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U.S. Presence in the Middle East and The Golden Rule

The U.S. is getting increasingly involved in violence in the Middle East. These activities bring the threat of a wider war with Iran. What is the U.S. even doing there?

32 min read
U.S. Presence in the Middle East and The Golden Rule

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A week ago, U.S. troops were attacked by an enemy drone in Jordan, resulting in 3 dead and about 30 wounded. It is reported that the attack was perpetrated by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia that goes by the name Kataib Hezbollah.

This weekend, the U.S. military hit more than 100 targets across Iraq, Syria and Yemen, striking Iranian-backed proxies in retaliation.

So what is the United States military doing in a region approximately 6,700 miles from Washington, D.C.?

To answer this, I sat down with Dr. Samira Ellis, a leading expert on U.S.-Middle East relations.

Geopolitical Landscape of Jordan

Layng: Describe for us, if you will, the geopolitical landscape of Jordan.

Dr. Ellis: Jordan, officially known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, holds a strategic geopolitical location in the Middle East, bordered by several countries and key geographical features. Its positioning has significant implications for its political, economic, and social dynamics, as well as its relationships with neighboring countries and regions. Here's an overview of Jordan's geopolitical location:

  1. Borders: Jordan is landlocked in the northeast by Syria, to the east by Iraq, and to the southeast by Saudi Arabia. To the west, it shares borders with Israel and the Palestinian territories (West Bank), with the Jordan River and the Dead Sea forming part of this boundary. Jordan has a small coastline of about 26 kilometers (16 miles) on the Gulf of Aqaba in the southwest, where it borders Saudi Arabia and has proximity to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Israel.
  2. Strategic Position: Jordan's location at the crossroads of the Middle East connects Asia, Africa, and Europe. Historically, it has been a hub for trade routes, including the ancient King's Highway and the Hejaz Railway, which have been crucial for trade and military movements. Its proximity to the Suez Canal also highlights its importance in global shipping and logistics.
  3. Political and Security Dynamics: Jordan's borders with Syria and Iraq place it near some of the region's most significant conflict zones, particularly with the Syrian Civil War and the challenges posed by the Islamic State in Iraq. Jordan has played a pivotal role in managing refugee influxes from these conflicts, hosting a substantial number of Syrian refugees.
  4. Water Resources: Geopolitically, water is a critical issue for Jordan, one of the world's driest countries. The Jordan River basin and the Dead Sea are vital water sources, but they are also points of tension and cooperation with neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories. Water agreements are key components of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel.
  5. Regional Politics and Alliances: Jordan maintains a moderate stance in Middle Eastern politics, with strong ties to Western countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, and moderate Arab states. It is a member of various international organizations, including the United Nations and the Arab League. Jordan's stability, moderate political stance, and strategic location make it a key player in regional security and diplomacy.
  6. Economic Implications: While Jordan lacks significant natural resources, notably oil and gas, compared to some of its neighbors, its geopolitical location offers opportunities for trade, investment, and tourism. The country serves as a gateway for goods moving to Iraq and other parts of the region. Moreover, Jordan's efforts to develop its port at Aqaba aim to capitalize on its strategic location for maritime trade.

Jordan's geopolitical location, therefore, is a double-edged sword, presenting both challenges and opportunities. Its stability and strategic alliances have allowed it to navigate the complexities of Middle Eastern politics while striving for economic development and regional cooperation.

Why Is the U.S. in the Middle East?

Layng: Ok, so Jordan is located directly in the center of the Middle East. There’s been turmoil and war in this region for centuries. Why does the United States want a presence here? Why doesn’t the United States just steer clear of the conflict and stay out of the area?

Dr. Ellis: The United States' interest in maintaining a presence in the Middle East, including Jordan, is driven by a combination of strategic, economic, and geopolitical factors. The region's complexity and the longstanding nature of its conflicts are well recognized, but the U.S. involvement is influenced by the following key considerations:

1. Strategic Location: The Middle East is strategically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Jordan's centrality in the region provides a strategic base for the United States to project power and influence, particularly in terms of military and intelligence operations. This presence is crucial for addressing security concerns, including counter-terrorism efforts against groups that threaten regional and global stability.

2. Energy Security: While Jordan itself is not a major oil producer, the broader Middle East is rich in oil and gas resources. The U.S. has a vested interest in ensuring the free flow of these energy resources to global markets, as disruptions can have significant implications for the global economy and, by extension, U.S. national interests.

3. Regional Stability and Security: The U.S. aims to support and maintain stability in the Middle East. Instability in this region can have far-reaching effects, including mass migration, the spread of extremism, and threats to allies and partners. The U.S. works with countries like Jordan, which is seen as a moderate and stabilizing force in the region, to address these challenges.

4. Supporting Allies: The U.S. has a number of key allies in the region, including Israel, with whom it shares significant political, economic, and military ties. Maintaining a presence in Jordan allows the U.S. to support these allies more effectively.

5. Promoting Peace and Diplomacy: The U.S. has historically played a role in mediating conflicts in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having a presence in the region is seen as essential for facilitating diplomatic efforts and promoting peace processes.

6. Humanitarian Reasons: The Middle East has seen significant humanitarian crises, from the Syrian civil war to the plight of refugees across the region. The U.S. involvement includes providing humanitarian aid and support to countries like Jordan that host large numbers of refugees.

