Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Rebuttal)

Dave Schuler’s arguments and his responses to my cross-examination questions highlight three critical failings in his argument. These flaws are his preference for inertia over strategic assessment, overweighing ambiguous evidence that marginally supports his case while ignoring compelling evidence that refutes it, and a failure to account for what might be called “conditions on the ground.” I will address each in turn.

First, Dave’s insistence that the burden of proof ought to rest on me may be good debate technique, but it is poor policy analysis. As I argued in an earlier post, the burden of proof for making policy changes should not be determined by arcane rules of procedure, but rather by a fair-minded assessment of the current status of the policy. For instance, though I support gay marriage personally, I am cognizant of the fact that traditional marriage is a pretty successful policy, and that as a result gay marriage proponents bear some burden of proof to show that it will not damage the institution. In the Middle East, the reverse case obtains. America’s Middle East policy is a disaster. It cries out for change, and the burden of proof for the status quo rests firmly in those proponents of the status quo. But instead of debating the rules of the game, why not deal with reality? An argument is only as powerful as its ability to persuade.

Dave: Instead of appealing to imaginary judges applying obscure scoring rules, let’s let the readers decide. At the end of this debate, let’s poll the readers of OTB, who are, on the whole part of the best informed and most thoughtful blog community out there. Let’s ask them who they think won the debate.

Second, my claim about the burden of proof relies upon more than just positioning. Ultimately, I think this procedural debate reflects an underlying dispute about what the evidence of the case is. Dave argues the following:

I won’t deny that my motives are partly altruistic but that’s not the only reason we should want stability in the Middle East. Avoidance of oil price shocks doesn’t just benefit the United States but every country that buys oil whether they’re in South America, Africa, or Asia.

He also says,

From World War II to the promulgation of the Carter Doctrine and increased U. S. engagement with the Middle East, the countries of the region went to war with each other and European countries more than 15 times. The U. S. wasn’t a party to any of these conflicts. When the Carter Doctrine was promulgated Lebanon was engaged in a lengthy civil war, the Soviet were engaged in a war in Afghanistan, Iran had overthrown the Shah, invaded our embassy, and was holding our diplomats hostage, and relations between Iran and Iraq had already deteriorated. This deterioration culminated in the war between the two countries that took more than 800,000 lives. The entire region threatened to descend into chaos. That’s when we became involved.

Since our increased involvement there have been additional wars in the Middle East but their tempo and severity have decreased. Nothing has approached the level of tension evident in 1980 at least until the deterioration of the situation in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 following the U. S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (don’t look to me to defend the invasion of Iraq—I opposed it).

I believe the evidence speaks clearly: the increased U. S. engagement in the region has overall been a stabilizing force.

In short, Dave believes that the Middle East is more stable now that the U.S. is more involved. He’s wrong. It isn’t. The price of oil is not more stable. And conflict has not particularly diminished.

Let’s talk about oil first. One measure of the volatility of the price of oil is to the take the standard deviation of the monthly price and divide it by the current price. There are other ways to measure how stable prices are, but they will show similar results. Between 1946 and 1972, the average monthly standard deviation in the price of oil as a percentage of the price of oil was 1.69%, demonstrating tremendous price stability. From 1973 to 1989, it was 9.41%. From 1990 to the present it is 11.07%. (spreadsheet available here)

As American involvement in the region has deepened, the price of oil has become progressively more volatile. Since the 1990-91 Gulf War prices are more volatile even than the period that cover the “oil shocks” of the 1970s. The consequences have been smaller because we are better now at hedging against volatility with reserves and future contracts, not because the price has stabilized. More American involvement correlates with increased volatility, not stability.

The same is mirrored in the security realm. Yes, there were over a dozen “wars” in the Middle East between World War II and 1980. Dave’s list includes:

    1. 1948 Arab-Israeli War
    2. 1956 Suez War
    3. 1961-1991 Eritrean War of Independence
    4. 1962-1970 North Yemen Civil War (Saudi, Egyptian regulars participated)
    5. 1967 Six Day War
    6. 1967 Iraq-Kuwait conflict
    7. 1970 War of Attrition
    8. 1970 PLO-Jordanian War (Syrian regulars participated)
    9. 1973 Yom Kippur War
    10. 1973 Iraq-Kuwait conflict
    11. 1975-1990 Lebanon Civil War (Syrian regulars participated)
    12. 1976 Iraq-Kuwait conflict
    13. 1977 Libya-Egypt War
    14. 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War

Several of those were pretty minor. The 1970 War of Attrition including involved no significant conventional ground forces but were instead extended artillery duels and quick, vicious air-combat operations. Three more of these “conflicts” were border spats between Iraq and Kuwait in 1967, 1973, and 1976. The 1970 PLO-Jordan War was not a sign of instability, but rather a counter-terrorism operation by the Jordanians. And in the case of the Iran-Iraq War, we quietly supported Iraq. I had never even heard of the 1977 Libya-Egypt War.

