Flexing America's Muscles In The Middle East Will Make Things Worse

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Muscles Thumbnail Illustration by Thomas James

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The rise of ISIS, the disintegration of Iraq, Syria’s ongoing civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the promise and peril of the Arab Spring...  What role should America play in the Middle East? For some, America’s restraint has been a sign of disciplined leadership. But for others, it has been a sign of diminished strength and influence. How do we strike a balance between our national interests, moral obligations, and the maintenance of world order? Are we simply recognizing the limitations of our power, or does this embattled region require a bolder, more muscular, American presence?

  • Miller 90px


    Aaron David Miller

    V.P. for New Initiatives, Wilson Center & Fmr. U.S. Mideast Negotiator

  • Pillar90-px


    Paul Pillar

    Sr. Fellow, Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies & Fmr. National Intelligence Officer

  • Doran 90px


    Michael Doran

    Sr. Fellow, Brookings Institution & Fmr. Senior Director, National Security Council

  • Stephens 90px


    Bret Stephens

    Deputy Editor, Editorial Page, The Wall Street Journal

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

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Miller 90px

For The Motion

Aaron David Miller

V.P. for New Initiatives, Wilson Center & Fmr. U.S. Mideast Negotiator

Aaron David Miller is currently the vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Between 2006 and 2008, he was a public policy scholar when he wrote his fourth book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (2008). For the prior two decades, he served at the Department of State as an advisor to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, where he helped formulate U.S. policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process, most recently as the senior advisor for Arab-Israeli negotiations. He also served as the deputy special Middle East coordinator for Arab-Israeli negotiations, senior member of the State Department's policy planning staff, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and in the Office of the Historian. He has received the department's Distinguished, Superior, and Meritorious Honor awards.

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For The Motion

Paul Pillar

Sr. Fellow, Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies & Fmr. National Intelligence Officer

Paul R. Pillar is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, deputy chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and executive assistant to the director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Pillar received an A.B. summa cum laude from Dartmouth College, a B.Phil. from Oxford University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), and Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform (2011). He blogs at nationalinterest.org.

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Doran 90px

Against The Motion

Michael Doran

Sr. Fellow, Brookings Institution & Fmr. Senior Director, National Security Council

Michael Doran is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in Middle East security issues. He served as senior advisor to the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs in the State Department, and prior to that, held an appointment at the Pentagon as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for support to public diplomacy, and at the National Security Council as the senior director for the Near East and North Africa. At the White House, Doran helped devise and coordinate national strategies on a variety of Middle East issues, including Arab-Israeli relations and the containment of Iran. He has held several academic positions, teaching in the history department at the University of Central Florida, the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, and at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service.

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Stephens 90px

Against The Motion

Bret Stephens

Deputy Editor, Editorial Page, The Wall Street Journal

Bret Stephens writes “Global View,” the foreign-affairs column for The Wall Street Journal, for which he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He is the paper’s deputy editorial page editor, responsible for the opinion sections of the Journal’s sister editions in Europe and Asia, and a member of the Journal’s editorial board. Previously, Stephens was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, a position he assumed in 2002 at age 28. He was raised in Mexico City and educated at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics. His first book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, will be published in November by Sentinel Books.

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Declared Winner: For The Motion

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Voting Breakdown:

49% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (20% voted FOR twice, 23% voted AGAINST twice, 6% voted UNDECIDED twice). 51% changed their minds (6% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 2% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 7% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR,2% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 19% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 16% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

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    • Comment Link George Steele Friday, 04 December 2015 10:29 posted by George Steele

      I suggest that given the recent attack in San Bernadino, that we once again reflect on the question: "do you want to fight them over there, with the best-equipped military in the world, or over here, with police firing revolvers at them?" Of course, police have become more militarized, and the old question seems dated as a result, but it crystallizes the question. No doubt depriving them of resources makes their terrorism harder; 9/11 would not have happened without Saudi funding, for example. Furthermore, among the troglodyte cultures of the third world, strongmen rule - because the strong are feared. "Nuanced" finesse in dialog buys you a beheading or death by stoning, drowning, or burning in a cage. A combination of starving them economically and deep intel-based outright military targeting is the price of being able to walk American streets safely.

    • Comment Link Richard Thursday, 16 October 2014 22:13 posted by Richard

      This was a pretty rough one. There was too much posturing, and not enough debate. Everyone clung to the political positions they built their careers on, and refused to actually talk. Also, the four old white guys sounded exactly the same and I could never tell who was talking or which side they were on.

    • Comment Link Kevin Thursday, 16 October 2014 14:14 posted by Kevin

      They couldn't find one person to represent the opinion of the people who are at the receiving end of America's muscles? Of course their opinion revolves around whether flexing muscle will make things better/worse for America. It's so conceited. None of these men have any trouble getting their voices heard. You couldn't find ONE academic who actually lived in the region as a citizen and wanted to speak up on the issue? An Iraqi on either side arguing why they want/don't want military intervention would have been so much more compelling.

    • Comment Link Brian Karad Thursday, 09 October 2014 12:00 posted by Brian Karad

      Please, please, please have this debate again, redo redo. I heard nothing about what is in the proposition. The relationship of the United States, power, and the middle east. I wanted to hear about the limitations of the US intervening in the Middle East due to our recent history, religious inheritance, and past history of actions in the Middle East. Does the actions of, as perceived by our enemies, a Christian super power in the Muslim world create more problems than it solves. Does that mean we do nothing, or is there a smart way to flex our power while not ignoring this historic context.
      I would like to hear that debate, we need to have that debate.

