After Obama: Restoring America's Middle East Leadership

It's time to ditch the dramatics and get serious about America's future in the Middle East.

President Obama sure knows how to get the world’s attention. His public tantrum over Benjamin Netanyahu being invited to speak before a joint session of Congress pretty much assured that the entire globe would tune in to hear the Israeli prime minister enumerate his concerns over a nuclear deal with Iran.

This soap opera offers a potent reminder of the sorry state of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a policy that has pulled the closest of allies the furthest apart on the most important issues. While the fate of the Iran agreement may play out over the next few months, much of the Middle East muddle will remain until Obama vacates the Oval Office and beyond. So it’s is not too soon to start thinking about how to live with the mess this administration will leave behind.

President Obama has misunderstood the region at every level. The next presidential team will have to do better—not only grasping all the relevant frameworks that govern the greater Middle East, but jettisoning the bad reasoning that clouds everything the White House has done. Here are five key frameworks.

The Great Game

The Middle East is an important region to the rest of the world. If it were not, great powers would not be much bothered with its fate. But the Middle East does matter—it was, is, and will remain an arena of geostrategic competition. No White House can neglect the fact that outside powers will always jockey for influence in this part of the world.

President Obama inherited a situation where the United States was, for the most part, the only foreign power with significant sway in the region. His response to U.S. dominance was to walk away from it—ignoring the Green Revolution in Iran, packing up the bags and pulling out of Iraq, leading from behind in Libya, fumbling on Syria, and remaining a bystander to the rest of the Arab Spring.

Even now, faced with the Islamic State crisis, many in the region scratch their heads as they ponder the question: what is Obama's real endgame?

Geostrategy abhors a vacuum. If America doesn't want to lead, others will step in and try their hand. That's not good for the region or the United States. No other outside power has the capacity to really make a decisive difference in the region. Further, the U.S. goal for the greater Middle East is constructive: to see its peoples at peace and prosperous, with the ability of goods and services to follow freely across the commons.

The administration’s posture toward the region has alternated between indifference and kibitzing on pet projects like promoting a Palestinian state. The first job for the next administration will be to replace this drifting with a serious geostrategy for exercising leadership in the Middle East.

A Nest of Nation-States

It is wrong to think of the countries of the region as mere pawns on global chessboard. Yes, the Great Game goes on. But individual states matter. The problem for the region is that many states are not very good. They are characterized by high levels of corruption, poor governance, weak rule of law, and poor human rights records.

Obama's problem is he never seriously tried to do much about any of that. The President's conference on violent extremism and pronouncements from administration officials that battling terrorism was all about "jobs" epitomized Washington’s fecklessness. This White House has done next to nothing to help address the underlying structural weaknesses of many of the strategically important states in this part of the world.

Tunisia is a case in point. It is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. The people there have quelled the threat of an Islamist takeover, and both civil society and the government have committed to reforms that advance economic freedom. Tunisia presented the United States with a long list of how America could help advance those reforms. What it got from the White House was little more than a photo-op.

No nation needs a dose of economic freedom more than Egypt. Of the fifteen countries in the region, this important regional power ranks a lowly twelfth according to the latest Index of Economic Freedom published by The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Cairo needs partners to advance free market initiatives, yet President Obama continues to treat the nation's leaders as little better than “untouchables.”

Delivering an agenda for building economic freedom and good governance in the region ought to be a high priority for the next president. This will be a real challenge as most of the traditional “tools of development” have a much better record at transferring U.S. tax dollars to others rather than delivering real results. In the end, U.S. government dollars are probably the least effective means of improving lives throughout the region. Promoting free trade and governance reforms that fight corruption, protect property rights, and uphold the rule of law will deliver much better results.

The War of Ideas