There have also been plenty of conflicts since 1980 — multiple Israeli interventions in Lebanon, insurgencies in Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen. Two Intifadas. The difference is not in the overall level of political violence, but rather in the number of large-scale, organized conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That’s where the perception comes from that the Middle East is now more peaceful.

But let’s be honest here, war has never been quite as endemic as Israeli apologists have tried to make it seem. Yes, there was conflict after decolonization in 1948. But the 1956 “war” was just a British-French-Israeli plot to seize the Suez Canal. True, from 1967 to 1973 was a period of essentially open warfare between Israel and a combination of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. But after 1973, three dynamics operated to quell that conflict. First, Israel essentially made clear its nuclear status. Second, politics in Syria and Egypt gradually transitioned from a post-colonization period of rule by populist demagogues into rule by entrenched elites with dynastic ambitions (and hence low risk tolerance). Third, the United States helped sponsor a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and solidified it with a multi-billion dollar annual aid package. From my perspective, that makes the lack of interstate wars between Israel and its neighbors over-determined. And at this juncture, peace between Israel, Egypt, and Syria is sustained by dynamics that operate independent of American actions.

So, the price of oil is more volatile, not less, and the reduction is warfare is mostly an illusion and can be ascribed to broader trends and developments moreso than to active American diplomacy.

One last point about ambiguous evidence: Sayyid Qutb. Without getting down in the weeds, Qutb was an Egyptian intellectual who helped develop the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. He did influence al Qaeda in some ways, though the differences are more significant than the similarities from an American perspective. Qutb felt that the Muslim world was mired in poverty, weakness, and humiliation because Muslims had turned their backs on Islam. He further made a revolutionary argument that since Muslim leaders were complicit in this rejection of Islam and mainstream clerics were in the employ of these apostate leaders, it was up to righteous Muslims individually to fight for the creation of a new, pure Islamic state. Qutbism is a problem for Muslim rulers. What al Qaeda did was externalize the argument, saying that while local rulers were indeed a problem, no progress could be achieved without first defeating foreign countries that were supporting those apostate rulers — the “far enemy.”

Dave’s argument, which conflates Qutbism with bin Ladenism is at the root of the misguided nature of American foreign policy. The United States simply cannot be against Islamism as a general principle. If people want to be governed by religious law, it is none of our business. It becomes our business when their quest encourages them to attack American interest. Dave’s claims about Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood make my case, not his. There is a powerful populist movement in the Muslim world that ought to be primarily focused on domestic reform and is instead increasingly focused on anti-American violence because of our meddling. We have essentially transformed local grievances into international terrorism.

Finally, a few words about conditions on the ground. Dave would like more contact between Americans and Middle Easterners, rather than less. Let’s discuss the face of American power. The American presence in the Middle East is ominous and provocative. It is missile strikes and renditions. Our embassies are massive concrete structures, set back from the road, with triple rings of security barriers. Our businesses operate behind barbed wire and are protected by private security. Americans travel in armed convoys and stay in secluded hotels that also feature fortress-like precautions. The Lebanon hostage crises of the 1980s, attacks on tourists since 1992 in Egypt, and the 1998 Embassy bombings have combined to create a distance between Americans and ordinary citizens in many Arab countries. We simply cannot turn the clock back to an idealized day when broad-based, informal contact was the norm. Beyond that, there are just not that many great business opportunities. Throughout the region, corruption is rife, security a challenge, language barriers remain significant. The Middle East is just not going to be a particularly promising area for American involvement in the near future.

Engagement and disengagement are not binary values. My call is not for zero presence, but rather for a diminished visibility of our role in the region. I will provide some additional thoughts in final post, but at this juncture I think it should be clearly that the case for continued involvement — as ably laid out by Dave Schuler — is ultimately seriously flawed on procedural, logical, and empirical grounds.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Bernard Finel
About Bernard Finel
Bernard I. Finel is Chair of the Department of Security Studies at the National War College. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. He contributed several posts to OTB from December 2008 to February 2009.


  1. tom p says:

    Bernard, the spreadsheet link isn’t working for me. Don’t know if it is my computer or not, but all I get is a bunch of gobbledygoop about settings.