    • Comment Link Jesse Tuesday, 07 October 2014 09:35 posted by Jesse

      I think that there are way more intelligent and modern ways to deal with ISIS. However, from what I read in the news it seems like community organizing on a world scale while ISIS is getting incredible amount of slack to fester and collect resources.
      I can't see the point of continuing to let the executive have such control over military forces, even with congressional approval.
      Whoever baked up this plan of action clearly has never read Sun Tzu's Art of War or dare I say intentionally prolonging this conflict.

      Can't wait for Jeb Bush to take office and do exactly the same thing. Oh boy.

    • Comment Link Brux Friday, 03 October 2014 03:34 posted by Brux

      This issue is complex, at least the way I look at it. Most Americans cannot understand the nuance.

      It is right to do something about the cesspool of barbaric countries in the world. I am not sure it is right to do business with them and concentrate so much big money into the hands of the worst groups.

      We should not have attacked Iraq as we did, but she should have attacked it. We also should not have left Iraq, we should still be there.

      There is a lot of work to do in these areas, but it is only worth doing if we can figure out a way that American can remain America. The Bible said, what good does it do a man to gain the world and lose his soul, and that is true of the US.

      If we destroy our middle class and must become a totalitarian tyranny to defeat what we are calling terrorism, we are not better than the terrorists. We need to compromise to a steady state, and also include other countries in the job of cleaning up the world, and taking care of and developing our own people.

    • Comment Link Jay3 Thursday, 02 October 2014 20:35 posted by Jay3

      The Sunnis and the Shi'as are inviting us to a mutual martyrdom party. Why not join in? It could be lots of fun. And the worst case scenario is that you get killed and go to paradise, so what's wrong with that??

      Iran would love to see us join in, so they don't have to spend so much of their money and lives in order to achieve their goal of extending Shi'ite government from Iran to the borders of northern Israel (where they would love to be the prime suppliers of rockets.)

      But if you want to be closer to heaven, its better to stick with the airplanes that are dropping the bombs. God knows, it will be hell down below.

      Still undecided.

    • Comment Link Carl Radon Tuesday, 30 September 2014 19:54 posted by Carl Radon

      Re: Syria; There is a very logical reason for the Russians to be involved there. Syria has provided the Russian fleet with their only port in the Med from which they can protect the southern end of the Straits of the Bosporus; without this protection, Russia's access to the open seas from their warm-water ports is impossible. But I can see no reason why the US should be involved there, other than to stick our thumbs in the eye of Russia. The Obama admn's prior and current position in Syria is a STUPID and counter-productive policy in that region.

    • Comment Link Peter Tuesday, 30 September 2014 19:23 posted by Peter

      US should have never engaged Saddam in Kuwait. There are horrible things happening all over the world. Yet USA can't see beyond the middle east.

      At best the US is a defensive force, as expressly intended by the founders of this country, not a bloated limitless offensive war machine chasing dragons out across foreign lands looking for a perpetual enemy to justify its expense.

      Pete G - USAF

    • Comment Link William Hartung Tuesday, 30 September 2014 18:55 posted by William Hartung

      In the introduction, John Donvan said it boiled down to "action versus inaction" -- but given that they are debating whether to use force, the implication is that only military action counts as action -- not diplomacy, not intelligence gathering, not sanctions, not homeland protection measures. He couldn't really have meant that, but that's how it came across.

    • Comment Link Karl Monday, 29 September 2014 11:26 posted by Karl

      Why is it so hard for people to understand????

      Every time our military takes the life of another innocent child, we make enemies of their neighbors and families.

      The ONLY way to "kill them all," would require the death of a large portion of the world's population...because our military would manufacture new enemies with each new dead child.

      Our military has a consistent marketing strategy in the Middle East. Keep making a mess, so that we can have endless wars. With endless wars our war profiteers (you know those "job creators" they talk about) keep getting big handout from the Pentagon.

      91,000 airstrikes, by our military, in the mid-east, since 9/11!!!

      That creates our newest enemies.

      So, if you want more enemies...then...go for it...start more wars...then we'll get new enemies...and we can start more wars...then we'll get even more enemies...then we can start more wars...a startling simple, yet effective marketing strategy...tested over the ages....

    • Comment Link Tim Duff Sunday, 28 September 2014 12:56 posted by Tim Duff

      To those who think that the debate topic is confusing and vague, it sounds to me that the topic of debate is whether the US should pursue a policy of noninterventionism in the Middle East.

      Abraham, since you have difficulty imagining a middle east foreign policy with the aim of not "imposing outcomes". I think for you the question is already answered and you are opposed to the motion.

      America has two muscles that are the strongest for flexing overseas: the military and the economy. Judy, with the understanding that bribery and negotiation, which is usually done under threat of economic sanctions also constitute flexing America's muscles, you would also be opposed to the proposition.

    • Comment Link Abraham Yurkofsky M.D. Tuesday, 26 August 2014 20:31 posted by Abraham Yurkofsky M.D.

      The question is too vague. What do you mean by "flexing your muscles". Imposing outcomes? Imight support one outcome and the next person a totally different one. The question cant be answered.

    • Comment Link Robert Fallin Tuesday, 12 August 2014 21:36 posted by Robert Fallin

      In not one instance has "America flexing its muscles in the Middle East" benefited anyone directly involved. Neocons have been consistently wrong, yet are still treated as "foreign policy experts".

    • Comment Link Judy Stadt Thursday, 07 August 2014 08:47 posted by Judy Stadt

      I find the "MOTION" confusing. I am against America flexing it's muscles anywhere does that mean I'm for the motion or against?

      ALSO: I have an idea that would make a wonderful debate. Since I firmly believe that all you get from war is more war and it is no longer an option in our ever shrinking world. We have to come up with a different approach...if it's not too late. I believe we can BRIBE countries to use COMMUNICATION & NEGOTIATION instead of weapons to solve problems. We will no longer give ANY monies to countries that use war as their way to bully others.

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