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The Missing Link in the Debate about US Middle East Strategy

The debate about a new US strategy in the Middle East, upon the change of guards in Washington, is often dominated by a distinct military perspective and a single focus on regional security defined in an excessively narrow terms. In the debate going on now we detect that foreign aid is not given its proper place. Furthermore we argue in favor of conceiving the term foreign aid in a totally different manner than the way it exists now. We believe that the way in which foreign aid programs are currently shaped resulted in placing this element at a lower place in the list of the elements of US strategy while it potentially represents a game changer in the quest for regional security.   

But first we should lay down how we define foreign assistance. Foreign assistance in this approach means targeted programs to develop the productive forces in troubled countries. It is not handouts to this or that government. It is not assistance to enhance military to military ties. It is rather an encompassing term that targets various objectives: Security, social stability, governance, respect of international law and universal rights, fighting radicalism and good neighborhood behavior are, with varying degrees, a reflection not of wealth, but rather of how wealth is generated in any given society.

Enhancing the productive forces through expansion of targeted foreign aid could ultimately yield positive results in all those accounts. The foreign aid in our context is a globally coordinated effort to democratize the economies of several Arab countries through providing targeted assistance in sectors like small businesses, integrated small farming, small transportation projects, fish farming, education and health care. A dynamic local market creates its culture and increases awareness of individual rights, the rule of law and the need for effective governance. The current aid programs are hardly targeting a specific desirable social impact. This contributes to the dilemmas US strategists face when shaping their approach to the Middle East.  

In the case of human rights violations, for example, we find that the opposition between working with allies on the one hand and how “democratic” those allies are on the other, has never been solved properly yet. People condemn working with, say, Arab governments which, in the views of many, do not respect human rights, only to find themselves with no other choice but working with the regimes they have just condemned.

Often, the contradiction is presented as a strategic conflict between realism and idealism. As it is not solved, it may be the source of future conceptual errors in the part of officials and administrations. Furthermore, taking it as an irreconcilable contradiction, risks either ending up with making any defense of values and respect of international norms meaningless and ineffective, or threatening alliances and interests.

So far, the “solution” offered to this contradiction divides areas of relations with any ally and picks what fits a specific objective. During the Arab Spring, for example, the common argument was that the Spring provides a perfect solution to the dilemma. It promises building democratic regimes capable of contributing to an open and liberal world space and of respecting human rights, all the while not presenting the US with any strategic threat. Yet, the failure of the Arab Spring, changes in Washington’s priorities, and the administration pursue of what it considered US regional interests in the region paved the road to a disappointments, tension and misunderstandings.

Things evolved until the emergence of the Islamic State and its turn to violence and terrorism against far countries. This looked as a way out for those who could not find a proper rationale to shape a strategy in the Middle East. Now, the rationale presented itself readymade and clear-cut: Fight ISIL.

In other words, fighting ISIL helped freeze the tiring search for a theoretical framework able to define the US strategy. It covered the real theoretical problems which need to be addressed. It provided an immediate goal that no one can dispute, hence makes the debate about those problems less urgent. But the problems are still standing before our eyes and still threaten deep confusion and splits in the future. It also threatens to make the US strategy more vulnerable to the ideological inclinations of future administrations, as much as it was during the Bush and Obama’s administrations.

Certain principles have been widely talked about in recent years stirring all kinds of disputes, yet without finding a conceptual framework that addresses both sides of the spectrum. They come clear once posed by specific questions. Is it the role of the US to “revolutionize” Middle East societies? To which extent should the US go in its quest to “spread democracy”? What should the US do when one of its allies use violence against their own people? Should the US act unilaterally in regional crisis? And how? What logic should underline force sizing in regional crisis?  How could the US combine its values and its alliances? Should the US make the rise of terrorism a central issue in forming regional alliances? etc., etc.

The general frame which gathers all these issues is that of finding a force multiplier to bridge the gap between capabilities and mission. And the key to this force multiplier is obviously a regional “security clubs” so to speak. Yet, even this general concept has its problems. It does not address a good part of the legitimate questions just mentioned. In other words, it does not provide the conceptual framework that combines the two opposed views of “realists” vs. “idealists”.

