July 15, 2013

Hard Choices for the New Middle East

The Obama administration may want to “pivot” away from the Middle East toward Asia, but events are not cooperating. Millions take to the streets in Egypt, leading to a military takeover of a democratically elected -- but deeply flawed -- Islamist government. A brutal civil war rages in Syria, as sectarian spillover threatens security in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Protests challenge the monarchies in Bahrain and Jordan. A leadership transition looms on the Saudi horizon. A new Iranian president raises hope of moving beyond the nuclear impasse as Tehran creeps closer to an atomic bomb. Secretary of State John Kerry races between Jerusalem and Ramallah to jumpstart a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process before the hope of two states for two peoples dies.

In recent years, the pace of change in the region has been so overwhelming that the administration’s tendency to take a reactive, crisis-driven approach is understandable. But the time has long passed for a reassessment of overall U.S. strategy in what remains a vital region. Any such reassessment must start with a recognition that the United States has, and will continue to have, profound interests in the Middle East: countering terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ensuring the free flow of oil, protecting Israel’s security, and promoting the reforms essential for the region’s stability.

But the administration must also acknowledge that it is simply impossible to advance all of these interests in equal measure at the same time. As Washington seeks to chart a coherent course through the turbulence of the new Middle East, the Obama team must come to terms with -- and make hard choices regarding -- five core strategic dilemmas.

First, U.S. policy must balance the requirements of long-term versus short-term stability. In light of the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world, there is little doubt that political and economic reform in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere is vital for stability over the long haul. Yet, assertively pushing reform risks alienating important partners, which include both remaining autocrats and newly elected leaders. A “reform first” policy may also produce popular outrage against American interference in domestic affairs and empower Islamist groups less inclined to cooperate with Washington.

Second, the administration must weigh security cooperation with regional governments against the desire to push for reform and avoid sectarianism. Cooperation, especially with the Persian Gulf monarchies, remains vital to combat terrorism and to counter Iran’s nuclear and destabilizing ambitions. But this produces U.S. strategic dependence on the least democratic governments in a democratizing region, making it difficult to prioritize political reform, undermining American credibility on the Arab street, and inadvertently contributing to the sectarian cold war that increasingly grips the region.

Third, too little U.S. involvement in regional crises risks dangerous power vacuums, but too much intervention risks America sinking into bottomless  quagmires. In Syria and elsewhere, the perceived lack of U.S. leadership -- often defined in terms of military intervention -- undermines Washington’s influence over events and contributes to dangerous vacuums filled by jihadists, Iran, and other adversaries. Yet, as Iraq and Afghanistan made painfully clear, military interventions are easier to begin than end. They risk costly long-term commitments that can worsen anti-American sentiment and tie down scarce military assets that may be needed to confront other pressing contingencies.

Fourth, the administration must continue to reassure Israel while striving to remain an honest broker in the peace process. Maintaining America’s steadfast support to Israel’s security is essential at a time of great regional turmoil, and is likely crucial to eventually convince Israeli leaders to take risks for peace with the Palestinians. But the perception that Washington is unwilling to put pressure on Israel, and thus lacks a “balanced” approach to the peace process, continues to hurt U.S. credibility with Arab partners and complicates our ability to engage Islamist governments and newly empowered Arab publics.

Finally, the administration must reconcile the requirements of regional leadership with the desire to pivot toward Asia. The American military is out of Iraq and will soon depart Afghanistan, but the United States continues to have vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Nothing, including the much touted “energy revolution” in North America, will change this equation in the near future, making a continued commitment to the region imperative. Yet, as Secretary Kerry’s marathon travels itinerary demonstrate, a focus on Middle Eastern troubles can easily absorb diplomatic bandwidth and political capital that could be expended in Asia or elsewhere. And, in the military domain, the very same “high-demand, low-density” assets – unmanned drones, aircraft carriers, ballistic missile defenses, etc. – required to sustain American military might in the Middle East are the ones coveted by U.S. commanders in the Pacific.

These fundamental dilemmas are hardwired into the dynamics of the new Middle East. They cannot be wished away and can no longer be ignored; a purely reactive policy or one aimed at simply muddling through will make these dilemmas worse, not better. A top-to-bottom review of Middle East strategy that sets clear priorities and culminates in hard choices, placing big bets in some areas while accepting risk elsewhere, is long overdue. Such a strategy would not achieve every U.S. objective, but the absence of a strategy risks achieving none of them.