Time for a U.S. Regional Strategy in the Middle East

"The major threats in the Middle East today are regional in scope, transcend state boundaries and defy state-specific solutions."

President Obama’s frustration with criticism that he has conducted an anemic foreign policy bubbled to the surface during his recent trip to the Philippines. In a press conference in Manila on April 28, his response was that while refraining from taking immediate actions on the ground “might not always be sexy”, his job is to manage the foreign policy of the United States with an eye towards the country’s long-term interests.

The president was correct to rebut the charge that he should be more aggressive in his responses to events, particularly when it comes to the turmoil roiling the Middle East. Past interventions by the current administration, such as the strong response in Libya, and the more tepid one in Syria, have been of debatable effectiveness and could even prove counterproductive in the long run. But the president has to go further than just defending his administration against the charges of some of his most partisan critics. Both his domestic detractors and supporters alike are demanding a roadmap, and U.S. allies in the Middle East are looking for signs of American leadership.

But the president appears to be caught on the horns of a true dilemma. How is it possible for him to articulate clear policies for dealing with the political situation in Egypt and the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, when the uncertainties are so great and the risks so high? He has tried being clear about U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past, with redlines, implicit threats and ultimatums. But then when conditions on the ground later change, making it difficult or even imprudent to make good on those statements, he has gotten pummeled for making his administration and the United States appear irresolute and weak. But on the other hand, when he has demurred and been more ambiguous about U.S. intentions, his administration has appeared disengaged and even feckless.

The president can escape this dilemma if he frames the debate and his strategy within a broader regional perspective. This means not just explaining the actions he takes, or doesn’t take, in Syria, Egypt or Libya, but also providing context for those decisions by articulating a clear vision and direction for his foreign policy towards the Middle East. It also means shifting from narrow, country-specific strategies to an overarching regional strategy.

The Rationale for a Regional Strategy for the Middle East

There are three compelling reasons to adopt a regional strategy now. Indeed, unless American strategic leadership seizes the moment, the region could slip further, and even inexorably, into a political, economic and social abyss.

First, the major threats in the Middle East today are regional in scope, transcend state boundaries and defy state-specific solutions. Militant groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s local Syrian affiliate, are crisscrossing the borders of Syria and Iraq with impunity, in effect erasing boundaries between sovereign states that have been in place since the early twentieth century. Moreover, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq could bring Lebanon and Jordan to the brink of failure due to the pressure put on already stretched governments by a crescendoing deluge of refugees. Also, the economic carnage taking place in Syria, Iraq and even Egypt affects not just these countries, but also threatens the entire region, and could create negative spillover effects for the global economy.

Second, regional trends are taking shape right now before our eyes, and therefore can be acted upon imminently, whereas trends in individual countries like Syria and Iraq are impossible to discern amidst the fog of uncertainty and instability. In fact, it is important to understand that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, where even short-term outcomes are unknowable and highly uncertain, are already shaping far more certain and predictable long-term regional outcomes, such as profound shifts in the distribution of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and even Israel. In others words, while the ongoing conflicts in specific states are fluid and unpredictable, the landscape actually is more clearly defined when thinking about them using a broader regional lens. Another reason why regional trends are generally easier to forecast than state-specific trends is that the volatility created in the conflict areas gets diluted by the anchoring effect of the larger and relatively more stable powers in the region like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.