut following Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, local terrorists responded by suicide-bombing the U.S. Embassy in April 1983 and the U.S. Marine barracks in October, killing more than 300. Keeping U.S. military forces out of sight until they are needed would minimize the anger created by having them permanently 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 issuing overt threats. Removing U.S. troops from the neighborhood would be a good start. The United States can't afford to completely disengage from the Middle East, but offshore balancing would make U.S. involvement there less threatening. Instead of lumping potential foes together and encouraging them to join forces against America, this strategy would encourage contending regional powers to compete for the United States' favor, thereby facilitating a strategy of divide-and-conquer.

A final, compelling reason to adopt this approach to the Middle East is that nothing else has worked. In the early 1990s, 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. This policy guaranteed only that each country came to view the United States as a bitter enemy. It also required the United States to deploy large numbers of troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The policy fueled local resentment, helped persuade Osama bin Laden to declare war on America and led to the bombing of the Khobar Towers in 1996, the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and, eventually, 9/11.

Shortly after 9/11, the Bush administration jettisoned dual containment in favor of regional transformation. When Baghdad fell, it briefly seemed that Bush just might succeed. But the occupation soon faltered, and America's position in the region went from bad to worse.

The new president's only hope for extricating America from the resultant mess is to return to the one Middle East strategy that's worked well in the past. In practical terms, an offshore-balancing strategy would mean ending the Iraq War as quickly as possible while working to minimize the bloodshed there and throughout the region. Instead of threatening Iran with preventive war—an approach that's only fueled Tehran's desire for nuclear weapons and increased the popularity of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the new administration should try to cut a deal by offering Iran security guarantees in return for significant and veri-fiable limits on its nuclear-enrichment program. The United States should also take its sights off the Assad regime in Syria and push both it and Israel to reach a peace agreement.

This strategy wouldn't eliminate all the problems the United States faces in the Middle East. But it would reduce the likelihood of future disasters like Iraq, significantly reduce America's terrorism problem and maximize Washington's prospects of thwarting nuclear proliferation. It would also be considerably less expensive in both human and financial terms. There are no foolproof strategies in international politics, but offshore balancing is probably as close as we can get.