Center for American Progress

Changing the Mindset on U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Changing the Mindset on U.S. Policy in the Middle East

Time to Set a Long-Term Strategy for a Region in Transition

The time is ripe to advance a proactive regional strategy for progress, prosperity, and peace to further marginalize regressive elements holding back inevitable change, writes Brian Katulis.

Demonstrators in Erez crossing between  Israel and northern Gaza wave Palestinian flags during a rally marking the 63rd  anniversary of "nakba," the term used to mark  the events leading to Israel's founding in 1948, on May 15, 2011. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Demonstrators in Erez crossing between Israel and northern Gaza wave Palestinian flags during a rally marking the 63rd anniversary of "nakba," the term used to mark the events leading to Israel's founding in 1948, on May 15, 2011. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

This week represents a pivotal period that could define the Obama administration’s approach on the Middle East for the rest of its time in office, with President Barack Obama delivering major Middle East speeches and holding meetings with Jordanian King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington this week.

For the United States, a strategic choice is emerging about what role it seeks to play in the Middle East. Should it seek to manage the conflicts and reduce the risks of a broader conflagration? Or should it adopt a more proactive approach to shape the broader trends in the Middle East at a time of unprecedented uncertainty in the region? Can it do both of these things at the same time and achieve tangible results?

This is the central and historic choice facing President Obama as he looks at the complex mix of issues crowding America’s Middle East agenda: the popular uprisings and incomplete revolutions in several countries; Iran’s nuclear program and its regional aspirations; the Arab-Israeli conflict; the continued Iraq redeployment and future of U.S.-Iraq relations; and ongoing threats from terrorist networks even after bin Laden’s death. All this comes at a time when high oil prices threaten a fragile economic recovery at home.

One longstanding problem with U.S. policies in the Middle East is that they operate without a coherent strategy. That is, the individual pieces of America’s policy agenda for the region do not always add up to an integrated regional approach with a set of end goals. Now beyond the midpoint in its first term, the Obama administration risks falling into the same trap that captured to some extent  previous administrations: getting stuck in ad hoc crisis management and reactive sets of policies lacking a clearly defined set of long-term objectives. It can avoid these pitfalls, however, with a new approach that emphasizes the long run with clear goals.

With so many important policy issues in play and with a reelection campaign on the horizon, the Obama administration faces one of the toughest challenges in crafting a strategy: how to set priorities. President Obama would do well to start by consulting the views of Sen. Obama in 2008 for strategic guidance on two scores.

First, historic times like these require bold approaches. There needs to be a fundamental shift of how the United States does business in the Middle East. President Obama understood this when he ran for president.

Sen. Obama argued for a fundamental rethink of U.S. foreign policy in the January 2008 Democratic primary presidential debate in New Hampshire, saying, “And part of what we need to do in changing our foreign policy is not just end the war in Iraq; we have to change the mindset that ignores long-term threats and engages in the sorts of actions that are not making us safe over the long term.”

This “changing the mindset” mentality was at the core of what helped propel Sen. Obama into office. It was that attitude that drove the Obama administration to take the risk it did at the start of this month in ordering the bold raid that killed Osama bin Laden—something Sen. Obama promised to do as a candidate.

President Obama and his advisors need to keep this overall mentality at the forefront as they prepare for the next phase of their Middle East policy. Tactical adjustments and shifts alone are not likely to achieve results.

Second, President Obama should recall one fundamental point he took away from his last visit to the Middle East before he became president: The challenges are interconnected. Obama said in an interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as he was returning from the Middle East and Europe in the summer of 2008:

We’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all of these issues are connected. If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve got an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.

All of this is easier said than done, of course. The Obama administration’s record on the Middle East just past the midpoint demonstrates how mixed the outcomes are at this time.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Obama administration has largely done what it said it would do on Iraq. On Iran, it replaced its predecessor’s approach of passive appeasement with a more aggressive policy to force choices on Iran’s leaders through assertive global diplomacy such as building a coalition including key global powers and other moves that have isolated the regime.

On the negative side of the ledger, the Obama administration has not achieved what it had hoped on the Arab-Israel front. The president himself admitted as much in this interview with Joe Klein of Time at the end of his first year in office, saying, “I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

But the notion of viewing dynamics in the region from a strategic standpoint and seeing issues as interconnected remains relevant today. With this in mind, the Obama administration should set a new strategy for the region based on three pillars as it looks to the next year in the Middle East:

  • Set a regional strategy to support political and economic reform.
  • Reinvigorate efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict with the goal of a comprehensive peace by 2015.
  • Continue to work aggressively to shape the strategic calculus of Iran’s leaders and people.

Let’s review these in more detail.

