Small Wars Journal

Strength and Wisdom in the Middle East

Fri, 06/21/2024 - 6:27am

Strength and Wisdom in the Middle East


John Nagl and Kelly Ihme


“Strength and Wisdom” is the motto of the US Army War College, Senior Service College of the United States Army.  Located for the first half-century of its existence in Washington DC and for the past seventy-five years in historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the Army War College annually educates several hundred Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine lieutenant colonels and colonels, along with representatives of other US government agencies, in leadership, national security, and military science.

The ”superpower” of the Army War College, as in most professional military education institutions in the United States, is the presence of international officers from allied and partner nations around the globe.   Each year, some 75 countries send their most talented senior officers to spend a year in Carlisle with their families studying, learning, and living among their American peers. This immersion often leads to forming lifelong personal, as well as professional, bonds that reap rewards for the entire international system for years to come.

                  Recently, a dozen international graduates of the War College gathered in Amman, Jordan for a reunion conference to discuss global and regional security issues with several American graduates and current War College faculty members.  The event was sponsored by the United States Department of State and the range and depth of discussions were invaluable; they reinforced the critical role of the United States in the Middle East while amplifying some of the most pressing challenges the world faces today.

                  Those challenges are significant and increasing.  The Department of Defense defines China as America’s pacing challenge, with Russia presenting an acute threat not just to Ukraine but to the entire North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet much of the conversation in Amman examined Iranian direct and proxy threats throughout the Middle East, the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the waning influence of the US in the region. This perspective, from the minds and mouths of our allies, should give us pause.

                  One of the frameworks that governed the conversation in Jordan is an international relations theory called Hegemonic Stability Theory.  This theory suggests that the international system works best when there is a country that sets and enforces the rules.  There have been three such hegemons in the history of the Western world. The first was Rome, which (often brutally) set and enforced the rules of the system for several hundred years about two millennia ago.  After the dark ages and significant great power conflict, Britain was the global hegemon from the Battle of Waterloo until the Battle of the Somme, when its power was destroyed in the bloodletting of the First World War.  The economic and security challenges of the interwar period that followed reinforce the need for a hegemon, a role the United States has filled from 1945 until today—although that role is now under threat as it has not been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While the United States remains the world’s leading superpower, China aspires to replace the US, at least in its region, as the country that sets and enforces the rules of the international order.  China’s rising military and economic power presents a threat not just to Taiwan but also to the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries of Southeast Asia. That threat and the ongoing war in Ukraine were important topics in Amman, but it is perhaps unsurprising that threats closer to home occupied the attention of the Middle Eastern participants.

One participant lamented, with appreciation, the motto of the US Army War College, “Strength and Wisdom.” He asked those in the room whether America’s strength gave us wisdom or if our wisdom gave us strength?  The clear implication was that too often in recent years, specifically across the Middle East, America has applied its enormous strength without sufficient wisdom.  The validity of the concern was underlined by the timing of the Amman event itself. This reunion in Jordan was originally scheduled for October of 2023; the horrific Hamas attacks of October 7th and Israel’s counterattack in Gaza caused a six-month postponement of the session.

An expansion of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is in the interest of Russia and China but not the United States nor any countries in the region including Iran. (It was suggested, perhaps not incorrectly, that the continuation of the Gaza War may resound to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal political benefit.) There was a strong consensus among both the American and Middle Eastern participants that the official US position supporting a two-state solution and a Palestinian homeland is essential to regional peace and security, even if accomplishing such a task is hard to imagine in the current situation.  As our friends mentioned multiple times during the Amman event, “we live here every day”; finding a solution to the crisis in Gaza improves the security and economies of all of the countries in the region, however difficult it is to imagine that solution given the current crisis.

There is another pressing challenge in the Middle East that is difficult to imagine solving given current conditions. Iran has been an avowed enemy of the United States since the Iranian revolution in 1979; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, “JCPOA” or more familiarly “Iranian nuclear deal” negotiated in 2015 offered a potential opening until it was revoked by then-President Donald J. Trump in 2018.  Iran, crippled by decades of sanctions and afraid of a counterrevolution by a young and angry population, was willing to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions in exchange for economic progress and a chance to rejoin the international community of nations.  Iran, ironically, should be noted as the dog that didn’t bark much in the past six months. Its relatively restrained responses to Israeli strikes on an Iranian consulate in Syria and—after a largely unsuccessful drone and missile strike on Israel—on an Iranian military base, offer a glimmer of hope that its long sponsorship of proxy forces throughout the region might end in exchange for diplomatic recognition and lifting of sanctions.

There is no doubt that America has the strength to influence the actions of all of the actors in the Middle East, but the wisdom of our policy can be questioned.  This is particularly true compared to our Middle Eastern allies who trace their roots back thousands of years before Biblical times. As the Roman philosopher Cicero noted, “Age brings wisdom.” A Middle East participant suggested that the US is not old enough to be endowed with sufficient wisdom to govern the strength it has developed.

One of the Middle Eastern officers remembered an analogy offered by his favorite War College professor:  the international system, he suggested, could be thought of as an interlinked and multilayered chessboard.  What happens on one level affects all the other layers.  In the Middle East, the actions taken by Israel and Iran affect all the other players, but the United States could conceivably use its enormous strength to help both of those countries take actions in the interest of the entire international community— “Inshallah” (“If God wills it”), as the participants argued. The question remains, are we wise enough to do so?


These are the authors’ views and not those of the United States Army War College, the US Army, the US Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)

Lt Col Kelly “Curly” Ihme, Ph.D., is a Pennsylvania Air National Guard officer currently serving as an Assistant Professor in Distance Education at the U.S. Army War College.  A graduate of SUNY Brockport, she holds Master's Degrees in American History from the American Military University and in Military Operational Art and Sciences from Air University and a Doctorate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from the University of Arizona (formerly University of the Rockies). She previously served as a Mental Health Nurse on active duty in the U.S. Air Force and as a historian for Air Force Space Command. She's currently the resilience officer for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard along with her USAWC professorship duties. This article expresses her personal views and not those of the United States Army War College, the United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense. 

Dr. John Nagl is a 1988 graduate of West Point and a Professor of Warfighting Studies at the U.S. Army War College.  He holds a master’s and a PhD from Oxford in International Relations, and a Masters from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  He served in combat in both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom and is the author of Learning to  Eat Soup with a Knife (Chicago 2005) and Knife Fights (Penguin 2014).   This article expresses his personal views and not those of the United States Army War College, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.