Happy 33rd Birthday, The Majalla! On February 16, 1980, the magazine’s first edition went to print. The cover story was penned by British historian Desmond Stewart, who travelled to Washington to investigate America’s next move in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Less than two months earlier, Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan, marking the start of a grueling nine-year war. Some lessons are not easily learned.
The American response was the Carter Doctrine, which US President Jimmy Carter revealed in his 1980 State of the Union address:
“An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
In line with the new doctrine, the US began building up its forces in and around the Gulf, beginning with the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which would eventually transform into Central Command (CENTCOM), the combatant command that oversaw the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Majalla’s lifespan has therefore seen the growth of American military presence in the Gulf from its small beginnings to the high watermark of the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Now, with American forces out of Iraq, and soon Afghanistan, what does the future hold for America's presence in the Middle East?
Although the US is leaving Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unlikely to abandon the region completely, despite its financial troubles and the widely touted ‘pivot to Asia’ in the face of rising Chinese power. One only has to look at the fraught negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program to see just one example of the issues that keep the US deeply intertwined with the Gulf, which remains the site of the world’s largest oil reserves.
American ties with Israel will also ensure that the US keeps one foot in the region. These ties, and the stated American desire for a two-state solution to the Israel–Palestine dispute, means that Washington will watch the talks between Hamas and Fatah with great interest and play a major role in any future negotiations between the two parties and Israel.
The threat of terrorism will also continue to hold American attention in the Middle East, particularly in the ungoverned spaces that allow it to flourish. As long as Yemen remains accessible to anti-American terrorists, the US armada of reconnaissance and attack drones will continue to patrol the skies in and around the troubled country from nearby bases like Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Barring a sudden change in American politics, a dramatic improvement in Yemen’s situation, or the retreat of militants linked to Al-Qaeda from the country, the US will therefore likely continue to launch lethal drone strikes into the Peninsula’s most troubled state.
Aside from the employment of military power in these limited (but destructive) ways, the US has a new opportunity to reconfigure its deployment of soft power in the Middle East. As new governments in the region struggle to recast the relationship between state and society, the US has the chance to pull back from its counterproductive entanglements in countries like Egypt, where it was closely identified with Mubarak’s regime.
This may not even mean a reduction in American influence. By keeping its distance, the US has the chance to regain some moral authority and credibility in the eyes of newly mobilized publics and the youthful populations of many Middle Eastern states, thanks to its history of democratic struggle and civil rights activism within its own borders. This could be assisted by the judicious use of economic and political aid, and the building of transnational links between educational institutions, NGOs and activists, with minimal state involvement.
At the end of the Cold War, a conservative intellectual who served as the Reagan administration’s representative to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, wrote in the pages of the National Interest that the US now had the opportunity to be “a normal country in a normal time.” Ironically, given the extraordinary turmoil in the Arab world, the US should seize the opportunity to do just that: step back and give newly empowered Arab publics the chance to find the level of American involvement in their societies that they are most comfortable with. In other words, to stop being the familiar, overbearing ally, and find a new role more like that of any other state.