April 20, 2016

Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalize

A Phased Middle East Strategy for the Next President

Since the start of the Arab revolutions five years ago, the Middle East has experienced unprecedented instability. In such an impossibly fluid situation, the initial response of President Barack Obama and his administration was, understandably, to pursue crisis management – narrowly defining U.S. interests on a case-by-case basis and tackling each challenge individually instead of pursuing a holistic regional strategy. The president also viewed every decision he made in the Middle East through the lens of the U.S. intervention in Iraq and was determined not to embroil the United States in new quagmires.

Obama’s approach has avoided major and costly blunders similar to the invasion of Iraq. It has achieved a historic breakthrough with Iran, which not only addresses the nuclear challenge but could open the door for greater diplomatic engagement even if it does not fundamentally reshape Iranian domestic politics or foreign policy.

But the Obama administration’s policy also has shortcomings. Slow responses, especially in Iraq and Syria, have created openings that have been exploited by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremists. And Obama’s cautious approach has left many U.S. partners in the region confused and unsure about America’s commitment at a time when they are feeling vulnerable and insecure – causing some, most notably Saudi Arabia, to move aggressively on their own.

After five years of chaos, the trend lines in the region are clearer, and the next president will have to move beyond crisis management to address the three primary drivers of instability in the Middle East:

  1. The collapse of state authority and resulting governance and security vacuums, which set conditions for regional chaos.
  2. Intensified Iranian-Saudi competition, which has increased sectarianism and transformed what were initially local conflicts into regional proxy fights.
  3. The perception of American withdrawal, which has led to greater aggressiveness on all sides, emboldening competitors of the United States while causing American partners to lash out due to insecurity.

Addressing these trends requires a years-long concerted strategy to stabilize the Middle East. Such a strategy must start with an initial one- to three-year phase of resetting both perceptions and realities on the ground by:

  1. Addressing security vacuums from the bottom up in cooperation with regional partners.
  2. Countering Iran’s support for its surrogates and proxies in cooperation with regional partners.
  3. Leaving the door open for engagement with Iran.

Phase two should concentrate on negotiating agreements with the key local, regional, and global actors to mitigate and eventually end the civil wars plaguing the Middle East. Though the next administration can immediately take foundational steps, any real progress should not be expected until the second half of the first term, once the situation on the ground is reset.

Phase three should leverage the negotiating process described in phase two to institutionalize a broader multilateral security architecture for the Middle East that creates a conflict resolution mechanism and increases stability, similar to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This will be a years-long process that the next president can start in her or his second term, but it will require a sustained and stable American commitment.

Overall, this strategy must be pursued with great patience and humility. No strategy will transform the Middle East overnight, and many factors outside of American control will certainly intervene to complicate matters. Moreover, this approach is limited to the security arena and will not answer the very difficult and challenging questions about long-term governance, which are critical but beyond the scope of this paper. Still, taken together, this strategy has the potential to stabilize the Middle East and appropriately size the U.S. commitment to the region, avoiding both the expensive quagmires and overcommitment of George W. Bush and the disengagement of Barack Obama.

First 100 Days Agenda

The strategy outlined in this paper will take years to execute. Still, during the first months of a new administration, the president will have an opportunity to send early signals even as she or he looks toward a longer-term strategy for this complex region.

Announce an early Middle East trip focused foremost on America’s closest regional partners.
Such an approach should emulate President Barack Obama’s early outreach to European partners after a very difficult relationship with President George W. Bush. The trip should include stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iraq, and possibly Egypt. An early trip and public statements, while ultimately symbolic, can set the tone in reassuring U.S. allies that the United States will remain engaged in the Middle East and is not intending a pivot to Persia.

Task a high-level interagency strategy review for filling the security vacuums in the Middle East from the bottom up.
The primary focus of this initial effort should be Iraq and Syria. But the United States should also assess whether similar strategies can be deployed in Yemen, Libya, and the Sinai, although in those arenas it will have to be American partners who take on a much greater role, with the United States in support. This review should solicit input from U.S. regional partners and be a key agenda item on the new president’s initial trip to the Middle East.

