During her talk, Leverett spoke at length about how the current U.S. foreign policy is “failing badly” in the Middle East, that it is not only “deeply damaging” to Middle Eastern and other Muslims but also “profoundly counterproductive” to American interests and America’s position internationally. And, ultimately, she remarked, it is “unsustainable in material and moral terms.”
She traced the foundations of the present American foreign policy to the post-World War II goal of establishing the United States as a dominant player in world politics. The control of Middle East oil emerged as a strategic aspect in achieving this purpose. According to Leverett, this was never about fulfilling America’s own energy needs, but rather about having the influence to decide who gets Middle East oil.
“For 70 years,” Leverett explained, “the fundamental basis of American interest in and influence over Middle East oil has been to turn ever greater international demand for Middle East oil into international dependence on, if not acquiescence at least to, U.S. military dominance over the Middle East, and thereby to tie the world’s major economies to United States securing the Middle East oil flows and the sea lanes through which that oil would get to international market.”
She remarked that this “fundamentally hegemonic project of building a pro-American regional, political, and security order” has been pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations – i.e., it is not a partisan issue. The post-Cold War deployment of hundreds and thousands of American troops in the Middle East – at first, to liberate Kuwait, but then to keep them there indefinitely – is a crucial element in maintaining this “highly militarized” strategy.
Furthermore, the policy has included supporting pro-American dictatorships against the best interests of the population, which has completely failed, Leverett emphasized. “As a consequence, the Middle East today is less stable, more ridden with sectarian and ethnic conflict and more violent than at any point in its modern history,” she declared. “At the same time, the U.S. has made itself weaker in the Middle East and globally.”
A “pernicious” reason sometimes given for this decline is that “something is wrong with Muslims – they don’t want the American dream.” However, Leverett asserted that the situation would be much better if the U.S. had insisted on dealing with representative polities (as opposed to those that are willing to subordinate their nation’s goals to those of the United States’), restored the perceived legitimacy of American interest in the Middle East, and acknowledged the central role of Islam in the Muslim world.
She stated that there is a need for a radical policy change in the United States – one that is rooted in “long-standing American law.” She suggested that the U.S. must encourage political participation in the Middle East and engage with authentic Islamist and social movements. In addition, we must stop militarizing political unrest, respect elections, ban military aid to those who overthrow democratically elected governments, restrict military aid to governments that have nuclear arsenals but are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and adhere to the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Leverett concluded by reiterating how well or how poorly the U.S. and the West in general treat Muslims in the Middle East, the Muslim World, and the Muslim diaspora community is the “defining moral, political, and strategic challenge” of our era – something that will also determine the “quality of our democracy.”