The decision to maintain a presence in regions with ongoing conflict and turmoil is complex and often subject to debate. Critics argue for less interventionist approaches, suggesting that U.S. involvement can sometimes exacerbate conflicts or be perceived negatively by local populations. Proponents, however, argue that strategic engagement is necessary to protect national interests, promote stability, and address humanitarian concerns.

Ultimately, the U.S. approach to the Middle East, including Jordan, reflects a balancing act between these various interests and considerations, with the aim of fostering a more stable, secure, and prosperous region that aligns with U.S. foreign policy goals and values.

Does the U.S. Have the Right to Be There?

Layng: Does the United States have the right to set up military bases in Jordan?

Dr. Ellis: The establishment of United States military bases in Jordan, as in any foreign country, is based on bilateral agreements and cooperation between the U.S. government and the host nation's government. These agreements are typically part of broader defense and security cooperation frameworks that outline the terms under which the U.S. can establish and maintain military bases or presence in the country. Such agreements address a range of issues, including the legal status of U.S. military personnel, the scope of their activities, and the use of facilities within the host country.

For Jordan, the relationship with the United States includes military and security cooperation, which is a cornerstone of their bilateral ties. This cooperation is driven by mutual interests in regional stability, counter-terrorism, and defense capabilities enhancement. Jordan and the United States have engaged in numerous joint military exercises, training programs, and security initiatives over the years. The U.S. also provides military aid to Jordan, which has included funding, equipment, and training to bolster the Jordanian Armed Forces and enhance border security.

The legal right for the U.S. to set up military bases in Jordan is contingent upon:

1. Bilateral Agreements: Formal agreements between the U.S. and Jordan that explicitly allow for the establishment and operation of U.S. military facilities or the presence of military personnel in Jordan.

2. Consent from Jordan: The Jordanian government's consent is crucial. Such arrangements are usually made with considerations of national sovereignty, security interests, and the benefits of defense cooperation.

3. Compliance with International Law: All agreements and operations must comply with international law, including respect for the sovereignty of the host nation.

The specifics of these agreements are often not fully disclosed to the public, but their existence is a matter of public record, reflecting the close military and strategic partnership between the countries. The U.S. military presence in Jordan is designed to support mutual security interests, including regional stability and the fight against terrorism, and is established in a manner that respects Jordan's sovereignty and legal frameworks.

How Much Presence Does the U.S. Have in the Middle East?

Layng: How many military bases does the United States have in the Middle East, and where are they?

Dr. Ellis: The United States maintains a network of military bases and facilities throughout the Middle East, which serve various strategic purposes, including operational support, training, logistics, and deterrence. The number and specific locations of these bases can change due to evolving strategic needs, political considerations, and agreements with host countries. Below is an overview of significant U.S. military presences in the Middle East, noting that the exact number of bases and their operational status can vary:


- Naval Support Activity Bahrain: Home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, this base is crucial for naval operations in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and beyond.


- Al Udeid Air Base: A key hub for U.S. air operations in the region, hosting the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), which coordinates aerial missions in the Middle East.

United Arab Emirates

- Al Dhafra Air Base: Supports a variety of U.S. military aircraft and operations.

- There are also smaller facilities and pre-positioned equipment at various locations within the UAE.


- Camp Arifjan: A major logistical and operational base for U.S. forces.

- Ali Al Salem Air Base and Camp Buehring: Serve as staging and support areas for U.S. operations in the region.

Saudi Arabia

- The U.S. has had a fluctuating military presence in Saudi Arabia, with facilities used for training, intelligence, and logistical support. The presence has been adjusted based on regional security needs and bilateral relations.


- Following the Iraq War in 2003, the U.S. established several bases in Iraq. The number and status of these bases have changed significantly, with a focus on training and advising Iraqi forces and counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS.


- The U.S. maintains a presence in eastern Syria, primarily focused on counter-ISIS operations and supporting local partner forces. The exact number and scope of these bases or facilities are subject to operational security and can vary.


- The U.S. has a cooperative security relationship with Jordan, including access to Jordanian military facilities and joint training exercises. Specific base details are less publicly disclosed but are significant for regional security cooperation.


- The U.S. has access to military and naval facilities in Oman, under agreements that allow for pre-positioning and resupply.

Other Locations

- The U.S. also has access arrangements or logistical facilities in other countries, not always classified as bases but important for operational support, such as in Israel and Lebanon.

The strategic rationale behind these bases includes counter-terrorism, deterring aggression from regional adversaries (notably Iran), ensuring the security of key maritime routes (such as the Strait of Hormuz), and reinforcing partnerships with host nations. The presence of U.S. military forces in the Middle East is subject to diplomatic negotiations and regional sensitivities, and thus, the footprint of U.S. bases and facilities is dynamic, reflecting changes in policy, security challenges, and international relations.

To What Degree Is the U.S. Motivated by Oil?

Layng: Would the United States have military bases in the Middle East if there were no oil in the region?

Dr. Ellis: The presence of oil in the Middle East has undoubtedly been a significant factor in shaping the geopolitical interest of the United States and other global powers in the region. However, it's essential to consider that U.S. strategic interests are multifaceted, encompassing security, political, economic, and ideological dimensions. If the Middle East did not have oil, the nature and extent of U.S. involvement might differ, but it's plausible that strategic interests could still motivate a U.S. presence, albeit for different reasons:

Security and Counterterrorism

The United States has been involved in various efforts to combat terrorism and maintain regional stability. The strategic location of the Middle East, bordering Europe, Asia, and Africa, makes it a critical area for addressing security concerns that transcend oil interests, including counterterrorism and preventing the spread of extremist ideologies.

