U.S. Should Remain Actively Engaged in the Middle East, But Restraint Is Key

A little over a year from now, our nation will inaugurate its 45th president, who will be sworn into office and introduce his or her own foreign policy plan concerning areas of the world important to our national interests.

Now I've been called any number of names -- not all fit to print -- in my many years as a politician, but prognosticator isn't one of them. I prefer to leave the predicting to the pundits, especially during election season. But I can say with quite a bit of certainty that whoever accepts the oath of office next January, despite his or her best-laid plans, will be forced to focus intently on the future of the Middle East.

I base this statement on experience: I have watched every American president since Lyndon Johnson get sucked into the vortex of the Middle East, an area of the world in which our nation continues to have important interests, even if some of those interests are less so now that we've risen to become the world's leading oil producer. Still, we continue to be greatly concerned with ensuring the stability of the region, maintaining our strong support of Israel and deepening our relations with friendly Arab states.

The Middle East, of course, represents a swirling vortex, one characterized by political upheaval, massive protests, imploding countries, autocratic governments and a few islands of calm. A more bleak and dangerous place than ever before, it has developed into the cradle of terrorism, and it has served as the source of many of our recent domestic actions, such as vastly expanding our government's powers of surveillance in response to attacks on us from this region of the world.

Generally speaking, despite our best intentions, our nation's policies in dealing with the problems of the Middle East have not been successful in trying to bring stability. We've tried hard with very limited success, and our hopes have been repeatedly dashed. Neither the "aggressive unilateralism" of George W. Bush's administration nor the "light footprint" of President Barack Obama has prevented the region from continuing its descent into chaos, violence, disintegration and repression.

In recent years, the Middle East has experienced an enormous proliferation of warlords and terrorist groups, most notably ISIS. At the same time, several countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, continue to be ravaged by civil war.

A flood of refugees seeking to escape its war-torn territories has destabilized the region, while also threatening the European Union, which, according to recent reports, will likely face a spring tide of asylum-seekers even larger than that of last year.

Furthermore, this is a region still reeling from the failure of the Arab Spring and what was left in its wake, including a long line of ineffective leaders, major tensions and great political grievances, including those of the Sunni groups who have been denied representation in government.

Our nation has responded to these developments in all sorts of ways, including intervening militarily and politically and expending enormous amounts of economic aid and diplomatic energy in the region. On the domestic front, we have greatly intensified our homeland security efforts, spending billions of dollars each year to secure our borders and snuff out terrorist attacks.

Citing numerous failures, many critics of our foreign policy toward Middle East continue to advocate for the U.S. to run from the region, a position with which I strongly disagree. Indeed, I maintain my support for our deep engagement, but with greater conditionality.

First and foremost, we and our allies in the Middle East must recognize that the problems plaguing the region are not fundamentally ours. Try as we have, we cannot solve them. We have to realize our significant limitations in trying to lead this turbulent part of the world.

I remain highly skeptical of military intervention, but we should not automatically rule out further use of American armed forces, which, despite the challenges we've faced in countries such as Iraq and Syria, are still the best in the world. I am also doubtful at our effectiveness at nation building and democracy promotion.

Military intervention aside, we should help where we can, using all of the political, diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal to try to reduce the tension and conflict in the region. American diplomats should stand ready to intensify their level of activity and engagement, supporting indigenous efforts to expand democracy, tolerance and freedom. At the same time, though, we must make it a strong condition of our involvement that local leaders step forward and do their part to address what, in many instances, are centuries-old challenges. If they do not step forward, the lesson I draw from decades of experience is that we cannot do it for them.

Put simply, the U.S. will still need to remain active in the region, but we will need to act with tough love, patience and restraint. Understanding our limitations and where we can have the most impact with the resources available to us will be key.

We will also need to start shifting our international interests away from the Middle East to other parts of the world, where peace and prosperity are even more at stake. For example, we should turn greater attention to our precarious relationship with China, which, at this time, is the most important bilateral relationship affecting the future of the planet. We must move forward with a policy of constructive engagement with the Chinese.

Finally, I remain most interested in building up our own nation. Our next president will inherit a number of major issues within our nation's borders, including, among others, growing an economy that rewards all Americans for their hard work, increasing access to education, protecting our environment, reforming our immigration policies and reducing gun violence.

Almost certainly, though, he or she will feel the foreign policy pull of the Middle East. The U.S. would be unwise to abandon the Middle East entirely. We should strive for having a benign impact in the region. Restraint and conditional engagement will be essential. We have to extricate ourselves from a vortex that has fixated our top leaders for several decades and devoured critical resources needed to solve other major problems at home and abroad.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.