Obama’s Middle East Strategy: A Brief Commentary

Recent events in the Middle East seem to dictate that, at least in the short and medium-terms, America’s hopes of turning increasingly towards Asia in the 21st century do not seem to be anywhere near coming to fruition.  And if there was ever a more pertinent time for a clear-cut and long-term U.S. strategy for the Middle East, it is today.  In light of the region’s ever evolving political landscape, ongoing transitions, ferocious battles and rotting stalemates, America’s role in the region is once again put to the test, with an opportunity to overturn weaknesses and mend past failures.

In his most recent post on the Foreign Policy blog, Marc Lynch agrees that the Obama administration has not done a good job at developing and implementing a strategic vision for the Middle East. “Avoiding the worse outcomes and effectively managing crises when they rise to the top of the agenda are underrated accomplishments,” he says “but they don’t amount to a vision.”  Lynch reminds us of what seems to have been the Obama administration’s most articulate vision for the Middle East to date. In his May 19 2011 speech, President Barack Obama reiterates the traditional cornerstones of U.S. policy in the region, including promoting freedom, democracy, plurality and economic development. He recognizes that the U.S.’s future is bound to that of the Middle East, as well as the fact that time is needed to build a trusting and solid relationship between the two.

Though hopeful and inspiring, Obama’s “assertions have largely faded from view, lost in the relentless flurry of events and the inevitable hypocrisies and compromises that have dulled their edge,” as Lynch concisely points out. He advises the administration to go back to that speech to forge a vision for the region centered around three main pillars: right-sizing U.S. presence in the region, consolidating stronger democratic allies and engaging more effectively with an empowered population.

Obama and the Middle East

On their own, these objectives are certainly not unworthy. However, Lynch stops at stating certain realities to truly achieve them, which the U.S has ignored in the past and that have become serious impediments towards forging a balanced policy in the region.

Right-sizing the U.S. presence would certainly improve its credibility and regional sentiments towards it, yet done in a balanced way so as to avoid other regional and foreign powers, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or Russia to fill in the void. However, Lynch does not mention Israel and the immense difference right-sizing U.S. presence there (of course not physically but in terms of its unquestionable political, economic, strategic support) would have in its overall credibility across the region. This also applies to right-sizing U.S. presence in the Gulf. What sort of message does the U.S. give to Arabs when it supports popular revolutions on the one hand, and backs authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, on the other hand?

Consolidating stronger democratic allies is currently the biggest challenge yet with the greatest positive impact for the future.  If the U.S. is willing to accept the democratic choices of the Arab people, this will speak volumes as to its commitment to change and to turning the page to the days of its support of authoritarian regimes in the name of stability. Lynch notes this would strength Egypt in the face of the Gulf states, but fails to mention that it is also the longstanding U.S. support for these authoritarian regimes that has established the need for others to rise to counter their power in the region. Lynch’s call for Arab countries in transition to follow the Turkish model is also a bit troubling. If you scratch the surface, Turkey is not really the model for democracy that many take it for.

And in terms of engaging more effectively with an empowered population, this should surely pave the way for a more democratic relationship so to speak between the U.S. and the region.  But what about those populations still subjugated to authoritarian regimes, such as the Gulf monarchies, where again, U.S. support to them contradicts almost every single foreign policy objective it claims to stand for. It is true that these haven’t been as empowered as their Egyptian or Tunisian peers, yet pockets of empowered activists in the UAE or Kuwait present a far more accurate picture of their societies than what the sheikhs and emirs whisper into U.S. policymakers’ ears. And if we are to talk about empowered and a more vocal public, Lynch urges the U.S. to “listen to what Arabs are saying even if it’s uncomfortable.” Having said this, how can he ignore mentioning one of the deepest and longstanding Arab grievances of them all, namely U.S. unconditional and unquestionable support to Israel, which will continue hurting U.S. credibility in the region?

As simple observers and not policy makers, our views on the best way for the U.S. to develop a coherent and viable Middle East strategy may appear unrealistic. However, we at least have the liberty to be as courageous and outrageous as we want, with the hope that some of it may trickle down to policymakers and initiate the path for change.

The Middle East has witnessed unprecedented change in a very limited amount of time.  And as Obama noted in 2011, it will be years until this story of change will reach its end.  With these winds of change comes an opportunity for a new, courageous, inclusive, and more sustainable American strategy for the Middle East. But is the U.S. ready to grab it?

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