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Still Searching for a Middle East Strategy

Protests Planned for this Weekend Highlight the Stakes

More than five months into the popular uprisings spreading across the Middle East, the Obama administration lacks a coherent regional strategy for dealing with the multifaceted challenges coming out of the Middle East these days. The planned protests targeting Israel this weekend and linked to the anniversary of the 1967 war—protests calculated to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the headlines across the region and the world—highlight the stakes at play in shaping a coherent U.S. pro-democracy message for the Middle East.

Last month, regimes such as Syria cynically exploited similar protests as a distraction from the internal unrest and opposition to the government there. But at the same time, those protests were part of the genuine popular discontent with the lack of progress on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Alas, the Obama administration remains in a reactive, crisis management mode to all of these dynamics. This is mostly due to the nature of the challenges on multiple fronts—each day presents a new crisis, such as the violence spiraling further out of control in Yemen today. But remaining stuck in this tactical mode is also a result of the lack of a clear structure to follow though on the framework and principles President Obama outlined in his recent Middle East speech in an integrated fashion. Certainly, two weeks is not enough time to outline all of the implementation mechanisms outlined in Obama’s ambitious speech, but the lack of clear signs about who is charged with leading the implementation of a new Middle East policy is worrisome.

What’s more, the record of the administration’s follow through on previous high-profile speeches, such as the 2009 Cairo speech and the 2010 U.N. General Assembly speech, are cause for additional concern.

In the two weeks since President Obama’s Middle East speech, a major step forward in implementing the framework he outlined was the decision at last week’s Group of 8 summit to outline a major economic support package for Egypt and Tunisia. This important multilateral decision was necessary but insufficient—now the devil is in the details of implementing this economic package in a way that contributes to sustainable growth in these countries.

Moreover, the Obama administration needs to guard against the faulty wishful thinking that addressing the economic grievances and supporting job creation in these countries can in some ways serve as a panacea to the complicated security and political problems facing these countries. To some extent, the administration fell into that trap in how it tried to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first two years, with a policy approach that ended up looking like a “West Bank first” strategy focused heavily on building Palestinian institutions such as the security services and boosting economic growth. The theory underlying this approach was that making the economic and security situation better for Palestinians in the West Bank would accrue political benefit to vaguely defined Palestinian “moderates” or “pragmatists,” and this would help achieve progress on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations front.

Clearly, this approach has not succeeded because the security gains and economic growth did not address core political concerns: the continued occupation and the lack of an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership would not be continuing toward its efforts to unilaterally declare a state if the theory of the case about the political impact of economic development was valid. Again, those efforts, like the massive G-8 package announced for Egypt and Tunisia last week, were necessary building blocks but insufficient on their own.

It is one thing to avert economic meltdowns that could further accelerate security and political crises, but it also is important to keep in mind that helping create jobs and arresting economic declines will not likely resolve the security problems and political grievances that contribute to insecurity in the Middle East.

What does this mean in practice? First, President Obama needs to designate a point person to manage the overall integrated security, political, and economic efforts in its response to the Middle East uprisings. More than five months into these uprisings, it remains unclear within the bureaucracies who is leading the interagency efforts overall to implement the new framework and principles Obama outlined last month.

Second, the administration needs to conduct a thorough review of all of its policy options in cases where countries like Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain have ignored the lines President Obama drew in the sand on the need for political reform and respect for human rights. One of the worst mistakes U.S. presidents have made throughout the Middle East is stating certain goals and then being ignored without consequences. This has contributed to the crisis of efficacy and perception of U.S. weakness that grew under the Bush administration and continues through this one.

Third, as the Libya war continues long past the time most expected it would last, the Obama administration needs to start working with its coalition partners and the United Nations to develop a post-Qaddafi plan that includes the contours of a political roadmap for the future.

Fourth, the Obama administration needs a better strategy for dealing with Saudi Arabia—a country not mentioned in Obama’s Middle East speech, as noted by many observers. The bigger problem wasn’t the lack of mention in the speech but rather the lack of a policy that attempts to bring the United States and Saudi Arabia closer in strategic alignment as much as possible.

Last but not least, President Obama needs to keep managing and ultimately resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict high on its agenda. This means appointing a replacement for George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy who stepped down last week, or designating some individual or office with a direct line to the president. More important than appointments, however, is crafting a follow-up strategy with Israelis, Palestinians, and other key actors in the region.

The Obama administration should not allow the debate it stirred up with its speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict to die down or to be channeled into destructive efforts to undermine the chances for peace and security. The president took some political risks in raising the issue once again at a time of so much uncertainty, but it was necessary to do in order to head off the threat of a wider conflagration.

The plans for another round of protests on Israel’s borders this weekend show that the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict is not something that can be ignored and wished away. All of this amounts to a daunting agenda for the Middle East—one that also includes the ongoing threat posed by Iran and the continued redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq.

As the president and his top team shift their focus to some big decisions on Afghanistan in the coming weeks, the continued Middle East multitasking will remain a top priority. In the end, the policy implementation, and not the speeches, will matter most.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.