The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh works to provide its members with a “nuanced understanding of complex topics,” according to executive director Angélica Ocampo. For its most recent event, that meant discussing the Middle East — but leaving American politics out of it.
Ross Harrison, a professor at Georgetown University and the University of Pittsburgh who is well-versed in issues regarding the Middle East, told a crowd of about 80 people gathered at the Omni William Penn Hotel that the best way to discuss American foreign policy in a region that is fraught with political tension would be to forego American politics. Instead, he advised at the Sept. 18 event, focus on three main points: the nature of American interest in the region, the nature of the region itself and the “arc” of American foreign policy toward the region in the past.
Harrison, who has spoken at a handful of other World Affairs Council events in Pittsburgh and is a member of the local Jewish community, walked the audience through these three points and then considered possible options for American foreign policy moving forward. Of note, he did not address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Today, Harrison began, American interest still revolves around energy and oil markets, as well as working toward a stable Middle East. To his second point, he added, “We are on the cusp of a new region” and it is “no longer your father’s Middle East.”
To look at his third point, the arc, Harrison started with what he called the “big bang moment for the Middle East,” or the simultaneous advent of the Cold War with the sudden independence of many Arab countries. Without colonial rule, those states went looking for “outside support” to ensure their security, as well as economic and social well-being.
“It was the convergence of these two dynamics that formed the new Middle East,” Harrison said. “States that were pro-change were aligned with the Soviet Union; states that were status-quo were aligned with the United States.
“What happened in the Middle East, largely stayed there,” Harrison continued. “It didn’t really blow back to the Soviet Union; it didn’t really blow back to the United States, and the region didn’t really get a say.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, that structure collapsed as well. Those countries that had originally turned to the Soviet Union for support are the ones that are the most politically fraught today, Harrison said.
As those states were looking for new sources of support and backing, the United States became somewhat uncontested, he said, and maintained a “soft touch” in the region — until 9/11.
As American foreign policy took a more aggressive stance in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, a “resistance axis” led by Iran began to form to push back on the West. That dynamic “to some degree is still with us today,” Harrison said.
“You have this sort of conflict trap that was created,” he continued. “It’s important to understand the core problem is not just one actor. It’s a failed region. … The region collapsed not because of Iran, not because of Saudi Arabia, not because of Turkey, not because of Israel.”
After addressing the three “touchstones” for considering U.S. foreign policy, Harrison turned toward three possible pathways for moving forward: more direct intervention, or military force; offshore balancing, or using outside force to create a balance of power in the region; or encouraging cooperation among the different actors in the region.
The first option, direct intervention, could mean repurposing military force away from the so-called Islamic State and toward countering Iran in Syria. The second option, offshore balancing, would require a smaller military footprint, Harrison said, but would likely cause Iran to “hunker down” and feel threatened, moving it further away from the United States and closer toward powers such as Russia.
Though he admitted it sounded somewhat naive, Harrison said he would back the third method, along with a layered approach that focused on the international, regional and local “power game,” and allowed for the United States to be on the ground when it was necessary.
“We stop personalizing American foreign policy in the Middle East. We’re a little too kind to our allies and a little too hostile to our adversaries,” he said. “We cultivate regional stewardship and cooperation.”
Although Harrison said he wanted to keep American politics out of the discussion, creating regional cooperation had to start on the political, rather than economic or technical, level, he said. The infrastructure is already there, he added; now it just takes political will.
“The international community should play to the best, not the worst, instincts of regional actors,” Harrison concluded. “Unless that happens, I’m afraid the region will not move to a better spot.” PJC