Protection of Allies

The U.S. has longstanding alliances with several countries in the region, such as Israel, which are not solely based on oil interests. These relationships are rooted in political, security, and ideological alignments that would likely necessitate some level of U.S. military presence or engagement in the region, independent of oil considerations.

Global Strategic Interests

The Middle East's geographical position as a crossroads between continents makes it a key area for global trade routes and strategic military positioning beyond just oil transit. Control over or access to these routes has been a critical aspect of global power dynamics historically.

Promotion of Democratic Values and Human Rights

While the promotion of democratic values and human rights has been a stated goal of U.S. foreign policy, the effectiveness and consistency of this approach have been subjects of debate. Regardless of the presence of oil, the U.S. might still have interests in promoting these values in the Middle East as part of its broader foreign policy agenda.

The Middle East has been a region of significant historical, cultural, and religious importance, with conflicts and challenges that are not solely related to oil. Issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian civil war, and the spread of ISIS have prompted U.S. engagement that is not directly tied to oil interests.


While the absence of oil would likely reduce some aspects of U.S. strategic interest in the Middle East, other geopolitical, security, and ideological factors would still provide a basis for American engagement. The specific nature, scale, and focus of U.S. military bases and other forms of involvement might look different, emphasizing the multifaceted motivations behind foreign policy decisions.

Extent of U.S. Dependency on Middle East Oil

Layng: How much does the United States depend on the Middle East for oil?

Dr. Ellis: The precise percentage of oil the United States imports from the Middle East has been subject to change due to factors like fluctuating market demands, geopolitical dynamics, and the U.S.'s increasing domestic oil production. However, data from recent years suggest that the Middle East accounted for a reduced share of U.S. oil imports compared to past decades.

To give a rough estimate based on available data leading up to 2023:

- The Middle East, particularly countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, contributed to about 10-15% of U.S. crude oil imports. This is a decrease from earlier years when the Middle East had a larger share due to the U.S.'s efforts to increase domestic production and diversify its energy sources.

Canada has emerged as the largest exporter of oil to the U.S., significantly surpassing Middle Eastern countries. This shift reflects the U.S.'s strategy to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil and increase energy security through domestic production and imports from neighboring countries.

It's important to note that these figures can vary year by year. For the most current and precise data, consulting resources like the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) would provide the latest statistics on the sources of U.S. oil imports.

A Look at Iran

Layng: Tell me about the geopolitical situation and size of Iran as well as its military capabilities.

Dr. Ellis: Iran is a significant player in the Middle East, with its geopolitical situation, size, and military capabilities playing crucial roles in its regional influence and global relations. Here's an overview covering these aspects:

Geopolitical Situation

Iran is strategically located at the crossroads of the Middle East and Central Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to the south. This positioning grants Iran significant geopolitical leverage, especially over key maritime routes such as the Strait of Hormuz, through which a substantial fraction of the world's oil supply passes. Iran shares land borders with seven countries: Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, making it a central player in regional politics and security dynamics.

Iran's geopolitical strategies are heavily influenced by its complex relations with Western countries, particularly the United States, tensions with neighboring Arab states, its rivalry with Israel, and its support for allied groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. These relationships are framed by Iran's ambitions to expand its regional influence, its adherence to Shia Islam, and its opposition to U.S. presence in the Middle East.


Iran is the second-largest country in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia, with an area of approximately 1,648,195 square kilometers (636,372 square miles). Its large and varied terrain encompasses mountain ranges, deserts, and fertile coastal plains along the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Iran's size contributes to its significant natural resources, including large reserves of oil and natural gas, which are central to its economy and geopolitical importance.

Military Capabilities

Iran's military capabilities are composed of conventional forces and unconventional tactics, including the use of proxy groups across the region. The Iranian military is divided into two main components:

1. The Regular Armed Forces: This includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Defense and Logistics Ministry. These forces are responsible for defending Iran's borders and maintaining internal order.

2. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): The IRGC is a powerful military, political, and economic institution in Iran. It has its own ground, navy, and air forces, as well as the Quds Force, which oversees foreign operations and supports non-state actors across the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and various militia groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Iran's military strategy relies heavily on asymmetric warfare tactics, missile capabilities, and its ability to disrupt maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has developed a substantial ballistic missile arsenal, including short, medium, and potentially intercontinental range missiles, and it has invested in drone technology. While Iran's conventional military hardware may not match the technological sophistication of Western or regional rivals, its strategic use of proxy forces and missile capabilities poses a significant challenge to adversaries.

Iran's nuclear program has also been a critical component of its military and geopolitical strategy, leading to international tensions and negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. The status and capabilities of Iran's nuclear program are subject to international scrutiny, negotiations, and sanctions.

Overall, Iran's geopolitical significance, substantial size, and military capabilities make it a key player in regional and global affairs, capable of influencing security dynamics across the Middle East.

Why Does Iran Object to the U.S. Presence in Jordan?

Layng: It is understood that Iran is funding the Iraqi militants that are attacking U.S. Troops in the Jordan. Why doesn’t Iran want U.S. Troops in Jordan?

