Former senior director for the Middle East at the U.S. National Security Council Michael Doran, writing at Foreign Policy, offers a clear-headed recommendation to the White House on Middle East policy: block out the noise and focus on grand strategy.
Today, naturally, the urgent questions U.S. senior leaders are asking include: How can the United States encourage Libya’s rebel movement to adopt an inclusive, transparent system of government? How can the international community prevent a bloodletting of revenge killings in Tripoli? And, looking to Damascus, who will work with Washington to oust Assad, and what is the best method to exploit fractures in his regime?Pressing though these questions may be, they must not be permitted to drive out deep consideration of the most important challenges faced by U.S. foreign-policy leaders. These are: What are America’s overarching strategic goals in the Middle East? And what role does its Syria policy play in achieving them?
President Obama’s Middle East policy was originally billed as a radical shift from the Bush years, but as noted on this blog, he has come around full circle to an almost neoconservative ideology of democracy promotion and armed intervention. Doran offers an important suggestion:
At the heart of Obama’s grand strategy was a mistaken definition of the strategic challenge. Now that the Arab uprisings have dragged the United States through a crash course on Middle Eastern realities, U.S. policymakers can more easily recognize the deepest drivers of politics in the region — namely, the vast number of severe conflicts that set Muslims against Muslims. From a practical strategic point of view, there is no such thing as “the Muslim world.” Any effort to write a narrative of cooperation with a thing that does not actually exist is bound to encounter severe difficulties.The United States must therefore dispense entirely with grand strategies that seek to foster a conciliatory image of the United States and to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Instead, it should focus on the key challenge posed by the Arab uprisings: managing intra-Muslim conflict.
Doran sees the conflict in Syria becoming nothing less than a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with various other actors, including Turkey and the US. Certainly, Syria rather than Libya is the strategic center of the Middle East today — and the concept of a united Islamic struggle against the west continues to lose ground among Muslims.Obama’s olive branch policy toward Syria and Iran didn’t get him anywhere with those countries, and vexed some American allies who worried that he was soft on the biggest challenges of the region, but it still had some good results: the US is working more closely with its European allies on the region and the image of the US as too eager for war has been diminished by the President’s obvious reluctance. And if the President has not, as he hoped, restored American popularity among Muslims, he has taken some of the hard edge off our unpopularity in the region — and again, evidence that he was trying to make things better helped us in Europe. On balance, this amounts to a limited success and Obama is in a stronger position to pivot toward a tougher policy with Syria and Iran if that indeed is what he now chooses to do.But overall, Doran is correct. The strategic picture the administration brought to the Middle East doesn’t match the facts on the ground and it is important that senior officials take time to figure out exactly what their new grand strategy should be about.