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.
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