We all remember learning about the Monroe Doctrine, right? I’m sure everyone was awake that day in high school or in your survey of U.S. history class in college. You learned that in 1823, President James Monroe essentially claimed the Americas as the playground for the new United States and told Europe to stop meddling in the region. You probably also learned that the U.S. backed up this claim with a ridiculously small military and even smaller foreign policy credibility.
However, it was a big move for the new nation to make, and was in line with American goals of promoting free trade and democracy in the Western hemisphere. With most of Europe locked in strict restrictions on trade and attempting to gobble up any unclaimed land for colonies, Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams believed it was in America’s best interest to make it clear that Europe could do its thing, as long as it stayed in Europe. Of course, this foreign policy developed into the ideology of “manifest destiny,” that the Western hemisphere was America’s to govern, if not own outright, through God-given right. This led to several unsuccessful and silly forays into Latin America, the Mexican-American War, multiple occasions of near war with Great Britain, and eventual war with Spain in 1898.
This foreign policy, while seemingly aggressive, was actually isolationist in principle: America declared neutrality in all European conflicts and generally stayed out of the rest of the world’s affairs. It was not until 1898, when we went to war with Spain over violations of the Monroe Doctrine, that we engaged a European power in military operations. Even then, engagements with Europe and Asia remained limited mainly to trade and economic development. It was not until World Wars I and II that the U.S. finally came out of its isolationist shell. And what a coming out party it was. The U.S. burst onto the world stage as an economic and military powerhouse, a role that it has continued to play up to the present day, with a few variations to that theme.
In 2013, Secretary of State Kerry announced that, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Henceforth, the U.S. would no longer attempt to bully or influence its neighbors. What Kerry failed to mention was that just because we were ending that policy with our American neighbors, it did not mean that we hadn’t moved our focus elsewhere. And that elsewhere is the Middle East.
It has been unmistakable to even the most casual viewer that the U.S. spends more time, money, and blood on the Middle East since 2001 (involvement in the region goes back to the 1950’s) than any other region. And this is despite statements from the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense that the U.S. was beginning its notorious “Pacific Pivot.” In every attempt to jerk the nation’s attention away from the Middle East and towards Asia, we keep getting pulled back in with an invisible cord. The pivot is starting to look a lot like a series of 360 degree rotations back to the Middle East. For all the rhetoric, we seem to be well and truly committed to that area of the world.
Comparisons to the Monroe Doctrine may be apt, if not exact. Although multiple administrations have professed a desire to build an international coalition to fight terrorism and bring stability to the Middle East, the U.S. has not been able to find the one country or partner state that can take its place. Russia has shown interest in the Middle East since the Cold War, but only as a means of propping up its puppet states to offset Western interests. Russia, as it is showing in Syria, cannot be trusted to be build any type of regional stability. The two major regional powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia fight proxy wars on religious and economic lines that negate their potential to be unbiased power brokers. While European nations show interest in fighting terrorism, none have been willing to take on the serious and costly role of power broker. Israel remains on the sidelines, a steady U.S. ally that we cannot use for fear of exacerbating already tattered regional relationships.
One might call our commitments in the Middle East a “Monroe Doctrine of necessity, rather than of preference.” There is no doubt that the U.S. would like to be out of the region. We have sunk trillions of dollars into the region and lost thousands of lives in military conflicts. However, as the site of the most potential military and economic flash-points in the world at this time and for the immediate future, the Middle East must retain the focus of our foreign policy.
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