Except at the most general level, thinking strategically about the Greater Middle East is a thankless task. On the basics, everyone is agreed. The challenge is a millennial one - how to transition the Middle East out of its ruinous security competition, away from the old antagonisms and towards some version, however minimal, of the Kantian peace. Agreement at this level of abstraction is not difficult. The problems emerge when you attempt to translate this into a working policy. The problem is that the elements for such a peace are simply not in place. Next to a patchwork of small, independent sheikdoms there are the two giants - Iran and Iraq – hostile, predatory, seething with resentment and fortified by a historical sense of injustice. Massively more powerful, the two great Leviathans eye the enormous oil wealth of the tiny Gulf states with a mixture of envy and avarice. This is no recipe for a stable and enduring equilibrium. In any test of strength the Gulf states would quickly be overrun by their larger, more powerful neighbours.

When imbalances are structural in this way, peace depends above all upon the major powers deciding upon a policy of restraint. In the absence of a sense of restraint, and under conditions of structural imbalance, all that is left is to demonstrate the futility of conquest – to substitute a physical equilibrium for a moral one. And that is essentially the core of US foreign policy in the Gulf – to preserve the independence of the Gulf states. That the imbalances are structural gives the policy an air of permanence. This should not confuse us into thinking that we have somehow departed from balance of power politics. US forces are still arrayed against the stronger power in classic balance of power style. We are used to the shifting alignments of the European state system and this element of stability in the Middle East confuses us into thinking that we have moved beyond balance of power diplomacy, but policy in the Middle East does not meet even the most minimal requirements of hegemony. US policy in the Middle East has been much less ambitious. It has not attempted anything like the transformations we have seen elsewhere in America’s extended sphere of influence. In the Middle East, America has sought to manipulate the balance, not transcend it.

The problem with this strategy is that, although the interests of the key players in the region are broadly congruent, at the same time there are a whole set of conflicting geopolitical imperatives at play. This leaves policy lacking all coherence. Both Pakistan and Iran share an interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan and yet, for different reasons, design policy to secure short-term tactical advantage. Iran alone has pledged $660 million for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, making it one of the lead donors and, like America, has no desire to see the Taliban reconstitute itself. At the same time, there is a desire to deny America a clear-cut victory and so we find Iranian elements supporting the insurgency. A similar dynamic is at work in Pakistan. Nervous of America’s emerging strategic partnership with India and fearful of a sharp reversal in American policy, they too have followed a hedging strategy; outwardly supporting the coalition while allowing elements in the ISI to continue support for the insurgency. We see this ambivalence running right through the multinational effort, with key regional players either unwilling to commit or worse, actively working against the mission. The only way to cut through this and refocus the Iranian and Pakistani effort away from strategic competition with each other and onto the shared long-range objective is for us to reaffirm our commitment. I see no other way to dampen down strategic competition and build trust between the key players. Any ambiguity or reticence on our part will simply convince hard line elements in Iran that they can inflict a strategic defeat on America. Too tantalising a prospect for them to resist, this will likely override their commitment to the reconstruction and stabilisation effort.

Similarly the Pakistanis: they are unlikely to be reassured of America’s ongoing support without a substantial commitment of American men and material. Convince them that the American commitment is a lasting one, however, and the incentive for them to ally with the insurgency diminishes significantly. That is why the hysteria surrounding much of the debate is so frustrating. The Indian ambassador to the US signalled as much last week, arguing that the key to stability in the region is "sustained US commitment” and calling for America to “stay the course”. What does this all mean for our evolving AfPak strategy? Well, it certainly does not mean drawing down our forces and retreating to an 'over-the-horizon' posture - in Afghanistan, or elsewhere. The persistent call for America to adopt an offshore balancing strategy, to retreat to the safety of the carriers and fight a version of George Will's absurd robot war - The Attack of the Drones - is just preposterous. It is foreign policy as Hollywood movie. It could be safely ignored had the leading advocates of the policy not managed to insert themselves into positions of such influence. As it is, they are not merely absurd, but dangerous.

As recent events in Kunduz province demonstrate, as counterinsurgency strategy this is just about as wrong as it gets - and the quickest way to strategic defeat in Afghanistan. No, as I have argued elsewhere, it is time to end this adolescent fixation with with simplifying narratives and settle down to the hard slog of diplomacy, deterrence, containment and alliance building. A big part of our effort has to be about recapturing some of the early diplomatic momentum that managed to secure donations in excess of $8bn from upwards of 30 countries in the spring of 2004. That means rebuilding trust between America and the key regional players. It means renewing the effort to build outward from areas of common interest, particularly with Iran - an important opportunity squandered by the Bush administration – and bringing the big regional players back into the process. Effectively, it means turning the clock back to mid-2001 and pressing the restart button with the Iranians as well as the Russians.

Of course, it is going to be difficult to secure full cooperation from Iran all the while we are pursuing a confrontational policy on their nuclear ambitions and so Afghanistan policy needs to be part of a larger design, encompassing all interested players. Obama realises this, which is why we are seeing a rejection of the Bush administration strategy in favour of renewed American engagement on both the nuclear issue and Israel-Palestine. Ultimately, we need to find a role for Iran commensurate with its size and historical importance. It is inevitable that a country as important as Iran will assume something like its full height as a regional power and so the key for strategists therefore is to align policy with long-term secular trends. Policy that rubs too hard against the grain of these developments condemns itself to increasing irrelevance. But these are considerations for the long term. Our priority is obviously to design a policy for the next eighteen months, rather than the next half-century. In the short-term, policy should cohere around a series of confidence-building measures. This means disavowing any attempt at regime change and holding out the prospect of strategic partnership with Iran, but only on the basis of full compliance with its obligations under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If you are looking to build consensus around a more assertive diplomacy on non-proliferation you have to place the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) front and centre. You have to multilateralise the effort, make the IAEA the lead agency and design policy around its monitoring and compliance processes. The idea that America’s strategic position will be strengthened by another assault on the institutions of global governance is absurd.

Any effort to unilateralise policy in this area will further erode support for American leadership, both in the region and beyond. So, policy should first acknowledge Iran’s rights under the NPT, but couple this with an insistence that these rights carry with them responsibilities - foremost among them the obligation to cooperate with the IAEA. This really should be the focus of the diplomatic effort - a push for full compliance, but done in a way that is much more visible, and public. Despite all Obama’s talk of multilateralising the effort, there still appears to be very little room in America’s public diplomacy or her national conversation for developments at the IAEA. The lead UN agency on counter-proliferation is barely reported by the mainstream press and we are no closer to resolving America’s ambivalent relationship with the UN and its agencies. This has to change. We need to see a much more vigorous round of public diplomacy. The alternative is to let the increasingly hysterical Israeli Right shape perceptions on the issue with all that implies for America's international position.
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