National Interests

Is American policy in the Middle East dictated by national interest or interest groups?

Matt Yglesias pushes back against an old trope:

When the USA assembles a large coalition of allies that is, among other things, a large coalition of customers for American defense contractors. What’s more, the allies then often need defending, both in terms of military bases and general expeditionary capabilities. So we have a controlling domestic political coalition that’s defined our “interests” in the Middle East as consisting of collecting a large and diversified portfolio of local allied regimes who we then directly and indirectly subsidize. But the proposition that this reflects the real interests of the American population is contestable. The connection to real interests is that the price of gasoline is very important to the welfare of the average American household, and that Middle Eastern politics are important to the price of gasoline. But I’m not sure Middle Eastern politics really are all that important to the price of gasoline over the long run and I’m quite certain that the past 30 years worth of American policy in the region don’t represent a cost-effective way of coping with the economic risks of oil price instability.

His closing point is a strong one: It’s hard to argue that America’s Middle East policies have been cost effective. Or, effective period.

But it’s unfair to say that we’ve manufactured a “national interest” in the region based on interest group capture. And, surely, not the defense industry.

We decided, in the person of Harry Truman, to recognize Israel as an independent nation upon their declaration as such. We’ve been defending the existence of an independent, Jewish state among hostile Arabs and Persians ever since. Partly, that’s a function of the disproportionate sway the Jewish diaspora has on American politics, particularly within the Democratic coalition. Mostly, though, it’s a longstanding affinity between American Christians and the Jews, especially when juxtaposed against the Muslims.  (That this existed alongside rampant anti-Semitism is weird in hindsight but nonetheless true.)

Our support for the dictatorial regimes of Anwar Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, largely sprang from the Camp David Accords. The Egyptian government has been seen as a stabilizing force in the region and a bulwark against a fourth Arab-Israeli war.  It’s more-or-less worked.

Several regional governments, most notably the Saudis, have been excellent customers for American arms.  But they were seen as valuable allies against, first, the Soviets and, more recently, Iran and other hostile regimes.  This balancing act has had decidedly mixed results.

And, of course, oil is a central consideration of our broader Middle East policy. Our relationship with the Saudis, especially, have been about stabilizing the production and price of crude oil. And, again, the outcomes have been mixed and the effectiveness is debatable.

International politics is generally about muddling through. Trying to influence the policies of other states is inherently difficult, given competing interests, shifting coalitions, and national sovereignty. So, we’re likely to fail more often at not at getting precisely what we want.

Further, like all politics, it’s influenced by multiple actors. So, yes,the defense industry tries to get its way. Ditto Big Oil, the Chamber of Commerce, religious interests, human rights groups, diaspora groups, and myriad others.  But those “special interests,” in aggregate, are America and their interests at least partly make up the “American national interest.”  Which is why American foreign policy tends to be remarkably consistent over time, regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ponce says:

    “But those “special interests,” in aggregate, are America”

    Corrupt transnational oil companies, parasitic defense companies, fringe right Israeli and American religious fanatics = America?

    What a sickening thought.

    Let’s hope it isn’t true…

  2. John Burgess says:

    Self-perpetuating ‘human rights’ NGOs who can only find abuse when it comes from their enemies, but never their friends, fringe pseudo-economists who pump up their stock consultancies by feeding populist fears of Arabs, academics and their professional organizations that demonize Jews or Christians?

    Why, I do believe you’re right! It is America, or at least the seamier part of it!

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It was nearly twenty years (and several wars between Israel and its neighbors) between the time when Harry Truman recognized Israel and the U. S. became Israel’s most significant patron. Remarkably we had big oil companies and a large defense during all of that twenty years.

    Did they suddenly come to their sense and recognize they’d been missing a good thing? What explains the long period of inattention?