On Tuesday September 16, 2014, Professor Joel Migdal gave a guest lecture at Northeastern University about his new book Shifting Sands-The United States in the Middle East. His presentation focused on the four main ideas throughout the book: the United States’ global role post World War II, the transition of main powers in the Middle East every thirty years, The United States reaction to these transitions, and the United States policies in the Middle East.
The beginning of the presentation explained the emergence of the United States as a global power at the end of World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt saw two main priorities after the Great Depression and World War II- security and economic stability. He felt that the best way to secure these two priorities was through shared government responsibilities with the other three main powers of the world-Britain, China, and the Soviet Union. They would act as the world’s policemen, deterring any aggressors as well as keeping each other in check. For economic security, international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization were established to keep open new markets and encourage international trade. Although these plans faced opposition from people who saw the United States as the dominant world superpower and did not want to sacrifice any sovereignty by sharing these powers, Roosevelt feared that the United States would face bankruptcy if forced to act unilaterally as the sole world leader. This fear remained a serious concern throughout the rest of the century and ended up proving true in the 2000s. According to Professor Migdal, Roosevelt’s policies set up the role of the United States globally and especially in the Middle East, to this day.
The next idea Professor Migdal discussed was the transition of power that occurs approximately every thirty years in the Middle East. He outlined four defining moments of transition throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first change occurred in 1918 when the Ottoman Empire was replaced by European Imperial rule. The next transition occurred between 1948 and 1952 and encompassed the creation of Israel, the first Arab-Israeli war, and the Free Officers Revolution in Egypt. The year 1979 marked the next transitional period sparked by the Iranian revolution and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The last major transition that Professor Migdal discussed was the Arab Spring in 2011. Throughout this span of time, power in the Middle East shifted from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq to Iran, Israel and Turkey. These powers are continuing to shift today as conflicts between Israel and Palestine and in Syria cause ongoing disputes.
Professor Migdal briefly mentioned how the US reacted to these power transitions. He discussed several times that US Presidents met with Arab leaders to attempt negotiations. Although there have been many attempts at treaties and agreements, most of these talks do not end up accomplishing their intended goals.
Professor Migdal’s final talking point examined the policies the US has enacted in the Middle East and the effects of these policies. After the attack on 9/11, President Bush adopted new US foreign policy based on unilateralism and pre-emptive actions. The threat of terrorism throughout the ‘arc of instability’ in Northern Africa and the Middle East caused President Bush to call for an intervention in Iraq, hoping to take out the main threat and therefore prevent any other threats from taking action against the US. This three-part war, the war in Iraq, the Afghan war, and the war on terrorism, ended up costing the US over $5 trillion dollars and bankrupting the nation, transforming Roosevelt’s fear into reality.
Professor Migdal concluded the presentation by discussing the United States’ current policies in the Middle East. President Obama outlined his plans to use diplomacy and alliances for negotiation rather than resorting to war. However, these methods have proved ineffective so far, as seen in the continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, and other areas of the Middle East. With the US’s declining role as a global superpower, it remains uncertain what role the US will play in the Middle East in the coming years.