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Focus on Influence, Not Power, in the Middle East

People talk about U.S. power and influence as if they’re the same thing. That's a mistake.

Among the most enduring of Joe Nye’s contributions to strategy is one he popularized 30 years ago: his concept of “soft power.” Power was about countries’ ability to “do things and control others,” Nye wrote, and so called “hard power” instruments such as military strength were of diminishing importance. The role of “soft power” instruments such as technological, economic, and educational strength were rising. 

The U.S. experience in the Middle East for the last two decades presents a checkered record for hard and soft power alike, and part of the problem is focusing too narrowly on the issue of “power” itself.

People speak about U.S. power and influence in the Middle East as if they’re the same thing, but in fact, they’re not. Because the U.S. government has seen them as synonymous, two decades of U.S. government efforts to project power in order to build influence has diminished both. The United States still retains tremendous influence in the Middle East, and a greater focus on building influence rather than preserving power would do more than merely bolster U.S. interests there. It would also benefit the United States in a world of rising Great Power tensions.

What is the difference between power and influence? Nye’s definition of power—“to do things and control others”—gives us a good starting place. At its core, power is about applying resources to achieve discrete outcomes. The U.S. government has spent 75 years developing processes that outline definable (and ideally, measurable) goals and seek to meet them. Military tools lend themselves to analyses of power, and not only because the military is good at metrics. Land is captured, armies surrender, and targets are destroyed. 

Bureaucrats have gotten better at exercising power, too. They marshal multi-point plans and colorful charts to account for millions—or billions—of dollars in spending. They write reports to memorialize their successes and to analyze their shortcomings.

But tactics have overwhelmed strategy. The United States conjures up elaborate work plans, and they always come up short. There are always missed targets and unmet objectives; unintended consequences mingle with abject failure. Each time they do, they represent a monument to diminishing U.S. power.

Russia and China have taken a different approach to their affairs in the Middle East. Forgoing any pretense of being able to control outcomes, they seek to influence them instead. In their pursuit of influence, they seek a more narrowly defined set of objectives, focus as much on what they can prevent as what they can cause, and entertain broad notions of success. Their overall level of effort is modest, and the steps they take are closely tailored to their strategy. 

One example of this approach is the Russian engagement in Syria: determined to prevent Assad’s fall, Moscow committed about 5,000 troops and fewer than two dozen fixed-wing aircraft, but they have no master plan for the country’s future. Similarly, China has masterfully played its Iran relationship to extract benefit from both the United States and Iran, with no long-term vision of what happens to the Iranian nuclear program. 

Not only do these countries repeatedly find themselves winning, but they also find it possible to foil or frustrate the U.S. exercise of power with relatively little effort. When the United States comes up short, Moscow and Beijing successfully portray it as an implicit victory for them and a defeat for Washington. In the wake of what present as repeated victories, they reap the rewards of a region that seeks to harness their rising influence.

In the influence world, though, the United States is a superpower in the Middle East, while Russia and China trail far behind. Big business operates according to U.S. norms, the United States holds the largest pool of investors, and large-capital transactions are most often conducted in English. International institutions around the world are aligned with a model that comports with U.S. counterparts. The U.S. government’s interagency process, cumbersome as it is, is unequaled elsewhere, and the United States can orchestrate the movements of thousands of government specialists—from the United States and abroad—in ways that no other country can hope to do. The United States retains all of the elements of soft power that Nye mentioned: educational ties, economic strength, cultural weight, and more. From this comes a U.S. ability to lead that is unequalled in the world.

And U.S. hard power remains as formidable as it ever was. The U.S. military can vanquish any opponent, and America’s ability to scrutinize data anywhere in the world to identify people, places, and things is unequalled. In absolute terms, U.S. influence in the Middle East dwarfs any other country. It is when the United States insists on pursuing “power” – that is, controlling outcomes – while adversaries merely seek to influence them that the United States comes across as a loser and the adversaries come up winners.

What follows from this is not that the United States should throw in the towel in the Middle East. Rather, it should be more mindful in its engagement. That partly means obvious things, like being more deliberate in the use of military force. But it also means less obvious things, like having less comprehensive objectives, incorporating a broader range of desirable (and even acceptable) outcomes into planning, and recognizing more clearly how a variety of outcomes can serve U.S. interests. It also means being more specific about what the United States is trying to prevent, and it means being more willing to frustrate the plans of others not because it advances discrete U.S. interests, but because it blocks the ability of adversaries to advance their own. It means emphasizing that the United States has greater ability to influence things in the region than any other actors, rather than beating itself up about the U.S. inability to accomplish exactly what it seeks to do.

This refocus does not suggest that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East, although some suggest it should. Neither does it suggest that the United States is ceding the region to Russia or China. Instead, it is an appeal to align the U.S. reach with its grasp, and to focus on what matters. There are certainly circumstances in which national power is everything. When it comes down to that, the United States has no equal. But for many circumstances, what the United States really needs is influence. Focusing on what it can do to advance its interests and block its adversaries, rather than what it hopes to do but cannot, will do more than lead to a more sustainable U.S. position in the Middle East. It will also lead to one that better serves U.S. interests.