Paul Miller, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and author of Just War and Ordered Liberty, spoke to a March 25 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Clifford Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, on what just war theory can tell us about America's engagement in the Middle East.
Miller said just war theory "is a way of thinking about the use of lethal force" when formulating "grand strategy," but that an American foreign policy driven only by the need to "enhance American power" is "insufficient." Arguing that "the prior moral purpose guiding the use or meaning of our power" should be "defending and preserving ordered liberty at home and abroad," he believes "with that as our polestar," we better make the "tricky decisions" in the Middle East that lie before us.
Asked by Smith about America's entry into Afghanistan post-9/11, Miller said it "was just and appropriate" in bringing to justice "Al Qaeda and those who shielded them," and that a "prudent grand strategy required us to win the war as a form of our own self-defense." In keeping with "jus pos bellum [justice after war]," America was obligated to "provide stability so that we could exit responsibly," he said. Miller critiqued strategic flaws in the Afghan policies under different administrations, beginning with George W. Bush, who "prioritize[ed] the counter-terrorism mission at the expense of the stabilization mission." The Obama administration fumbled with its announced "timetable for withdrawal," but Miller also found fault with the Trump administration's Doha agreement with the Taliban. Ultimately, he said, the withdrawal under the Biden administration was "strategically counterproductive" in that it led to an "unjust outcome of the war."
Miller: America's "first priority" is "defending ordered liberty at home from many external threats."
Reiterating that America's "first priority" is "defending ordered liberty at home from many external threats," he deduced that "just from that . . . you can say our top priority is combating ISIS and Iran." It is therefore "acceptable when necessary" to ally with autocracies "to fight against the greater threat," and so forming alliances with Gulf states that "share a common enmity" towards America's enemies is "acceptable." Relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia, which is "no friend of ordered liberty," should be annually "reevaluate[d]" because "our partnership can validate or legitimize their autocratic government in unhelpful ways."
Miller sees no benefit in "normalizing relations" with Syria's Assad, who recently visited the UAE. Even though Russia and Assad "more or less" won the war in Syria, because Assad's is a "barbaric regime," he would "keep them isolated." Although he wishes the U.S. had done more to "invest in the Arab Spring and encourage emerging democracies" in the region, he sees value in "some level" of American involvement in Iraq and in Syria.
Worldwide, the U.S. should "calibrate our level or our intensity of effort with the importance of [a given] region as a whole," and in that scheme the Middle East is a "tertiary region" compared to Europe and East Asia, which are "primary geopolitical theaters" because of their "concentration of wealth, power, and danger."
Yet, because the Middle East is a cockpit of conflict among the great powers," when Russia and China seek to "expand their influence in the Middle East," the U.S. should push back so long as we refuse to "overextend ourselves" or "detract appreciably from our bandwidth to handle the crisis in Europe and East Asia."
Israel is a friend of ordered liberty and the only stable democracy in the area, and we should defend it.
Since the U.S. should look out for "opportunities to invest in ordered liberty abroad," we should "defend Israel," which Miller called "just about the only stable democracy between Gibraltar and the Khyber Pass," adding that "Israel absolutely is a friend of ordered liberty and we ought to defend and support Israel." The "two-state solution" is a legitimate goal because it has "been on the table since 1947" when the U.S. endorsed the United Nations partition plan. Today, the terrorist organization Hamas, and not Israel, is the main obstacle "holding back a Palestinian state." A two-state solution is possible, he believes, "if and after terrorism stops." But until that day, "you don't negotiate a two-state solution with a gun to your head."
Negotiations for the first Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by the Obama administration in 2015 were "deeply flawed," and "essentially not enforceable," Miller said. He viewed it as "the formal codification of Iran's nuclear breakout capability," the "surrender document of the Iraq War." Nevertheless, he was "of a mixed mind" on the Trump administration's withdraw from JCPOA because "it was at least" a framework, and such "can be useful as a place of dialogue."
Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms "would be an extraordinary threat to the world, and to Israel, and to the United States."
Having withdrawn from JCPOA, and with the Biden administration "trying to get back into another probably deeply flawed deal," the question is "what do we do about it." Miller isn't convinced we can contain Iran's "nuclear ambitions," yet Iran's acquisition of nuclear arms "would be an extraordinary threat to the world, and to Israel, and to the United States." He isn't optimistic that available military options "would work permanently." Given these circumstances, the U.S. should "announce a mutual defense treaty with Israel and extend our nuclear umbrella over Israel and simply announce that an act of war on Israel is an act of war on us."
Citing possible actions against Iran, including assassinating nuclear scientists, a military strike, covert activity, or sanctions, Smith asked what Miller would consider "just" in deterring Iran. Miller said the "best argument" he can make for such actions is that since the 1979 Iranian revolution, a "cold war" or "quasi-war" has existed between Iran and the U.S. Hostile actions include the Khobar Towers bombing and Iran's proxy war against the U.S. via its Shia militias in Iraq.
Yet Miller is "a little cautious about endorsing any and all options to push back on Iran" because "nothing in this quasi-war that we've been fighting is leading toward ordered liberty." "Power is not self-justifying," he warned, and "just because we can do something to hurt Iran doesn't make it the right thing to do." Thinking that way is "pretty close to "a holy war doctrine where you're fighting against the enemy because of who they are, not what they do."
Smith responded that a radical Islamic theocracy and other "budding theocracies" in the Middle East defy a "just order" and are devoid of any "concept of ordered liberty." Given this, Smith asked, "how do you view a just order" when "peace" likely means the implementation of "some form of radical Islamic theocracy" or autocracy?
Miller clarified that he considers "ordered liberty as a spectrum, not a binary." He believes America's restoration of the Al-Sabah family in Kuwait following the Gulf War was a "mistake" because the U.S. should have "pushed for democratic reforms." As to whether there is a "conflict between ordered liberty and Islam," Miller cited the "millions" of voters in Afghanistan, Iraq and Tunisia whose votes show they "believe that some ... version of democracy and civil rights can work with some form of Islam." "I'm inclined to defer to their answer," he said, adding that as a non-Muslim he can't give a "theological answer." Insisting that we should be "frank that "women's rights and religious freedom" are "much harder" to attain in an Islamic country, Miller said that "by and large, voting representation, majoritarian rule, checks and balances – there's nothing anti-Islamic about those."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.