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Regional Threats and Security Strategy: The Troubling Case of Today's Middle East

Authored by Mr. James A. Russell. | November 2007

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Like the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967, the U.S. invasion of Iraq is fundamentally reordering regional politics and security in ways that will be felt for a generation, if not longer.1 The Pandora?s Box opened by the United States in Iraq adds a new level of unwelcome complexity to an already strained regional fabric. Threats to regional security stem from global, interstate, and intrastate sources. The complicated, multidimensional, and interrelated natures of these threats suggest that the United States must reassess strategy and policy if it is to protect and further its regional interests. The objective of this monograph is threefold: (1) deconstruct the threats to regional security and stability in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion; (2) determine whether U.S. strategy is tailored to the threat environment; and (3) suggest steps that can be taken to bring strategy and the environment into closer alignment.

Such a process runs counter to the current defense planning methodology paradigm used by the Defense Department. Both the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and its predecessor released just after the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks called for the divorce of U.S. strategy and defense planning from specific regional threats and contingencies. Instead, the planning documents called for the development of ?capabilities portfolios? to enable U.S. military forces to fight in a series of different operational environments: irregular warfare against nonstate actors, traditional interstate warfare, catastrophic attacks using weapons of mass destruction, and disruptive attacks from adversaries using cyber-warfare or other advanced technologies. This monograph argues that the United States needs to reconnect its strategy, policy, and defense planning to regional environments if it is to have any hope of mitigating threats to its interests, not just in the Middle East, but around the world.

The altered distribution of power has changed the nature of the security dilemma for regional states?the critical structural dynamic in interstate interactions and the engine driving the region?s geopolitical instability. The security dilemma refers to a term of art from the international relations theory of realism, which argues that states are primarily motivated by self-interest and exist in an anarchical, self-help system. The modern form of realism, the so-called ?neo-realist? paradigm developed by Kenneth Waltz, holds that actions taken by states to protect and enhance their security create in turn insecurity for surrounding states that causes states to balance and counterbalance each other in a never-ending cycle.2 Under this theory, the security dilemma of states and the relative distribution of power in the international system are a structural dynamic that governs interstate interactions. States pursue security through a combination of arms buildups and political-military relationships with other strong states in alliances. Pursuit of nuclear weapons?the putative ultimate guarantor of state security?and/or nuclear partners is explained under realist theory as a logical result of states? quest for security. That quest for security is operationalized by states? political leadership using a rational decision making process that apportions available resources to meet the security needs of the state.

The altered security regional dilemma and the region?s changing nuclear posture must be framed in the context of changing internal political dynamics? another of the structural features causing regional geopolitical instability. The unfolding HamasPalestinian Authority conflict in the Occupied Territories provides an apt metaphor of the broader internal struggles for power unfolding across the region in which the discredited ruling elites are searching for a formula to accommodate the rising power of the Islamists while preserving their own hold on power. Upsetting the apple cart of Iraqi politics comes at a time of regional generational transition, with the corpses of discredited secular dictatorships and monarchies still littering the regional political landscape.

The United States confronts the altered regional security environment with a strategy that remains rooted in its Cold War experience which featured collective defense arrangements backed by security guarantees, forward military presence, and strong U.S.?host nation military relations. In order to mitigate threats to regional security, the United States must first come to grips with the linkages between the intrastate, interstate, and global environments in the region. With the linkages established, the threats to regional security and stability as suggested in the Davos Forum?s formulation make perfect sense: geopolitical instability, energy supply disruptions, weapons proliferation, and international terrorism. To contain these threats, the United States must reconnect its security strategy to the regional environment, recognizing that it cannot simply apply ?capabilities portfolios? to complex political and military problems bounded by history and regional circumstances. The analysis presented here suggests that state behavior in the region is the product of an altered security dilemma, in which internal political pressures are discouraging regional states from entrusting responsibility for their strategic security to outside powers, and instead are moving them to redirect their security efforts inward.

The United States needs to undertake a strategic regional net assessment as it seeks to construct a regional security strategy to protect its interests and mitigate wider threats to international security. That net assessment should include (1) reviewing the role of security guarantees in promoting regional stability, an acknowledgment of the contradictory nature of the interstate and intrastate threats and tensions; and (2) the negative impact that the U.S. obsession with force protection is having on its ability to effectively implement strategy on the ground.


The U.S. invasion of Iraq is reordering the regional balance of power in ways that make the threat environment more dynamic and unpredictable. Iran is taking advantage of the environment to position itself as the dominant regional power, i.e., moving into the vacuum created by instability in Iraq and the weakening U.S. regional position. The aftermath of the Iraq War is creating a new security dilemma for the regional ruling elites, who can no longer outsource their strategic security to the United States. This dilemma has forced the regimes into embracing a changed nuclear posture as seen in their response to Iran?s rise and their own domestic opposition to the United States. In dealing with this security dilemma, the regional elites must at the same time confront the rising power of Islamist political movements with reduced maneuvering room.

For its part, the United States is faced with maintaining its Cold War era regional military infrastructure that addresses external threats to security but which complicates the ability of the regimes to address internal political issues. During the 1990s, containing Iraq in the air and at sea provided a convenient and supportable rationale for both the ruling elites and the United States to maintain this infrastructure. The Iraq war has changed this rationale for all parties concerned. While the United States now increasingly casts its presence in the context of the war on terror?this approach lacks strategic resonance and is not widely supported by regional publics.

Similarly, the overwhelmingly negative U.S. domestic public reaction to the Iraq War promises to diminish the willingness of future administrations to support an open-ended military commitment in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East?commitments manifested mainly through a forward military presence. These political uncertainties aside, however, the risks to global security emanating from the region demand that strategists adopt an integrated, longterm approach to address the region?s geopolitical instability. This may mean that the United States will have to return to a posture based more on an over-thehorizon naval and air presence to give regional elites the political breathing space they need to manage their dynamic intrastate environments and allow the roiling political currents sweeping through the region to run their course.


1.Richard Haas argues that the invasion has effectively ended the period of U.S. regional dominance dating to the end of the Cold War. See ?The New Middle East,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 6, November/December 2006, at www.foreignaffairs.org/20061101faessay85601/richard-n-haass/the-new-middle-east.html.

2. Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, New York: Random House, 1979.