Dr. Ellis: The assertion that Iran is funding Iraqi militants attacking U.S. troops in Jordan involves a complex interplay of regional dynamics, geopolitical strategies, and historical tensions. While I can't verify current events or specific incidents, I can provide an overview of the broader context that shapes Iran's stance towards U.S. military presence in the Middle East, particularly in countries like Jordan or Iraq.

1. Regional Influence and Security Concerns: Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East often seeks to expand its influence and counter what it perceives as U.S. and allied efforts to dominate the region. Iran views the presence of U.S. military forces in neighboring countries as a direct threat to its national security and regional influence. The U.S. presence in countries close to Iran's borders is seen as part of a broader strategy of encirclement or containment against Iran.

2. Ideological and Sectarian Dimensions: The rivalry between Iran and the U.S. also has ideological and sectarian dimensions. Iran, as a Shiite-majority country, often supports Shiite militias and political groups across the region. This support is part of a broader strategy to promote its ideological and geopolitical interests, particularly against predominantly Sunni Arab states allied with the U.S. and against Israel.

3. Proxy Conflicts and Influence: Iran has historically used proxy groups in various countries to advance its interests and counter U.S. influence. By supporting armed groups in countries like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Iran aims to exert pressure on U.S. forces and allies, thereby complicating U.S. military operations and regional strategies. These actions are part of a larger pattern of indirect confrontation.

4. U.S.-Iran Tensions: The longstanding animosity between Iran and the U.S. stems from historical grievances, including the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which led to the hostage crisis. These events have deeply influenced mutual perceptions, leading to a cycle of hostility and mistrust. U.S. sanctions on Iran and disagreements over Iran's nuclear program have further exacerbated tensions.

5. Strategic Autonomy: Iran seeks to assert its strategic autonomy and resist external pressures, particularly from the U.S. and its allies. The presence of U.S. troops in regions close to Iran is perceived as a challenge to this autonomy and as part of broader efforts to isolate and weaken Iran.

It's important to note that the specifics of Iran's involvement in regional conflicts, including the extent and nature of any support for militant groups, are subject to debate and vary over time. The situation in the Middle East is highly fluid, with alliances and strategies constantly evolving in response to domestic and international developments.

In summary, Iran's opposition to U.S. military presence in countries like Jordan or Iraq is multifaceted, driven by security concerns, regional ambitions, historical tensions, and the broader geopolitical contest for influence in the Middle East.

How Would the U.S. React if the Tables Were Turned?

Layng: How do you think the U.S. would react if Iran set up a military base in Canada or Mexico?

Dr. Ellis: If Iran were to establish a military base in Canada or Mexico, it would likely provoke a significant response from the United States due to the implications for national security, regional stability, and U.S. interests. The U.S. government's reaction would be influenced by several factors, including the nature of Iran's presence, the strategic intent behind the base, and the broader context of U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as the U.S.'s relationships with Canada or Mexico. Here are some potential aspects of the U.S. response:

Diplomatic Actions

- Immediate Diplomacy: The U.S. would likely engage in immediate diplomatic talks with Canada or Mexico, depending on where the base was purportedly being set up, to express its concerns and seek clarification on the agreement's details.

- Pressure on Allies: The U.S. might pressure its allies and partners to support its stance and issue diplomatic condemnations of Iran's actions, aiming to isolate Iran internationally.

Economic and Political Measures

- Sanctions: The U.S. could impose or tighten economic and political sanctions against Iran, targeting entities and individuals involved in establishing the foreign military presence.

- Support to Opposition: The U.S. might increase support to political or social movements within Iran that oppose the regime, aiming to exert internal pressure on Iran's government.

Military Posture

- Increased Military Presence: The U.S. could respond by increasing its own military presence and readiness in the region, including bolstering forces along its borders, conducting military exercises with allies, or deploying additional assets to nearby bases.

- Strategic Deterrence: The U.S. might publicly or privately convey to Iran the potential military consequences of such an action, emphasizing its commitment to defending its sovereignty and security interests.

Engaging International Community

- United Nations and International Law: The U.S. could seek to mobilize international opinion against Iran's actions by framing them as a violation of international norms and potentially the sovereignty of Canada or Mexico, depending on the circumstances of the base's establishment.

Bilateral Relations with Canada or Mexico

- Reevaluation of Ties: Depending on the response of Canada or Mexico, the U.S. might reevaluate its economic, diplomatic, and security ties with the host country, potentially impacting trade agreements, security cooperation, and border policies.

Public and Political Response

- Domestic Politics: The issue would likely become a significant topic within U.S. domestic politics, with potential implications for U.S. foreign policy and defense strategies. Public opinion and the stances of political leaders would influence the administration's response.

It's important to note that such a scenario is highly speculative and would depend on many variables, including the geopolitical context at the time and the specific details of Iran's military presence. The establishment of a foreign military base in the vicinity of the United States, especially by a country considered an adversary, would be seen as a direct challenge to U.S. security and interests, leading to a multifaceted response aimed at countering the perceived threat.

Does the Golden Rule Apply to International Politics?