  2. James Joyner says:

    tom: It’s a direct link to a Word 2007 spreadsheet.

  3. tom p says:

    Thanx James, but my geek gf say it just isn’t going to work. not sure why, she gave me a bunch of gobbledygoop explaining it, but it could have been greek to me.

  4. tom p says:

    In short, Dave believes that the Middle East is more stable now that the U.S. is more involved. He’s wrong. It isn’t. The price of oil is not more stable. And conflict has not particularly diminished.

    I have to say I find this rather persuading. Bernards #’s on the price of oil is rather damning, and while open conflict among the various states of the ME at the present time is non-existent, there are several simmering pots waiting to boil over: The Hamas, Israel, P-A dynamics, Lebanon, and Iraq are the obvious ones, but there is also the pressure these situations put on the other players there as well. Jordan and Egypt have a lot at stake in the WB and Gaza, Syria is a major player in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iran all have a lot at stake in Iraq, and I don’t even need to mention Israel.

    Between the fact that none of these players give a rat’s ass about our best interests, and only use us to further their own goals (this is only natural) and every time we take a direct role any where there, it seems to backfire on us, has me leaning towards

    America’s Middle East policy is a disaster. It cries out for change, and the burden of proof for the status quo rests firmly in those proponents of the status quo.

    But I could still be persuaded otherwise.

  5. Michael says:

    At the end of this debate, let’s poll the readers of OTB

    That sounds like a good bad idea.

    who are, on the whole part of the best informed and most thoughtful blog community out there.

    We are? Seriously? That doesn’t bode well…

    Let’s ask them who they think won the debate.

    Well that’s easy, we’ll pick whomever was advocating the side we already agreed with. Bithead will think Dave one, Anjin-san will think you won, etc. Even I am favorable to your argument, but I at least know it’s mostly because your argument said I am right.

    In reality, neither of you won, neither argument was really strong enough to convince enough people of the opposite persuasion. But don’t let that get you down, it was still one of the best pieces of journalism blogging I’ve seen in a while. I look forward to seeing this format applied to other topics.

  6. Michael says:

    Thanx James, but my geek gf say it just isn’t going to work. not sure why, she gave me a bunch of gobbledygoop explaining it, but it could have been greek to me.

    Go here: http://www.openoffice.org/ download and install version 3.0 (or later) and try the link again, you should be good to go.

  7. zenpundit says:

    Dr. Finel,

    First, let me congratulate you on the fine debate that you had with Dave. It was a first rate performance from the both of you and a kind of exchange that hopefully will be emulated by others in the future.

    As to substance, regarding the price of oil, correlation does not equate with causation. By the standard you are using(deepening American engagement)the price of oil should have skyrocketed in the 1990’s with Gulf War I., American troops in KSA and Kuwait, the enforcement of “no fly zones” in Iraq and Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the second intifada with the Clinton brokered talks with Arafat and Barak and so on. Yet oil prices plunged despite the time being a (then) high point of U.S. involvement in the Mideast.

    Historically, the freer commodity markets are, the greater the fluctuation with a longitudinal trend toward real declines in price until either a seller(s) establishes monopoloy/oligopolistic control (Standard Oil, Alcoa aluminum, 1970’s OPEC)or demand rises through market expansion, or both. Real demand for oil and gas are rising due to increased Asian energy consumption which coincides with the poorly handled occupation of Iraq and major oil producers being in need of structural reinvestment for the oil industries ( Russia, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela – and in general, the global energy market needs greater refining capacity.

    My longwinded way of saying that the volatile price of oil cannot entirely be laid at the door of Mr. Bush or American policy in the Mideast.

    Furthermore, as Dave has argued, I suspect you overestimate how American actions impact the worldview of what Olivier Roy would call “neo-fundamentalist” Islamists or violent Salafi jihadists. This is an ideological movement that has been evolving and reifying for approximately 130+ years and did not start in 2001, or 1989 or 1979 or even 1965 when Faisal decided to start exporting Wahabbism using Saudi financial muscle.

    We come very late in the game to people like Bin Laden – even the Palestinians and Israel are a throwaway mention or tag line in AQ videos. Doing everything that you would suggest would not move radical Islamist opinion one iota in a favorable direction toward the United States if aiding the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets or the Bosnians and Kosovars against the Serbs did nothing.

    Can we pursue our interests in a more intelligent fashion while generating less “friction” in the Arab world ? Certainly, and we should. Can we sacrifice our interests to pursue intangible gains in public opinion in the Arab world? Not really.