Ask the military and the intelligence community to develop a series of options for pushing back on Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East.
These should begin with proposals for how the United States can work with Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in various forums, such as a multinational joint task force or a high-level intelligence and defense dialogue, to counter Iran’s activities. Military and intelligence planners should also be tasked with providing a series of options for operations that: 1) embarrass Iran and raise the costs associated with its regional meddling; 2) send a clear signal to Iran that the United States has the will and capacity to respond directly to actions that are destabilizing and directly contradict U.S. interests; 3) are conducted jointly with partners, thus sending them a message of reassurance; and 4) are unlikely to lead to a major escalation. Countering Iran’s behavior in the region should also be a primary agenda item for the president’s first Middle East trip.

Look for early deliverables with Middle East partners on bureaucratic and technical issues.
Regional partners have many complaints about the maze of U.S. bureaucracy and red tape when it comes to approving arms sales and providing aid.1 The next president should task an early review of potential deliverables and identify noncontroversial but meaningful items that should be relatively easy to fast-track through the U.S. bureaucracy with high-level intervention. On the president’s first trip to the region, she or he should be able to make concrete commitments to U.S. partners on these items, which would improve the environment for these early meetings and send an early signal of a renewed U.S. commitment to its partners.

Emphasize commitment to implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) and keeping channels open with Iran.
From the start, the new president should be very clear publicly and privately about the U.S. commitment to implementing the JCPOA. She or he should also encourage the secretary of state to continue regular engagements with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and task an interagency review geared at examining additional issue areas where the United States and Iran could practically increase their engagement without triggering significant anxiety from U.S. regional partners. Any additional steps that the United States chooses to take on this front should also be transparently communicated to Arab partners.
  1. Karen DeYoung, a discussion with Gen. James L. Jones, Nawaf Obaid, and Barry Pavel, “Implementing Camp David: US-GCC Security Cooperation Since the Summit” (Atlantic Council, December 8, 2015), http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/events/webcasts/implementing-camp-david-us-gcc-security-cooperation-since-the-summit; Andrea Shalal and Lisa Lambert, “Pentagon nominee vows to resolve Jordan arms sales delays,” Reuters, February 4, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-jordan-carter-idUSL1N0VE1CB20150204; and Robert Wall, “Air Force Vows to Speed Up Weapons Export Approvals,” The Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-air-force-vows-to-get-to-grips-with-spike-in-export-orders-1447159524.
  2. Philip Gordon, “The Middle East Is Falling Apart,” Politico Magazine (June 4, 2015), http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/america-not-to-blame-for-middle-east-falling-apart-118611; and Karen DeYoung, “How the Obama White House runs foreign policy,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/how-the-obama-white-house-runs-foreign-policy/2015/08/04/2befb960-2fd7-11e5-8353-1215475949f4_story.html.
  3. Richard Fontaine, “Obama’s ‘Slippery Slope’ Delusion,” Politico Magazine (January 14, 2016), http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/obama-state-of-the-union-islamic-state-213531.
  4. Ilan Goldenberg, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Avner Golov, Nicholas A. Heras, Ellie Maruyama, and Axel Hellman, “After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: A Game Plan for the United States” (Center for a New American Security, October 2015), http://www.cnas.org/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/CNAS-Report-Iran-Agreement-oct-2015-final.pdf.
  5. Kenneth M. Pollack and Barbara F. Walter, “Escaping the Civil War Trap in the Middle East,” The Washington Quarterly, 38 no. 2 (Summer 2015), 29–46, https://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/sites/twq.elliott.gwu.edu/files/downloads/Pollack-Walter_Summer%202015.pdf.
  6. F. Gregory Gause III, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper No. 11 (The Brookings Institution, July 2014), 12–15, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/07/22-beyond-sectarianism-cold-war-gause/english-pdf.pdf.
  7. Kenneth M. Pollack, “Security in the Persian Gulf: New Frameworks for the 21st Century,” Middle East Memo No. 24 (The Brookings Institution, June 2012), http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Papers/2012/6/middle-east-pollack/middle_east_pollack.pdf; and Frederic Wehrey and Richard Sokolsky, “Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CP256_Wehrey-Sokolsky_final.pdf.


  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

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