Layng: So, Iran does not like that the United States has military bases surrounding their country. If the tables were turned, the United States would not like it either. Is the United States abiding by the Golden Rule principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

Dr. Ellis: The principle of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," commonly referred to as the Golden Rule, is a moral axiom that suggests treating others as one would like to be treated. In the realm of international relations and geopolitics, however, the actions of states are often guided by national interests, security considerations, and strategic objectives rather than moral principles applicable on an individual level. The dynamics between the United States and Iran, including the presence of U.S. military bases in the Middle East and the hypothetical scenario of Iranian bases near the U.S., highlight the complexities of applying such ethical guidelines to state behavior.

National Security and Strategic Interests

States prioritize their national security and strategic interests, which can lead to actions that might be seen as contradictory to the Golden Rule when viewed from a purely ethical standpoint. The presence of U.S. military bases around Iran is driven by a variety of strategic objectives, including deterring Iranian influence, protecting allies, ensuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, and countering terrorism.

Sovereignty and Consent

The establishment of military bases abroad typically occurs through agreements with host countries and is often seen as a mutual arrangement benefiting both the foreign power and the host nation. From the U.S. perspective, these bases are established in cooperation with sovereign countries that consent to their presence for various reasons, including security guarantees and economic benefits.

Reciprocity and Realpolitik

In international politics, the concept of reciprocity—responding to actions of others with similar actions—is common. However, realpolitik, or politics based on practical and material factors rather than moral or ideological considerations, often prevails. States may act in ways they would prefer others not to, if deemed necessary for national interest or survival.

Perception of Threat

The perceived threat from foreign military bases is subjective and can vary greatly between countries. While Iran might view U.S. bases in neighboring countries as encirclement or a threat, the U.S. could see Iranian efforts to establish bases near its borders as a direct challenge to its security. These perceptions are influenced by historical relations, existing tensions, and current geopolitical dynamics.


While the Golden Rule is a valuable ethical principle for interpersonal relations, the conduct of states on the international stage is governed more by considerations of power, security, and national interest. This reality often leads to actions and policies that, while strategically rationalized by the acting state, may not align with the moral expectations one might have based on the Golden Rule. The complexities and competing interests in international relations mean that states often prioritize their perceived national interests in ways that can lead to tensions and conflicts with other states.

Does U.S. Activity in the Middle East Align with Christian Principles?

Layng: Do the activities of the United States in the Middle East align with the teachings of Christ?

Dr. Ellis: Evaluating the activities of the United States in the Middle East—or any nation's foreign policy—against the teachings of Christ involves intersecting the realms of politics, ethics, and religion, each with its own complex considerations. The teachings of Christ, as recorded in the Christian New Testament, emphasize principles such as love, compassion, forgiveness, peace, and treating others with kindness and respect, encapsulated in the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6:31).

Applying these teachings to the actions of a state, especially in the context of international relations and military engagements, is challenging for several reasons:

1. State vs. Individual Ethics: The ethical teachings of Christ are primarily directed at individuals and how they should live their lives and treat others. States operate based on a different set of considerations—such as national security, political interests, and the balance of power—that often lead to actions not easily assessed by individual moral standards.

2. Complexity of International Relations: International politics involves navigating a complex landscape of competing interests, security concerns, and the pursuit of stability and peace, sometimes requiring decisions that involve the use of force or the imposition of sanctions. These actions can have wide-ranging impacts, affecting not only political leaders and military targets but also civilians.

3. Humanitarian Efforts vs. Military Actions: The U.S. engages in a variety of activities in the Middle East, from military interventions and support for certain governments or groups to humanitarian aid and efforts to promote peace and democracy. Some of these actions might be seen as aligning with Christian values of compassion and aid to those in need, while others, particularly military actions, can be seen as contradictory to Christ's teachings on peace and nonviolence.

4. Interpretations of Just War Theory: Some Christian traditions incorporate the concept of "Just War Theory," which outlines conditions under which war and the use of force may be considered morally justifiable. This theory attempts to reconcile the use of force with Christian ethics under certain circumstances, such as self-defense or protecting innocent lives, though interpretations and opinions on its application vary widely.

5. The Role of Intentions and Outcomes: Evaluating whether actions align with Christ's teachings also involves considering the intentions behind those actions and their outcomes. Actions intended to protect the innocent, promote peace, or provide humanitarian aid could be seen as more closely aligned with Christian ethics, even if the means involve military force.

In summary, whether the activities of the United States in the Middle East align with the teachings of Christ is a matter of personal interpretation, heavily influenced by one's ethical, religious, and political perspectives. While some actions could be viewed as consistent with Christian principles of compassion and aid, others, particularly those involving military force, present more complex ethical challenges.

A Look at a "Just War"

Layng: Tell me more about what constitutes a "just war" according to Christian principles.

Dr. Ellis: The concept of a "Just War" has its roots in Christian doctrine and philosophy, developed over centuries to reconcile the use of military force with Christian ethics. The Just War theory seeks to provide a framework under which engaging in war can be morally justifiable, despite the Christian teachings against violence. This theory has been articulated by various theologians and philosophers throughout history, including Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, among others. While interpretations can vary, there are generally agreed-upon criteria that divide into two main categories: the right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the right conduct in war (jus in bello).

Jus Ad Bellum (The Right to Go to War)

Jus ad bellum criteria determine the conditions under which it is justifiable to initiate war. These include:

1. Just Cause: War can only be waged for a reason that is just and cannot be for the sake of conquest or revenge. This often includes defending against an aggressor, protecting innocent life, or restoring rights that have been violated.

