The Greater Middle East-the Arab world and its neighbors from the Balkans to North Africa to Central Asia to the Gulf-has long been a locus of American attention. After World War II, there was a need to make sure countries in the oil-rich region did not "go communist" and a desire to replace France and England as their friend. With the 1967 War came the chance to use Israel as a Cold War outpost. Then, after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, as Jacob Heilbrunn and Michael Lind have argued recently in a New York Times op-ed (January 2), a new (Middle East) world order began. It was spurred by President Jimmy Carter's personal interest in Arab-Israeli peace and the desire to guarantee the security of Gulf oil after the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The American position was boosted when the USSR collapsed. Then, with the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein provided further evidence that U.S. vital interests coincide with those of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Fifth Fleet is now a permanent fixture in the Gulf.
The enhanced U.S. position in the Greater Middle East has produced a "peace process" that, broadly defined, seems to be expanding into a challenge to rival the Cold War in the U.S. strategic imagination. The involvement of the Clinton administration in Bosnia can be construed as part of it, despite the official explanation regarding humanitarian concerns and the risk of a wider European war. There is a felt need to determine outcomes near U.S. vital interests. It is a complicating factor that these happen to be concentrated in an area unified by the Muslim religion, demonized from its inception by Christian competitors across the known world.
Partly because of relentless American involvement in the Middle East, a political counterforce has emerged that is more global than Arab nationalism and more deeply rooted than communism ever was: Islamic radicalism. Although no one thinks Islamism is going to take over the world, some of the places where its interests intersect with those of the United States are of crucial importance to U.S. industry and the military. And some of its adherents are making political gains against some governments that are considered essential allies of the United States, and some Muslim criminals have committed some terrorist acts. The tactical struggle against "terrorism" and low-intensity conflict has perhaps protected policy makers from having to formulate a strategic vision that would keep close friends of the United States safe by stabilizing the region.
In order to succeed, a strategy would have to assuage some of the fears of the Muslim/Arab world and grant it a measure of respect. This is what the Syrian and Iranian leaders want (and they even admit it in public): in return for joining the peace process, but it is the very prize the United States is reluctant to award them-unless they grovel. Even if the governments were to permit an American strategic embrace, a substantial portion of the people of the Muslim world are repelled by the lightest American touch. They feel humiliated by U.S. behavior that they interpret as anti-Arab/Muslim. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top cleric in Iran, admits that accommodation with the United States would deal a blow to Muslim morale around the world. Justice, in his view, demands resistance.
Iran will no doubt remain a provocative and threatening country to U.S. allies. But "containment" may actually be contributing to the vulnerability of America's Gulf allies by denying Iran an excuse to be reasonable (see Alon Ben-Meir, inside). The Islamic Republic has some non-trivial grievances. Even anti-regime Iranians resent the 1953 CIA overthrow of their democratically elected government and the restoration of the shah. When Iran reached out last year to an American company (Conoco) for help in exploring for oil, the Clinton administration intervened to snatch away this carrot, sending an unmistakably hostile message to President Rafsanjani and other pragmatists: Only unconditional surrender will do. Now an $18- million "covert" CIA operation backed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been passed by Congress for the purpose of undermining the Iranian regime. Countermeasures have already been taken in Tehran, since the plan became public before the ink had dried.
The need to craft a Middle East policy that does not alienate Muslims has been argued recently by Edward P. Djerejian, former deputy secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia during the Bush administration (see his Baker Institute study in the Documentation section of this issue). The American public want explanations of the strategic reasons for U.S. foreign involvement now that the United States has sent 20,000 troops to Bosnia. Heilbrunn and Lind interpret this commitment as a recognition of the increased significance of the Muslim/Arab world to the United States. Charles Krauthammer of The Washington Post replied with swift derision, perhaps because he suspects that closer U.S.-Muslim relations would come at Israel's expense. But there is no security for Israel in an unstable environment, and stability cannot be imposed by brute force. Even if Syria breaks with Iran and makes "warm" peace with Israel, there will still be, in the words of The New York Times's John F. Bums, a "2,000-mile chain of animosity" running east from Jordan.
Managing the vast array of local and regional disputes threatening Middle East stability will involve the United States for the next generation, and Muslim allies will be needed as strategic partners. There seems to be a growing recognition that Islam must be better appreciated in order to secure and maintain their cooperation (see Elaine Sciolino's analysis in The New York Times Week in Review, January 21, 1996). Even the Council on Foreign Relations seems to be trying to promote this understanding among its influential audience with a new bimonthly publication called Muslim Politics Report.
Islam has not panned out as a replacement foe dangerous enough to justify Cold War military expenditures, and it is counterproductive to the interests of the United States to behave as if it had. But the new challenge of a Greater Middle East "peace process" expanded to include the whole Arab/Muslim world, is capable of absorbing infinite resources. Israel alone reportedly wants $15 billion for the suffering caused by its new peace arrangements. Rather than the gendarme of the world, the United States may become its psychiatrist-modifying destructive behaviors, managing pain, reducing stress-without having to cut the budget. If there were a real dividend peace - it would be money well spent.