Stephen Walt argues that if the United States is to maintain its current world primacy, it should adopt a strategy of “offshore balancing” rather than “global hegemony” or “selective engagement,” two other competing strategies. Implicit in his argument is the belief that American foreign policy flows from strategic considerations of national interest. Also implicit is the belief that adoption of one strategy leads to policy decisions that are different from those derived from other strategies. While Walt’s specific prescriptions merit support, an examination of the American Middle Eastern policy raises questions about his underlying presumptions. I argue that American Middle Eastern policy is neither consistent nor derived from a grand strategy; rather, it reflects domestic political constraints and other considerations.

In today’s Middle East, the United States confronts several threats ranging from radical Islamist militancy to the unregulated spread of technologies of WMDs. Responding to these threats, American leaders have identified several vital American interests in the region: securing the domestic United States by defeating Islamist terrorists, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of oil at stable prices, preventing the spread of WMDs, and ensuring Israel’s security. Different American administrations have ordered these priorities differently as their urgency, and the nature of administrations and their domestic contexts change.

Current policy seeks to protect those interests by several means. First, the United States seeks to spread democracy and other political reforms and, if deemed essential, impose regime change in an effort to weaken the appeal of radical Islamism and combat the prevailing public perception that the United States has an overriding interest not in change, but in stability, including sustaining friendly but authoritarian regimes. Second, the United States has continued to pursue a pro-Israel policy in the Arab–Israeli conflict. The United States has justified continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and Israeli use of force while condemning as terrorism Palestinian violence. The United States has done little to press Israel to stop violating international law by expanding settlements and building barriers of concrete and barbed wire in Palestinian territories. Thirdly, the United States is willing to resort to direct military intervention in the Middle East if essential American interests are threatened. In pursuing this last policy, part of a wider “preemptive” strategy, the United States is willing to go it alone without international support, consultation, or even legitimacy.

While it is possible to describe these elements as essential implications of a Bush administration’s “global hegemony” strategy, taken together they can also be said to constitute a “global hegemony” strategy. In other words, global hegemony does not tell us what policy to pursue; the policies we pursue may be labeled after the fact. For example, consider that American Middle East policy is not necessarily the product of a grand strategy at all. It simply reflects the nature of domestic constraints and the character of the presiding leadership. If so, one could ask, why would “offshore balancing,” described by Walt as “America’s traditional grand strategy,” produce different policies? Walt argues that “offshore balancing” would be attained in the Middle East if the United States promoted—but did not impose—reform and regime change; if it pursued an evenhanded Arab–Israeli policy rather than a pro-Israel policy; if it relied on regional balancing rather than direct military intervention; and if in doing all of this, it acted within international law and with international consultation. While the policies described by Walt as flowing from his proposed grand strategy are worthy of support, to be realistic they have to be articulated within a context that is able to make them feasible.

Context is crucial both to the choice of policy and to its results. The changes in the American Middle East policy brought about by the Bush administration may well hurt rather than serve America’s vital interests. Take for the example the effects on the regional balance of the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of the Iraqi army and state. In 1991, the United States left the Iraqi state in place because its interests were served more by regional balancing. The 2003 invasion has exposed the limit of American political and military power and negatively affected its ability to project power. As importantly, the new balance has only enhanced Iranian influence, the major ideological power in the region with hegemonic interests. Such a development is likely to embolden the Iranians further, leading to greater efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities. Militant Islamists are also strengthened. In other words, direct military intervention has already undermined America’s capacity to combat terrorism, contain the spread of WMDs, promote democracy, and foster a stable regional balance.

If American policymakers took seriously the specific contexts for their policies in the Middle East, could new policies serve American interests more effectively? To deal with the emerging Iranian influence, the United States needs to pay more attention to regional balancing. But such an approach is hampered by the current pro-Israel policy. For example, peace between Syria and Israel would undermine the Iranian–Syrian alliance and restore some regional balance favoring pro-peace forces in the region. It would also weaken Hezbollah, a long arm of Iran. But it would require complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, a condition Israel is likely to resist. Similarly, American interest in containing the spread of WMDs is served by declaring the region a nuclear-free zone. But such a declaration can only be made if the United States adopts an evenhanded policy toward Israel. For as long as the United States keeps silent about Israeli refusal to denuclearize, American efforts will be seen as exhibiting double standards.

Moreover, the use of democratic reforms to combat terror is impeded by the same pro-Israel policy. The United States finds itself having to worry about popular anti-Israeli sentiments in a democratic environment, thereby having to condition its support for democracy to favorable outcomes. For example, American support for the January presidential election in the Palestinian territories has been conditioned on the assumption that it would lead to the election of Mahmoud Abbas, a pro-peace candidate. American support for elections became questionable when it looked for a while that Palestinians might have a genuine choice with a credible pro-intifada candidate, Marwan Barghouti, running against the pro-peace candidate.

A reformist American policy would care less about the possibility that democratic elections would reveal anti-American sentiment and worry more about the effects of forcibly imposing democratic reform. The recent decision by the United States to oppose the release of the most updated UNDP Arab human-development report, devoted to liberties and good governance, because it is prefaced with anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric is a case in point. To promote democracy while remaining silent about Israeli and American occupations would hurt democrats in the region, as they would quickly become more marginal in their societies, perhaps even suspected as siding with the enemy. Such policies would end up strengthening authoritarianism.

Would anti-Americanism prevail regardless of what foreign policy the United States pursues simply because Middle Easterners do not like American values and culture? Empirical findings from surveys among Palestinians show a clear lack of trust in American foreign policy in general and the policy toward the Palestinian–Israeli conflict in particular. For example, less than a quarter of Palestinians evaluate overall American foreign policy positively, and overwhelming majorities, ranging between 92 and 97 percent, believe that American foreign policy is biased in favor of Israel, that the United States is not sincere when it says it is working toward the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel, and that the United States is not sincere in its position toward corruption and political reforms in the Palestinian Authority.

But Palestinians show a positive evaluation of American values and achievements. Palestinians give very high marks to American achievements in science, technology, and education, and positively evaluate American gender equality, arts, and entertainment, as well as freedom of the press and status of democracy. Palestinians are highly critical of the American record with regard to religious freedom and treatment of minorities in the United States, with the implicit assertion that since 9/11 the United States has abandoned its own liberal traditions regarding these two matters. In other words, it does matter what foreign policy the United States pursues. Indeed, contrary to the belief of some, America’s values and culture are great assets in the battle to win hearts and minds.