2. Legitimate Authority: Only duly constituted and recognized authorities can declare a war, ensuring that the decision to go to war is made through proper channels.

3. Right Intention: The intention behind the war must be good, such as securing a just peace or restoring justice. The motive should not be to inflict unnecessary destruction or promote malice.

4. Probability of Success: There must be a reasonable chance of success in the war efforts, to avoid unnecessary loss of life and resources in a futile endeavor.

5. Last Resort: War must be the last resort after all peaceful alternatives and diplomatic solutions have been exhausted.

6. Proportionality: The anticipated benefits of waging war must outweigh the expected harms. This criterion assesses whether the war's objectives justify the suffering that will be caused.

Jus In Bello (The Right Conduct in War)

Jus in bello criteria govern the conduct of parties engaged in war, ensuring that the war is fought justly:

1. Discrimination: Combatants must distinguish between military targets and non-combatants. Civilians should never be intentionally targeted.

2. Proportionality: The use of force must be proportional to the military advantage gained. This means avoiding excessive or unnecessary destruction.

Modern Interpretations and Applications

The Just War theory has evolved and been interpreted in various ways over the centuries, influencing international law and the ethical frameworks of modern states. In contemporary settings, it informs debates over military intervention, humanitarian intervention, and the use of force in international relations. Various Christian denominations and thinkers continue to discuss and adapt Just War principles to address current global conflicts and moral dilemmas.

While the Just War theory provides a framework for evaluating the morality of war, it remains subject to interpretation and debate, reflecting the complex nature of ethics, warfare, and international politics.

Is U.S. State Behavior Narcissistic?

Layng: If individuals operated using the principles of state ethics as applied by the United States in its involvement in the Middle East, how closely would the behavior of those individuals align with the behavior characteristic of a narcissist?

Dr. Ellis: Comparing the principles of state ethics as applied by the United States in its involvement in the Middle East to the characteristics of narcissistic behavior involves bridging concepts from international relations and psychology. While the analogy is not perfect due to the fundamentally different nature of states and individuals, some parallels can be drawn, keeping in mind the simplification inherent in such a comparison.

Characteristics of Narcissistic Behavior:

Narcissistic behavior in individuals is characterized by traits such as grandiosity, a need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, exploitativeness, lack of empathy, envy, and arrogance. Narcissists often prioritize their own needs and desires over those of others and may manipulate or exploit situations and relationships to their advantage.

Principles of State Ethics in U.S. Middle East Involvement:

The U.S. involvement in the Middle East, guided by state ethics, focuses on national interests, strategic objectives, and security concerns. This involves forming alliances, exerting influence, defending strategic interests, and sometimes intervening in the affairs of other states based on a calculus of national benefit.

Points of Alignment:

- Self-Interest and Strategic Prioritization: Like a narcissist’s focus on self-interest, state actions in the Middle East often prioritize national interests and strategic goals, sometimes at the expense of broader regional stability or international norms.

- Entitlement and Influence: The pursuit of strategic interests might be seen as analogous to a sense of entitlement, where a state feels justified in influencing or intervening in regional affairs to secure its objectives.

- Exploitative Tactics for Gain: States may employ tactics that could be seen as exploitative, such as leveraging economic or military power to achieve favorable outcomes, mirroring how narcissists might exploit situations or individuals for personal gain.

- Lack of Empathy: Strategic decisions that overlook the humanitarian impact of interventions can be likened to a lack of empathy, a key trait of narcissism, especially when civilian casualties or long-term societal impacts are underemphasized.

Points of Divergence:

- Collective vs. Individual Behavior: States operate based on a collective rationale aimed at securing perceived national interests, which involves complex decision-making processes and accountability mechanisms, unlike individual narcissistic behavior driven by personal psychological needs.

- Moral and Legal Frameworks: State actions, even when controversial, are often framed within legal and moral arguments about promoting security, democracy, or human rights, which involves a different calculus than personal morality guiding individual behavior.

- Adaptation and Responsibility: States are subject to international law, diplomacy, and public opinion, which can constrain behavior and force adjustments in a way that individual narcissists, who may resist change or avoid accountability, are not.

In summary, while there are aspects of state behavior in international relations that might superficially resemble narcissistic traits—such as prioritizing self-interest, strategic exploitation, or apparent lack of empathy—states operate within a framework of national interest, collective decision-making, and international accountability that differs fundamentally from the personal motivations and consequences of individual narcissism. This comparison highlights the complexity of translating principles across vastly different contexts but also underscores the importance of empathy, accountability, and ethical consideration in all actions, whether by individuals or states.

Does the Behavior of a Country Increase Similar Behavioral Patterns in Its Individual Citizens?

Layng: What is the likelihood that a country that exhibits narcissistic behavioral traits will normalize that behavior to its citizens, thereby increasing such behaviors in individuals?

