Dr. Alex Stark is clerk of the FCNL policy committee. She works as senior researcher at New America Foundation. Dr. Stark worked as a research fellow at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative and the United States Institute of Peace. She was an FCNL Young Fellow, 2011-2012.
What has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been built around a quid pro quo: access to oil in exchange for military protection. Since 9/11, the military defeat of terrorist groups has been added to that fundamental bargain. Democratic and Republican administrations have tried to thread the needle of fighting terrorist groups without putting many U.S. troops on the ground. This has meant using drones, arming proxy forces, and supporting dictators in the name of “stability.”
Is this premise still valid during this pandemic?
It has never worked particularly well! Two decades after 9/11, we’re still fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. ISIS and Al-Qaeda have metastasized. We’ve been unable to stop our partners from fighting a devastating war in Yemen.
The COVID-19 pandemic shows that this paradigm no longer works. It has had a far more direct effect on most Americans over the past couple of months than terrorism has in almost two decades. Like terrorism, the spread of infectious disease is not best fought by military means; there’s no weapons system capable of defeating COVID-19.
How are Middle Eastern countries coping with the pandemic?
The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to get much worse before they get better. Many countries in the Middle East already have poor health systems and governments that lack legitimacy to provide good crisis leadership. U.S. policies have made conditions even worse, such as the Saudi-led coalition targeting healthcare workers in Yemen.
Armed conflicts in several Middle Eastern countries have resulted in massive population displacements. Our humanitarian response has been inadequate.
In Yemen, Libya, and Syria, U.S. policy has focused on arming and supporting the right proxy actors, rather than providing aid to alleviate the humanitarian fallout of these proxy wars. The federal budget has consistently prioritized funding for military solutions rather than diplomacy and aid. As the global spread of coronavirus has clearly shown us, what happens to vulnerable populations in the Middle East will have a direct effect on our well-being.
Is peace ever attainable in the Middle East?
It’s easy to feel hopeless when looking at the conflict and humanitarian suffering in the Middle East, but I’ll always believe there’s hope for peace. For inspiration, I often think back to the legislation that FCNL helped pass in Congress on the Yemen war.
Yes, this legislation was ultimately vetoed by the president, but it helped lead to the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. Peace rarely happens all at once; rather, it’s usually due to many years of hard work by activists and governments.
What advice would you give those lobbying Congress as we seek a world free from war and the threat of war?
Polling consistently shows that Americans support withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. They support cuts to defense spending, and they oppose war with Iran.
Even in an age where Americans are particularly polarized, don’t forget that the majority of Americans are on our side when it comes to a world free of war and the threat of war.