Middle East Multitasking

An Important Week Ahead for Obama’s National Security Strategy

Iraq and Middle East peace take center stage this week, but Iran looms large as the Obama administration still searches for an overarching Middle East strategy, writes Brian Katulis.

President Barack Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands, September 22, 2009, in New York. Direct talks between Israel and Palestine will begin this week, and the president will also give a speech on Iraq on Tuesday. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands, September 22, 2009, in New York. Direct talks between Israel and Palestine will begin this week, and the president will also give a speech on Iraq on Tuesday. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Read more here: Learning from Past Mideast Mistakes by Brian Katulis and David Avital (Politico) and Today’s Iraq Redeployment Made Possible by Our Deadline by Brian Katulis and Lawrence J. Korb (Foreign Policy)

President Barack Obama’s Oval Office speech on Iraq Tuesday night and the scheduled start of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians later this week will put the Obama administration’s Middle East policy back in the spotlight after the Afghanistan war overshadowed its national security agenda during the first year and a half.

The symbolism of both the president’s Iraq speech and the start of Middle East talks will trump the substance. Much of what President Obama will say on Iraq has already taken place, with combat troops out of the country ahead of schedule. Or it’s been said before in speeches by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month. Further, few analysts have high expectations of immediate breakthroughs on the Middle East peace talks—the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians on substance and politics are about as wide as the divisions within both the Palestinian and Israeli camps.

Yet this is an important week for the administration to demonstrate forward momentum and progress in the Middle East. It has made modest gains so far. Compared to four summers ago when several conflicts raged—civil war in Iraq, war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a battle between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip—a tenuous calm has settled over the region. President Obama’s speech in Cairo last summer, however, set high expectations that have left many in the region feeling let down. But while Obama’s Middle East policy may have produced mixed results, it is definitely an improvement over the Bush administration, which left the region unstable and undermined U.S. power and influence.

The differences in substance and style between the Obama administration and its predecessor are important to note. The Bush administration’s Middle East approach was the American football equivalent of a series of risky Hail Mary passes down the field. None of these passes connected, destabilizing the region and undermining U.S. national security interests.

One of the Bush administration’s central organizing theories for the Middle East in 2002 was that the road to peace in Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. Academic-turned-Bush-administration-National-Security-Council-staffer Michael Doran best articulated this theory in this Foreign Affairs article. In a nutshell, the Bush administration naively believed that it could reshape power dynamics in the Middle East through military force. Initiating a “democratic tsunami” in the Middle East by invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power would set in motion a series of events that would reshape the old order in the Middle East in ways that would benefit U.S. national security interests.

By 2007 it became apparent even within the Bush administration that this strategy was flawed. The series of “long passes” failed to produce game-changing events in the Middle East. Even the much-heralded narrative about the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007 ignores inconvenient truths about what truly reshaped Iraq’s dynamics—a modest 15 percent increase in U.S. troops and change in military tactics were no match for what Iraqi actors were doing to reshape their country by signing up for the security forces, joining anti-Al Qaeda militias, and entering the country’s political process. The Bush administration left office having weakened America’s power in the region and undermined the Middle East’s fragile stability.

The Obama administration, in contrast, has adopted a less ideological and more pragmatic and incremental approach to the Middle East. If the Bush administration failed to connect on a game-changing long pass, the Obama administration seems determined to run a ground game that seeks small gains rather than big leaps. The administration’s patient push for progress on multiple fronts—continuing the troop redeployment from Iraq according to schedule, building international support to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, and undertaking quiet tactical efforts to restart Middle East peace efforts—has worked better in some areas than others, which is why the diplomatic and political steps it takes this week could be pivotal in shaping Obama’s Middle East legacy.

Obama is likely to reprise themes in his Iraq speech Tuesday night that he previously employed. He will claim credit for fulfilling his campaign pledge to withdraw troops according to a timetable, while also signaling enduring diplomatic and economic support for Iraq. But the biggest missing link that will likely remain after the speech is a gap that has existed in U.S. policy since the 2003 invasion: a clear vision of where the new Iraq—still a sharply divided country—fits within a broader regional strategy. The Obama administration lacks a coherent regional strategy that defines how the new Iraq will become a strong U.S. ally and reintegrate with the rest of the Arab world while maintaining close ties with Iran—diplomatic, political, and economic ties between Iraq and Iran have improved in the wake of the 2003 war.

The absence of a coherent and clearly articulated regional strategy has also hampered the Obama administration’s efforts on Middle East peace during the past year and a half. The direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians this week means that the Obama administration has finally taken the situation back to what existed under the Bush administration before the Gaza war erupted in December 2008. The Obama administration sees a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a cornerstone to its Middle East approach, but the window of opportunity for a viable two-state solution is closing. The administration needs to achieve better results from these talks in short order with a temporary freeze on Israeli settlement building set to expire at the end of September.

The elephant in the room with the speech and the talks will be a Persian one: Iran looms large as the wildcard in the region. The Obama administration subjected Iran and its nuclear program to a diplomatic full-court press, which achieved international support for targeted actions aimed at reshaping Iran’s strategic calculations after years of neglect and passive appeasement under the Bush administration. Yet it remains to be seen whether these actions will change Iran’s calculations.

The Obama administration’s Middle East approach needs to leverage the interconnected nature of the policy challenges. Obama recognized this in an interview with Tom Brokaw in the summer before he was elected president, saying:

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 Hezbullah 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.

Obama may understand that the Middle East issues are interrelated, but his administration has not yet implemented this and linked together its policies into a coherent strategy. The Middle East sections in the Obama National Security Strategy released in May are more of a laundry list of problems and random goals rather than integrated solutions to those problems. True, the administration has more competently navigated the challenges than its predecessor. But it risks falling into the trap of several previous U.S. administrations when it comes to the Middle East: operating in a reactive and tactical mode while lacking a coherent strategy with clear end objectives. This week presents an opportunity for the administration to regain momentum and outline a clearer path forward.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow

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