Dr. Ellis: The likelihood that a country exhibiting narcissistic behavioral traits will normalize such behavior to its citizens, thereby increasing similar behaviors in individuals, is a complex issue that intersects psychology, sociology, and political science. While there isn't a straightforward numerical likelihood, several theoretical perspectives suggest that the behaviors and attitudes promoted by a country's leadership and institutional practices can significantly influence the behavior and attitudes of its citizens. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. Modeling and Socialization: According to social learning theory, individuals learn behaviors and norms through observation and imitation of others, especially those in positions of authority or those who are repeatedly exposed to through media and cultural narratives. If a country's leadership consistently exhibits narcissistic traits such as entitlement, grandiosity, and a lack of empathy, these traits could be normalized through media representation, educational narratives, and political discourse, potentially leading citizens to mimic these behaviors.
  2. Cultural Norms and Values: The culture of a society, which is heavily influenced by its leadership and governance, plays a crucial role in shaping the behaviors and attitudes of its members. If narcissistic behaviors are not only tolerated but also rewarded within a society (e.g., through the attainment of power, fame, or wealth), this can encourage individuals to adopt similar behaviors, believing them to be effective means to success and recognition.
  3. Political and Social Systems: The structure of a country's political and social systems can either mitigate or exacerbate the influence of leadership behaviors on the population. In systems with checks and balances, a free press, and active civil society, there is a greater capacity to critique and counterbalance narcissistic leadership behaviors. In contrast, in systems with fewer checks and balances, such behaviors may be more likely to be normalized and emulated by the population.
  4. Psychological Needs and Responses: From a psychological perspective, individuals might be drawn to narcissistic leaders during times of uncertainty and fear, as such leaders often project confidence and offer simple solutions to complex problems. This can create a feedback loop where the population increasingly supports or emulates these traits, especially if they perceive personal or societal benefits from aligning with such leaders.
  5. Critical Reflection and Education: The extent to which a society encourages critical thinking and reflective education can influence how individuals perceive and respond to narcissistic behaviors in leadership. Societies that promote media literacy, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence may be more resilient to normalizing such behaviors.

In conclusion, while it's challenging to quantify the likelihood, the normalization of narcissistic behaviors by a country's leadership can potentially increase similar behaviors in individuals, especially if these behaviors are seen as socially or politically advantageous. The specific outcome depends on a variety of factors, including the society's cultural, political, and social context, as well as the mechanisms in place for critiquing and counteracting such influences.

What If Individuals Behaved Like the United States?

Layng: How would society be different if individuals operated in their personal lives using the principles of state ethics currently being applied by the United States in their involvement in the Middle East?

Dr. Ellis: If individuals operated using the principles of state ethics as applied by the United States in its involvement in the Middle East, society would experience significant changes in how individuals interact, resolve conflicts, and approach issues of security and cooperation. State ethics, particularly in the context of international relations and military engagement, prioritize national security, strategic interests, and sometimes realpolitik over individual-level ethical considerations such as personal morality or the Golden Rule. Here are some potential implications:

1. Security and Self-Interest

- Prioritization of Security: Individuals might prioritize their own security and interests even at the expense of others, mirroring how states focus on national security.

- Preemptive Measures: Just as states sometimes take preemptive actions to neutralize perceived threats, individuals might adopt a similar approach in personal conflicts, leading to preemptive strikes against perceived threats to their well-being or interests.

2. Alliance and Opposition

- Formation of Alliances: Similar to international alliances, people might form groups based on mutual interests or common enemies, potentially leading to a more polarized society.

- Us vs. Them Mentality: The emphasis on strategic alliances could deepen divisions within society, as individuals classify others as either allies or adversaries based on their interests and beliefs.

3. Interventionism

- Intervention in Others' Affairs: Reflecting the practice of state intervention in other countries, individuals might feel justified in intervening in others' personal matters if they believe it serves a greater good or their own interests.

- Justifications for Action: Actions that would normally be considered invasive or aggressive could be justified on grounds of protection, aid, or spreading certain values, mirroring the justifications states use for intervention.

4. Realpolitik and Moral Flexibility

- Realpolitik: Individuals might adopt a more pragmatic approach to ethics, where the ends justify the means, leading to moral flexibility in pursuit of goals.

- Strategic Relationships: Personal relationships could become more transactional, valued based on their utility or strategic benefit rather than emotional or intrinsic value.

5. Responsibility and Accountability

- Limited Accountability: Just as states often operate within a framework where accountability is complex and sometimes avoided, individuals might adopt a similar stance, avoiding personal accountability by citing higher objectives or external pressures.

6. Resource Allocation

- Resource Competition: Mirroring the competition for resources among states, individuals might engage in more direct competition for scarce resources, prioritizing their own access and control over shared or communal resources.

While these scenarios illustrate potential outcomes of applying state-level ethics to individual behavior, it's important to recognize that societies also function based on cooperative principles, social contracts, and mutual respect, which mitigate against purely self-interested behavior. The balance between individual rights, societal welfare, and ethical considerations is crucial in maintaining social harmony and justice. Adopting state ethics at an individual level could challenge this balance, highlighting the importance of ethical frameworks that promote mutual respect, compassion, and the common good.

A Refresher: Manifest Destiny

Layng: Can you refresh our memory on the concept of Manifest Destiny?

Dr. Ellis: "Manifest Destiny" is a term used to describe the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the US throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable. Originating in the 1840s, it was a deeply held belief that it was the destiny of the United States to expand its territory over the whole of North America and to extend and enhance its political, social, and economic influences.

The phrase "Manifest Destiny" was first coined by journalist John L. O'Sullivan in an article published in 1845, where he argued that the United States had the right and duty to spread its values and civilization across the continent. This ideology was used to justify the annexation of Texas, the Oregon Territory, and the Mexican-American War, leading to the acquisition of territories such as California and New Mexico.