The missing element will remain missing so far as the screen has the existing dominant military dimension and narrow definition of security and the element of economic assistance is brushed aside as a long term shot. The military dimension should be only one component of the general strategy. The current dispersion in the map of tools-which should otherwise be combined to build a strategy-is very obvious. The reason is that while the military was active in debating and formulating a “general strategy”, the economic and cultural dimension of that strategy did not go through the same level of reflection and debate.

The economic dimension in any strategy is mainly thought of in a passive form-that is as a punishment (sanctions-boycott-etc.). Furthermore it is perceived as a burden (how much will that cost us?). It is one underdeveloped tool that could provide, as it did in the post Second World War Europe, a powerful base to build alliances.

Clearly, time has changed and so did the US relative economic weight and mussels. But this means shaping the proper economic aid programs to fit today’s capabilities and means on the one hand, and play an important role in the US regional strategy on the other.

The naïve concept of “exported democracy” stems from a willingness to expand the zone of peace, respect for international law, and universal human rights. But Iraq and Libya tell us that military intervention achieved exactly the opposite, at a huge cost.

US strategy should move to give prominence to the economic missing link.

The current tools in the US foreign aid programs show how this link was hardly developed in the last five decades. The US spent almost $23 billion in humanitarian assistance and $14 billion in foreign military assistance in 2013. Yet, wars, famine and crisis are abundant. The security situation in the region did not improve. In fact it deteriorated rapidly.

The central problem here is that in the current political culture in the US, the word strategy is often interpreted in military terms. Once the debate on the military strategy reaches a conclusion, other tools like foreign aid are quickly “attached”, parallel to the military objectives, to make a mathematical addition which claims to serve the total strategy.

The concept of foreign aid has to be revolutionized and changed profoundly. Foreign aid is not a hand out to needy countries. It should rather be a plan to introduce specific social changes within those countries.

A new global blueprint for the division of labor between various regions has to be debated. The Middle East is not socio-economically developed even if some of its countries are very rich. It is not wealth that counts. It is how wealth is generated. For generating wealth through development, innovation, education, work, and market forces shape all sides of social life be it culture, gender equality, view of minorities, political rights and proper governance. It is in the “how” that we will be talking about the social structure. And it is in the social structure that we will be talking about respect of universal human rights and international law, terrorism, democracy, governance, etc.

Presumably, it is a new map of global division of labor that should present the foundation of a new concept of the term global security. While this should not be taken in opposition to the “force multiplier” of regional military alliances, the US strategy should focus first on how to develop the productive forces of troubled regions.

Developing productive capacities in a given country is based on a combination of advice, assistance, sharing expertise, a proper plan of integrating small business and other sectors, help in opening trade agreements between different countries, etc. The US role as a world leader would cease to be defined in military terms. Yet, this economic link will yield its fruits on the social stability of the given countries in the troubled regions.

Would this imply that the US has to pour massive amounts of money into those regions? Not at all. What it takes is a different understanding of the real roots of crisis in the world troubled regions and a different definition of the term global security. This should be followed by a collective global effort to develop the productive capacity of those regions. Developing the productive capacities is not synonym to foreign aid. These are two completely different concepts.

In countries where the productive forces are not developed, the rule is that international laws, or any laws for that matter, are not respected. Even China today is different than the Cultural Revolution China.

The “prescription” of international financial institutions has to be replaced by governments led plan to end the economic misery of most countries in the Middle East. It doesn’t matter that today many of the region’s governments do not have a defendable human rights record. At one point, changing their behavior would become inevitable, not due to foreign military intervention, but due to their own natural evolution. This point comes on the road, not to wealth, but to how this wealth is generated.

Security is not a military term. It is wider than that. The stagnant economies of troubled regions should be considered the primary threat to world security. These economies should be helped to move forward. The ignition system must become the core of US strategy in the Middle East. The US must lead an international effort to implement a plan to get the region out of its current futile cycle of wars, crisis and violence.

To sum up, the foreign aid program has to be globalized, based on a global division of labor and a global effort to restart the region’s economies in a targeted way which expands the peoples participating in the economic free market sphere. This should be incorporated into the structure of the US strategy, all the while targeting it towards enhancing the productive forces within troubled countries. The current formula of foreign aid programs is not only not working, it camouflages any new concept in looking at the economic dimension as the missing link in the US strategy. This should not, however, be done on the expense of delaying the establishment of regional alliances based on burden sharing under the pretext of any idealist arguments.     

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