Set a strategy to support political and economic reform

First, the popular uprisings in the Middle East represent a historic opportunity to help the people of the region reform their political and economic systems. Egypt is the central test as the most-populous Arab country, and Iraq is a second pivotal country given the hundreds of billions spent there over the last eight years and the future role Iraq could play in the region.

The challenge for U.S. policy is to develop a strategy that improves the chances of peaceful change in all countries. The Obama administration adopted a pragmatic approach in its public statements and speeches by recognizing that the status quo in the region is unsustainable and most countries are at the start of an inevitable transition. And indeed, many countries are going to see considerable changes in their leadership and how they are governed given the overwhelming economic, political, and social problems in the region and the lack of effective responses to those problems.

In preparing for this period of transition, the United States will need to tailor its approaches to the unique circumstances of each country and our own security interests involved. So how the United States deals with Egypt and Tunisia would not and should not be a model for how it deals with Yemen or Bahrain, for example. Each country has different internal dynamics and features, and our security interests vary from country to country.

Countries in the region fall into three basic categories five months into the popular uprisings.

The first category is countries that have already experienced leadership transitions like Egypt and Tunisia. These are countries where the prospects for fundamental and positive political and economic change are the greatest but incomplete. U.S. policy can have a meaningful impact in Egypt given the longstanding bilateral ties between our two countries.

The second category is countries that have responded to popular unrest with moves to negotiate a settlement with their people and start—or restart in the case of countries that began reforms in the past—a process that could lead to gradual changes, limited reforms, and constitutional changes. These countries include Morocco, Oman, Jordan, and Algeria. Saudi Arabia may or may not fall into this category. But an inevitable leadership transition is on the horizon there, as I argued in this article earlier this spring.

The third category of countries in the Middle East in this period of change represents the most difficult one: countries that have fought back against their people with arrests, shootings, and brutal crackdowns like Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. Libya is an extreme and distinct case in this third category—a country where a stalemate has emerged over the past few weeks in an internal battle.

Again, Egypt is the central test of this strategy as the most-populous Arab country. The United States needs to present a more ambitious plan to help the political and economic transition in Egypt, which has more of a chance of shaping broader dynamics in the region than any other country. The Obama administration’s Egypt policy would benefit from a rethink of the overall approach to the bilateral relationship and how to change the way the United States has done business with Egypt.

For instance, the United States needs a more thorough top-to-bottom review of the billions of dollars it provides to Egypt. Since 1979 it has provided on average $2 billion of aid to Egypt per year, most of it military assistance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge of $150 million of reprogrammed assistance to offer economic support and democratic development assistance to Egypt earlier this year was a step in the right direction. But the agencies involved in this reprogramming have been slow to implement a new program. Additionally, enterprise funds—which aim to stimulate investment and provide Egyptian businesses with low-cost loans—and debt relief are important but insufficient to meet the challenges facing a country of more than 80 million people.

This change in U.S. policy on Egypt should be done with a clear eye to promoting political and economic reform. But it should also closely monitor Egypt’s regional role as it evolves. Some leaders in Egypt signaled that they would resume diplomatic ties with Iran, which would represent a tactical shift that is not unexpected. What the United States needs to closely monitor are any Egypt moves to make a genuine strategic shift such as abrogating the peace treaty with Israel—a move that would have devastating consequences for regional stability and create lasting harm for U.S. national security interests.

Iraq is the second key test of how well the United States will make a strategic shift in its policy. The central question isn’t whether every single U.S. troop leaves the country. Instead, the fundamental policy challenge is whether the United States and Iraq can move forward on all fronts in implementing the comprehensive bilateral strategic framework agreement signed in 2008 that outlines a robust partnership on economic, security, diplomatic, and other key fronts. This agreement offers the pathways for building a lasting partnership between the United States and Iraq and helping Iraq stand on its own.

Reinvigorate efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict with the goal of a comprehensive peace by 2015

This second pillar seems the least likely, particularly with this week’s resignation of George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s top Middle East envoy. In addition, unrest and internal violence in places such as Syria make the vision of a comprehensive resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict less possible in the short run.

But the United States cannot afford to move away from its goal of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in the medium to long term because the conflict undermines U.S. national security interests in the region and broader world. President Obama and top officials in his administration, including the top Pentagon officials, have argued that the unresolved conflict inflames extremists and gives sclerotic regimes an excuse to divert attention away from their own internal problems—something witnessed yet again in the clashes along Israel’s borders this past weekend. Not addressing the central challenge of the Arab-Israeli conflict will likely lead to more tensions and violence.

Things won’t get any easier, either. On the not-so-distant horizon looms a threat by the Palestinian Authority this September to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state and get approval for that move in a vote at the U.N. General Assembly. Meanwhile, an international campaign calling for a boycott, divestment, and sanctions on Israel has gained some support.

