Monday, March 14, 2011

Buck-Passing in the Middle East

All countries with assets in the Middle East have an interest in stability there. Yet it is often the United States which leads action in an international crisis. When it's the Cold War and the world is looking to see who can credibly commit to defense, taking the lead is an effective strategy. However, ours is a unipolar world in the midst of recession, and our crisis is occurring in a region where US intervention is usually not greeted with open arms. Despite this, other states will still attempt to free-ride on US efforts to create stability.

Political scientist and all-around-IR-Debbie-Downer John Mearsheimer refers to this concept as "buck-passing." Simply stated: State A will allow State B to expend its resources to accomplish an objective that State A desires. Mearsheimer discusses buck-passing in his book Tragedy of Great Power Politics (original title: Everyone Basically Wants to Kill You) in the context of great powers letting other states balance against other great powers on their behalf. Yet the concept is clearly applicable to this regional situation as well.

Because the US has been a regional hegemon for decades, many states have buck-passed on US efforts to create the Pax Americana. In some cases, the US has had no choice but to expend its own resources on a common good. For example, in training counter-terrorist forces in Yemen, the US is investing in a force which provides stability for the entire Middle East and North Africa by denying al-Qaeda a safe haven in a failing state. This benefits not only the US but also every country with interests in Middle East stability.

But the US has good reason not to take the lead in the current rebellions in the Middle East. As it stands, the US has no unique responsibility for providing a specific ground condition in Bahrain, or Libya. In fact, the states which were colonial powers in the Middle East may even have more an obligation to provide stability than the US. Therefore, supporting the efforts of other nations is a way to conserve resources and prevent entrenchment in a protracted conflict in a state like Libya or Tunisia. While the US should have a strong role in any international response, its investment (if possible) should not be disproportionate such that those states who invest less will benefit equally. That the The G-8 and the Arab League have expressed a serious desire for action indicates that this strategy will not prove to be a failed bargain.

In short, working in support of the international community and US allies in the region is more than just a smart move given the political culture of the Middle East. It is also a strategically wise decision. And, it is supported by even the most pessimistic, hard-nosed theory of international relations.

UPDATE: My fellow Mideast blogger and classmate Ibn Larry has a thoughtful response to my post. I would respond in turn that by "unique responsibility," I meant that the US has no more cause for intervention than anyone else because it's not the only actor capable of mitigating instability in the region, nor is it necessarily the most capable. But I'm hoping Ibn Larry won't call me out for subtly hinting at norms of intervention while arguing offensive realist theory, in which norms most certainly do not play a role.

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