How America Can Cope with a Broken, Angry, Dysfunctional Middle East

Aaron David Miller, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace, presented on how the U.S. can operate effectively in a new, multi-polar landscape in the Middle East. Dr. Miller explored how dominance and influence can no longer be taken for granted and where an increasing number of determined, assertive, and competitive actors–state and non-state–are projecting their power.

The United States was founded around an intentional invitation to struggle between branches of government to foster discussion and beneficial conflict. However dysfunctional it may appear, it takes a lot of cooperative effort to create such a system and make it work. By doing this, the US has freed itself from the constraints imposed by history and geography in a way that Middle Eastern nations are incapable of doing due to their smaller size and power structure. Dr. Miller emphasized that he is not condemning the Middle East by referring to it as angry, broken, and dysfunctional; instead, he recognizes that the institutional structure of the region renders it inhospitable and not a place of opportunity for Americans and American ideals.

Large portions of the Middle East, such as Lebanon and Iraq, cannot make governmental structures that hold respect for human rights. These places traditionally separate their citizens into the “haves” and “have-nots”, and the “cans” and “cannots”, preventing a large portion of the population from projecting any power in the government. The US has an important role to play in changing this, because other regional powers are either too preoccupied with their internal affairs to offer assistance, or simply don’t exercise their influence. The US has an especially important role as Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, as large parts of the Arab world are ungovernable from the inside due to non-state actors such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The discretionary war in Iraq had many Americans wondering if the investment in the Middle East is worth the return. Over 100 Americans have been killed in Jihadi attacks since 9/11, and no American president since George W. Bush can easily consider serious efforts in terms of expending resources and lives in the pursuit of nation-building with Iraq and Afghanistan. If Washington cannot transform the world or withdraw from the region, Dr. Miller asks, what can we do? Miller pointed to the importance of focusing on what he calls “smart transactions” in the Middle East: prioritizing our actions, identifying our core interests, and balancing between risk readiness and risk aversion to decide where we are ready to expend lives and resources.