It Is Time to Renew America’s Purpose in the Middle East, Writes Steven A. Cook in New Book

It Is Time to Renew America’s Purpose in the Middle East, Writes Steven A. Cook in New Book

June 3, 2024 12:33 pm (EST)

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As the Israel-Hamas war continues and U.S. policymakers seek to contain the conflict and deter Iran, Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) writes in a timely and important new book that it is not the time for retrenchment in the region, “but rather a renewal of America’s purpose in the Middle East,” informed by the failures and successes of U.S. policy in recent decades. “The challenge for policymakers,” contends Cook, who is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, “is to develop a set of achievable goals in a part of the world that will remain critical in global politics and thus to the United States.” 

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“To pivot away from the region would be self-defeating for the United States,” he warns in The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East (Oxford University Press).

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“From an American gaze, the Middle East is truly the middle, connecting as it does core U.S. global interests in the stability of Europe, the extraction and transport of energy resources, with opportunities in Asia,” Cook explains. “It is also a region comprising countries that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis, where extremism persists, and the danger of nuclear proliferation remains.”

Cook describes the era of U.S. policy in the Middle East from the end of the Cold War through the mid-2010s as one “marked by costly and unrealistic efforts.” He writes that “forging a Palestinian state, remaking Iraqi society, and promoting democracy in the Arab world were the results of a toxic brew of America’s unbounded power and faulty assumptions about the Middle East that produced an ambitious effort to transform the region.”  

Cook reminds readers that “there was a time when the United States was successful in the region.”  

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“The United States successfully secured its interests in the Middle East throughout the Cold War,” he writes. “Those interests were preventing the disruption of oil exports from the region, helping to forestall threats to Israeli security, and, during the Cold War, containing the Soviet Union.”

“Washington can be effective once again, but this will require policymakers to choose priorities based on interests that are achievable at an acceptable cost.” Cook calls for U.S. leaders to pursue prudential conservatism, which “places a premium on seeing the world as it is, safeguarding against transformational impulses, and enabling policies that do as little harm as possible to U.S. interests in the Middle East.”  

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Accordingly, “when the United States sought to prevent ‘bad things’ from happening to its interests, it succeeded. However, when Washington sought to leverage its power to make ‘good things’ happen in the service of its interests, it often failed.”  

“Although leaders in the region have sought to diversify their relations, the United States remains appealing to them because it remains the global superpower and among other attribute of power, a leader in technology. Whatever doubts and differences Arab leaders and their people harbor about the United States, they have long wanted to benefit from America’s know-how,” Cook concludes. 

Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the author of three books, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, which won the 2012 gold medal from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey

Read more about The End of Ambition and order your copy at cfr.org/end-ambition.

To request an interview, please contact CFR Communications at [email protected].

 

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