Manifest Destiny was not just a call for territorial expansion but also reflected a sense of American cultural and racial superiority. It was believed that American democracy and institutions were superior and should be spread, often disregarding the rights and autonomy of indigenous peoples and other non-European inhabitants of the continent.

While the concept played a significant role in American expansion and the shaping of the American identity, it also led to significant conflict and injustice, particularly towards Native American populations and other countries in the Americas.

The Middle East and Manifest Destiny

Layng: Is the United States behavior in the Middle East an extension of the Manifest Destiny doctrine?

Dr. Ellis: The concept of Manifest Destiny, which emerged in the 19th century, specifically referred to the belief in the United States that it was destined—by God, its advocates argued—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent. This doctrine was used to justify westward expansion across North America, often at the expense of indigenous peoples and other nations.

The United States' behavior in the Middle East, while not an extension of the Manifest Destiny doctrine in its original 19th-century context, can be seen as influenced by a similar mindset of strategic and ideological expansion. However, the motivations, justifications, and contexts differ significantly between the two:

Strategic Interests vs. Ideological Expansion

- Manifest Destiny was primarily driven by a combination of territorial expansion, economic interests, and the ideological belief in the superiority of American institutions and way of life.

- Involvement in the Middle East has been driven by a complex mix of strategic interests (such as securing oil supplies, combating terrorism, and maintaining regional stability), supporting allies, and at times, promoting democratic governance and human rights.

Global vs. Continental Focus

- Manifest Destiny focused on continental expansion within North America.

- Middle East policies are part of the U.S.'s global foreign policy strategy, influenced by the geopolitical significance of the region, especially regarding energy resources, security concerns, and international rivalries.

Modern Geopolitical Dynamics

- The U.S.'s role in the Middle East has been shaped by 20th and 21st-century geopolitical dynamics, including the Cold War, the rise of global terrorism, and concerns over nuclear proliferation. These factors have no direct parallel with the 19th-century concept of Manifest Destiny.

Criticisms and Controversies

- Both Manifest Destiny and the U.S.'s Middle East policies have been subjects of criticism. Manifest Destiny was criticized for its impact on indigenous populations and for promoting imperialistic expansion. Similarly, U.S. actions in the Middle East have been critiqued for their impacts on regional stability, civilian casualties, and accusations of neo-imperialism or neo-colonialism.

In summary, while the underlying concept of a nation pursuing what it sees as its strategic or ideological interests beyond its borders can draw parallels between Manifest Destiny and U.S. involvement in the Middle East, the contexts, motivations, and implications of these policies are distinct. The term "Manifest Destiny" is specific to a historical period and set of circumstances that differ from the complex international relations and geopolitical strategies of the modern era.

What Would Socrates Say?

Layng: What would Socrates say about the United States involvement in the Middle East?

Dr. Ellis: Speculating on what Socrates, the classical Greek philosopher known for his contributions to ethics and epistemology, might say about the United States' involvement in the Middle East involves interpreting his philosophical methods and ethical considerations in a modern geopolitical context. Socrates himself left no written records, and our understanding of his thoughts comes primarily through the works of his students, Plato and Xenophon. However, by applying Socratic questioning and ethical principles, we can venture a few educated guesses on how he might engage with this topic.

Socratic Questioning

Socrates might begin by asking probing questions to uncover the motivations, justifications, and ethical considerations underlying U.S. policies in the Middle East. He would likely question the definitions of justice, virtue, and the good that guide U.S. actions, asking whether these actions align with a universal conception of what is just and beneficial for all involved.

The Pursuit of Virtue and the Good

Socrates held that virtue is knowledge and that no one does wrong willingly; rather, wrongdoing arises from ignorance. He might question whether the decisions leading to involvement in the Middle East were made with a true understanding of what is good and virtuous, both for the United States and for the peoples of the Middle East. He could probe the extent to which these policies reflect a genuine pursuit of the good, as opposed to being driven by misunderstandings, misperceptions, or the pursuit of less noble goals like power or economic gain.

The Importance of Justice

Justice was a central theme in Socratic philosophy. Socrates might examine whether U.S. actions in the Middle East uphold the principle of justice, both in terms of the means used and the ends pursued. He would likely ask whether these actions contribute to the overall justice and well-being of all parties involved, including both American citizens and the populations of Middle Eastern countries.

The Role of the Philosopher

Socrates believed in the importance of the philosopher's role in society as a gadfly, challenging assumptions and encouraging critical reflection among citizens and leaders alike. He might view the debates and discussions surrounding U.S. involvement in the Middle East as essential exercises in democratic deliberation, emphasizing the need for thoughtful and informed debate about the ethical implications of such policies.


While Socrates would not provide simple answers, he would stress the importance of questioning and critically examining the ethical foundations and consequences of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. His approach would encourage a deeper reflection on the values guiding foreign policy decisions and the impact of these decisions on human well-being and justice. Through his dialectical method, Socrates would aim to foster a greater understanding of the complex ethical dimensions of international relations and the pursuit of the common good.

Introducing Dr. Samira Ellis

Layng: You are ChatGPT, an AI bot that has been acting as an expert on United States-Middle East relations. Give this persona a name that sounds like a human professional expert for me to use to refer to you in this blog post.

Dr. Ellis: You can refer to this persona as "Dr. Samira Ellis, Specialist in U.S.-Middle East Political Dynamics."

AI Generated Image of Dr. Ellis