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American Grand Strategy in the Middle East, 1972-2018: Toward a Neoclassical Realist Appraisal of Strategic Adjustment




Ricketts, Anthony

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How do we understand American strategic adjustment in the Middle East? In the discipline of strategic studies, answers to this question are regularly found within realist theoretical literature. The realist canon has long argued that the anarchic international system forces states to adopt "self-help" strategies for their survival. Systemic factors push and pull states in directions according to shifts in the global distribution of power. When one state acquires more economic and military power, realists argue, other states will balance against this rising power to restore the equilibrium. As a result, American strategic adjustment in the Middle East is regularly understood to have occurred in response to an alteration in the regional balance of power. This thesis agrees with part of this realist explanation. It acknowledges that the anarchical international system has socialised the United States to adopt balancing behaviour in the region. Yet the thesis builds on this realist assumption to argue unit-level variables are necessary to explain the various strategies the United States has deployed with respect to balancing the region. While not dismissing the importance of the international realm, it is interested in how ideologies, ideas, and interests interpret systemic factors to produce a distinct military strategic adjustment. Therefore, this thesis does not isolate systemic and unit-level variables, as realist scholarship advises, but instead positions domestic factors as the explanatory variable in America's strategic adjustment in the Middle East. Through the deployment of a neoclassical realist framework, this thesis identifies five distinct cycles of American strategy in the Middle East: (i) 1972 - 1979, offshore balancing; (ii) 1980 - 2000, selective engagement; (iii) 2001-2008, pre-emption; (iv) 2009-2016, retrenchment; and (v) 2017-2018, selective engagement. The independent variable that produced these five phases of adjustment are traced to the four traditions identified by Walter Russell Mead in his Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World. Specifically, I suggest that: (i) the offshore balancing strategy has an affinity with the Hamiltonian tradition of integrating America into the global economy; (ii) the selective engagement strategy has its origins in the Jacksonian tradition of the protection of American security interests through the use of military force abroad; (iii) the strategy of pre-emption can be traced to the Wilsonian tradition of democracy building abroad; and (iv) the strategy of retrenchment is connected to the Jeffersonian tradition of safeguarding American liberty and democracy, through the rejection of foreign entanglements.






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