“From now on,” President Donald Trump declared in his inaugural address, “it’s going to be only America first, America first!” If so, no region stands to be more affected than West Asia and North Africa—what Americans call “the Middle East.” America’s interests there are now entirely derivative rather than direct. They are a function of the self-appointed roles of the United States as the warden of world order, the guarantor of other nations’ security, the shepherd of the world economy, and the custodian of the global commons. If America is now to look out only for itself, it has little obvious reason to be much involved in the Middle East.
The United States is a secular democracy. It has no intrinsic interest in which theology rules hearts or dominates territory in the Middle East. It is not itself now dependent on energy imports from the Persian Gulf or the Maghreb. For most of the two-and-a-half centuries since their country was born, Americans kept a healthy distance from the region and were unharmed by events there. They extended their protection to specific nations in the Middle East as part of a global struggle against Soviet communism that is long past. What happens in the region no longer determines the global balance of power.
U.S. wars in the Middle East are—without exception—wars of choice. These wars have proven ruinously expensive and injurious to the civil liberties of Americans. They have poisoned American political culture with various manifestations of xenophobia. Islamophobia has transitioned naturally to anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and bigotry. In the region itself, American military interventions have produced more anarchy than order, more terror than tranquility, more oppression than democratization, and more blowback than pacification.
More than in any other region, America’s misadventures in the Middle East illustrate the need for the United States to decide whether it is the vindicator only of its own interests or the champion and protector of all the world’s prosperity and security. Can America go its own way or must it keep commitments it made under different circumstances in the past? Are Americans accountable for the damage their interventions have wrought, or free to leave to others the task of remedying the miseries they helped create?
In essence, these choices come down to whether the United States needs to deploy its power on a worldwide basis or just carries on doing so because it did in the past and still can. The state of affairs in the Middle East affects America’s global power. The region is where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. It is a way station or choke point on air and shipping routes between Asia and Europe. It is where the world’s energy supplies are concentrated. It is the point of origin of the three Abrahamic religions and the driver of global contention between them.
The freedom to transit the Middle East is central to the ability of the…