Zachary Keck

Stephen Walt is Not Obama’s George Kennan

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Zachary Keck

Stephen Walt is Not Obama’s George Kennan

Commonsense and U.S. precedent are the architects of Obama’s Middle East foreign policy.

Stephen Walt is Not Obama’s George Kennan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over at The Naval Diplomat, Jim Holmes flags a recent Lee Smith article in Tablet magazine that argues that Steve Walt is the new “[George] Kennan in the Middle East.”

As Smith explains, just as George Kennan devised containment of the Soviet Union for Harry Truman and his Cold War successors, Walt — a Harvard academic who hasn’t served in the Obama administration — is the architect of the Obama’s Middle East strategy, which the president recently explained in a New Yorker article as trying to create a “geopolitical equilibrium” between Sunni “Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.” Smith, quoting Walt, refers to this as a “realist balance-of-power” strategy and Holmes usefully notes that this is more or less offshore balancing.

Full disclosure: while I of course don’t always agree with his positions on every issue, I have great admiration for Walt. Most notably, I find his “balance of threat” theory to be an essential corrective to Kenneth Waltz’s more parsimonious “balance of power” structural realist theory (Walt, like so many leading international relations scholars, did his graduate studies under Waltz).  Walt also deserves to be lauded not only for being an academic that regularly contributes to the policy debate, but also for actively leading the resistance to political science’s unrelenting campaign to condemn itself to irrelevancy.

Still, while there’s much to admire about Walt’s work, he is hardly Obama’s Kennan of the Middle East. In fact, I seriously doubt Walt himself would accept this title given that he is usually critical of Obama’s Middle East policy.

More to the point, Walt cannot be credited with devising either offshore balancing or the policy Obama described in the New Yorker article. With regards to the former, offshore balancing simply describes a policy pursued by numerous powers throughout history, including England toward Europe for centuries and the U.S. toward Europe and Asia before WWII. Even the phrase “offshore balancing” was not coined by Walt, but (I believe) by Christopher Layne (whom Holmes cites in his article) in a 1997 article in International Security. Since then it has been widely adopted and many a realist has called for the United States to adopt it, much as it did prior to WWII.

Interestingly, Walt was a relative late comer to offshore balancing as far as prominent realist scholars go. In the waning days of the Cold War, he proposed a strategy that he called “finite containment,” which emerged in slightly revised form as selective engagement in the post-Cold War years. Under selective engagement, as Walt defines it, “the United States keeps large military forces deployed in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East (including the Persian Gulf) in the context of bilateral or multilateral alliances and for the purpose of dampening security competition in these regions. Selective engagement, like global hegemony, emphasizes the need to control the spread of WMDs, but it does not prescribe a policy of preventive war or call for idealistic crusades to spread democracy or other American values.”

In general, Walt seemed to favor this type of strategy.  For one thing, he noted that it most closely corresponded to the foreign policies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which Walt praised. Furthermore, in 2000 he wrote: “the ideal U.S. posture would be the forward deployment of defensively oriented military forces. U.S. ground troops and tactical aircraft could be deployed overseas to defend key allies, as they currently do in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. By eschewing large offensive capabilities (including long-range bombing), the United States would appear less threatening to others and would be less likely to provoke defensive reactions.” At the same time he warned that “the United States should avoid relying on large, highly offensive forces based primarily in the continental United States.”

It was only during the George W. Bush years that Walt appears to have come around to offshore balancing after seeming to have concluded that U.S. policymakers were not capable of being selective enough when they had large forces forward deployed. For example, after the U.S. abandoned offshore balancing in the Middle East following the first Gulf War, the U.S. adopted a policy of dual containment towards Iraq and Iran instead of allowing them to contain each other. To this day, Walt is frequently critical of this decision.

If Walt cannot be credited with inventing offshore balancing, he surely is not the father of trying to create a “geopolitical equilibrium” between Sunni and Shi’ites in the Middle East. In one sense, it’s hard to credit anyone with devising this policy, as it’s just the natural strategy any sensible power would adopt if it opposed the emergence of a single regional hegemon. After all, why not use traditional cleavages to keep the regional powers divided?

This logic certainly made sense to U.S. Cold War policymakers, who adopted it in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1970s, it took the form of Nixon and Kissinger’s “Twin Pillars” policy of simultaneously building up the Saudis and Iranians to balance against each other as well as the Soviet Union’s satellite states in Egypt (before the rapprochement) and Iraq. Following the Iranian revolution and the ostensible rise of Iranian power, Reagan revived the policy by reconciling with Saddam Hussein.

Nor was the United States alone in adopting this policy. Israel itself pursued a similar strategy throughout much of its existence. When the Arab threat was the primary one Tel Aviv had to contend with during the Cold War, the policy took the form of Israel’s periphery doctrine of building alliances with non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran. Notably, Israel continued to pursue this policy in the 1980s despite the Iranian Revolution because it rightly saw Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as its greatest threat.

Thus, it continued to arm Iran, and pressured U.S. policymakers to do likewise, despite Iranian leaders’ hyperbolic rhetoric against it, as well as their active resistance to Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. It was only after the Iraqi military was decimated in the first Gulf War and Iran emerged as the most powerful state in the region that Israel began warning of the dangers of the Islamic Republic.

Thus, Walt cannot be credited with being Obama’s George Kennan of the Middle East. Instead, the architect of Obama’s Middle East strategy is essentially common sense, as shown by Israeli and U.S. policy dating back to the Cold War.