The Diplomacy-Deterrence Complex in the US Defense Policy in the Middle East

The Middle East has featured prominently in the US defense policy in multiple trajectories of international relations – both Cold War and post-Cold War. The US military strategy has traditionally focused on its fundamental national interests in the region — protecting its allies and confronting its adversaries. The 9/11 attacks were a game changer in the evolution of the post-Cold War US defense policy in the region. The Bush administration’s declaration of a global “war on terror” added a new dimension to US policy. At the same time, based on the doctrine of “pre-emptive military strike”, the Bush administration intervened in the Middle East, declaring war against Iraq in 2003. The subsequent US military interventions in Libya and Syria followed the same logic. From “shuttle diplomacy” to Donald Trump’s “charm diplomacy,” the US effectively applied its soft power in the region. It served the US national interest for decades covering oil, geopolitical gains, and economic benefits. The application of deterrence has been integral to Washington’s successful diplomatic strategy.

The US has effectively pursued a twin-track approach in the Middle East — diplomacy and deterrence. On the first track, the United States has focused on bilateral relations, dialogue and negotiations, multilateralism, regional institutions, and soft power tools. On the second track, the United States has pushed back on regional adversaries like Iran. It works to diminish Tehran’s continuing revolutionary mission, which they pursue through IRGC–Quds Force activity in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and its relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US is supporting Saudi Arabia’s efforts to defeat the IRGC–Quds Force-backed Houthi rebels and stabilize Yemen.

Diplomacy as a process of engaging with the regional allies and adversaries has been the cornerstone of US defense policy in the Middle East. The historic Camp David Accord in 1979, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Iran Nuclear Deal 2015, the Doha Peace Process on Afghanistan, the normalization deals of four Arab countries (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan) with Israel, and bilateral negotiations with the key US allies were all the outcome of American diplomacy in the Middle East.

On the other hand, to deal with the threats to the US national interests in the Middle East, the Trump administration particularly favored deterrence during its four years of power. Washington has consistently justified such a strategy by suggesting that they need to beef up deterrence to tamp down regional conflicts that give their adversaries like Iran, China and Russia opportunities to grow their influence.

Deterrence is a military approach based on projection of coercive powers in different forms. It refers to the use of threats and force to preclude an attack from an adversarial power. During the War on Terror, the Bush administration enunciated the Bush Doctrine, which, among other things, affirmed the legitimacy of an American preventive strike and emphasized the notion that “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Although reliance on deterrence was widely criticized, the US defense policy emphasizes it in their pursuit of strategic goals in the region.

The Middle East is the ground where the US has combined diplomacy and deterrence to achieve its defense policy objectives, for example, the role of US in the Iran and the Palestine-Israel Conflict. However, different administrations often prioritize one approach over the other. Deterrence was a preferred option of the Bush administration and the Trump administration, while the Clinton and Obama administrations emphasized diplomacy. Diplomacy has proven its ability to increase security and stability regarding regional and international threats, for example, the use of weapons of mass destruction. The most important contribution that diplomacy has to offer to improve security and reduce threats are ICBMs and international norms.

The biggest challenge of deterrence is that it often invites retaliation from adversaries that create further security dilemmas. Despite their limitations, both deterrence and diplomacy remains the cornerstone of the US defense policy in the Middle East.

Diplomacy should lead to the conditions that will ultimately allow for sustained reductions in its military presence, while safeguarding interests in a region that will remain relevant to the United States for years to come. It is particularly important in the context of the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance which asserts that maintaining American security requires to meet not only traditional security challenges “from great powers and regional adversaries, violent and criminal non-state actors and extremists” but also “from threats like climate change, infectious disease, cyberattacks, and disinformation that respect no national borders”.

Although the US has always relied on the combination of diplomacy and deterrence in its defense policy in the Middle East, deterrence may dictate US engagement in the region, as Washington tends to look at its role in the Middle East solely through the lens of its geopolitical competition with Russia and China. Both China and Russia have increased their engagement at the global politics and in specific fragile states which is certainly a major concern. For the US, the cornerstone of its policy is now the “containment of China” and “Build Back Better framework” which will increase the Diplomacy-Deterrence Complexities in the Middle East in the upcoming days.

[Photo by Raul654, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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