American Crossroads

The Middle East Foretells

By Osamah Khalil

This troubled hotspot often gives an advance peek into broader political issues.

Special Series: American Crossroads
Eight faculty experts bring context and historical perspective to this year’s election.

When it comes to U.S. presidential elections, foreign policy often does not rank highly in the minds of American voters. And, barring a major crisis, events in the Middle East will not be a top concern for most voters in November.

But recent history demonstrates that Americans should pay closer attention to the Middle East. What’s often missed about the 2008 financial crisis was evidence of an economic downturn beginning in the Persian Gulf in 2007, which contributed to some of the broader systemic issues later experienced in Western Europe and the United States. It was also a contributing factor in the Arab uprisings and revolutions that swept across the region beginning in Tunisia in December 2010.

Currently, there are many problematic trends in the Middle East and North Africa. There is a youth bubble, with very few job prospects and the persistence of autocratic governments. Several major countries have experienced large protests against incompetent, corrupt, and repressive governments. The combination of failed states, refugees exiting Syria and Iraq, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, radical terrorist groups, collapsing oil prices, and tensions between the U.S. and Iran ensures the region will remain volatile, with global implications.

Whoever is elected will deal with all of these issues, but that’s not new. The U.S. is heavily and deeply involved in the Middle East, with a reliance on military force over diplomacy. Although President Trump promised plans to end the "endless wars" in the Middle East, America has become more deeply involved. The recent agreement with the Taliban to end America’s long war in Afghanistan is already at risk and may never be fully implemented. Meanwhile, the Trump administration ramped up tensions with Iran and continues to support Saudi Arabia’s war in neighboring Yemen. The U.S. maintains counterterrorism operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, yet President Trump has also stated that the American forces still based in Syria are there only to secure oil.

Meanwhile, the American public is woefully lacking in knowledge about the region. A poll taken after the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in January found only 23 percent of registered voters could locate Iran on a map.

Voters will be paying closest attention to domestic concerns. That’s understandable. But Americans would benefit from understanding the wider world. The Middle East is just one example of how interconnected we all are and the relationship between foreign and domestic policies.

Osamah KhalilOsamah Khalil is an associate professor of U.S. and Middle East history who often comments on the region’s politics for the media.

His book, America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State (Harvard University Press, 2016), explores the relationship between U.S. foreign policy and the origins and expansion of Middle East studies from World War I to the Global War on Terror.

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