In the long run, nothing short of a comprehensive resolution with a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine at its core is likely to provide Israel and its neighbors with the necessary security. In the short run, the challenge is how to deal with the complicated questions such as how to get direct talks restarted between Israelis and Palestinians since the recent Palestinian unity deal last month brought in Hamas, a terrorist organization that refuses to recognize Israel. This latest unity deal—a deal that still requires more discussions planned in the coming days over the details of implementation—was largely driven by the popular desire among Palestinians to see their leading parties bridge longstanding divides in the face of the Arab uprisings.

To deal with these challenges, the Obama administration should make an offer to all parties—Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Lebanon—in the region that would be hard to refuse: a comprehensive security and economic support package that reformulates America’s current security and economic assistance to the broader region as part of an offer to encourage all of the parties to accept the terms of a comprehensive peace deal.

The centerpiece of this comprehensive package should be security guarantees for all parties including monitoring and verification regimes, peacekeepers, and enduring security support of the sort offered earlier this year by NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a visit to Israel. This comprehensive package would require multilateral support and funding from a number of global powers, but it would cost significantly less than what the United States spends alone in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

This offer should be made with the understanding that only the parties Israel and its neighbors can negotiate the final terms of a peace deal and that a full resolution will likely take years to implement given the current complications. But this “cost to completion” support package should seek to keep alive the hope of a comprehensive peace deal along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative and the recent Israel Peace Initiative, an effort announced by a group of prominent former military and intelligence officials in Israel. The Obama administration states that it would seek to “incorporate” the ideas of the Arab Peace Initiative into its policies but it has not really taken any steps along those lines.

Given all that it has on its agenda, the understandable inclination in the Obama administration today may be to turn toward a less risky and more modest approach of managing the conflict rather than taking a more ambitious approach to seize this window of opportunity for a two-state solution and comprehensive resolution to the conflict.

But the United States should instead take a more ambitious approach and offer a comprehensive “prosperity for peace” package that seeks to simultaneously deal with the popular uprisings’ focus on political and economic reform and the overwhelming desire for a comprehensive resolution to the conflict among most Israelis and Arabs. And as Israel’s most important ally, the United States has a central role in helping it deal with the changes emerging in the region and integrating Israel more fully into the region.

Continue to work aggressively to shape the strategic calculus of Iran’s leaders and people

Last but not least, the United States should continue its aggressive approach to engage Iran and isolate its leaders as long as the government refuses to respond to the growing international consensus against Iran’s nuclear program.

During the past two years, the Iranian regime crushed a popular uprising calling for fundamental reform, and in the process lost a great deal of legitimacy at home and abroad. The government’s lack of responsiveness to proposals from the international community to support peaceful nuclear energy efforts in return for full and transparent monitoring of Iran’s nuclear efforts according to international standards has further isolated Iran in the region and the world.

The United States should continue to lead efforts to offer Iran’s leaders a pathway out of international isolation while reassuring its allies in the region that any such move would not come at their expense.

As long as the Iranian government refuses to respond to the international community’s demands for accountability in its nuclear program and refuses the demands of its own people for real reforms, the United States should employ all of the tools at its disposal, including targeted sanctions and other means to isolate regime leaders, to try to reshape Iran’s calculations.

At this stage, war with Iran is the worst available option. It is not likely to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and it is likely to strengthen the hardliners in Iran by unifying the people.

The Obama administration has taken important steps that have led to real setbacks in Iran’s nuclear program and it has also undermined the credibility of the regime. It should continue to work assertively to prevent the strategic game-changer that would come if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.


The popular uprisings of the Middle East have brought the region across a new threshold, and the changes underway will likely take years to unfold. The risks in this transition are considerable. Civil wars, prolonged insurgencies, and new regional wars could open the space for terrorist networks to operate more freely.

And as I argued in the early months of this transition, all of the problems that existed before these uprisings—Iran’s nuclear program and support for terrorism, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, and Iraq’s reintegration into the region—remain major challenges and more complicated in light of recent events in the region.

But there are major opportunities in this transition. The greatest opportunity presented by the popular uprisings is to help key countries transition from the autocratic governments that permitted terrorist threats to fester alongside endemic poverty, weak governance, and corruption toward a more democratic system. The old way of doing business in the Middle East is no longer sustainable.

At this pivotal and historic juncture in the Middle East, the Obama administration should redouble its efforts to support the transition by adopting a more comprehensive reform package for Egypt, revive its longstanding but flagging efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and stay the course on Iran.

Moving more boldly—as President Obama did in his decision on the bin Laden raid—will lead to greater chances for progress and change in the region.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow