The White House is crafting a new, more modest second term strategy for the Middle East. That’s according to a New York Times story, based on authorized leaks, which outlines a core strategy involving limited US engagement focused around three goals: reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, making peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and mitigating the conflict in Syria. The NYT reports:
Not only does the new approach have little in common with the “freedom agenda” of George W. Bush, but it is also a scaling back of the more expansive American role that Mr. Obama himself articulated two years ago, before the Arab Spring mutated into sectarian violence, extremism and brutal repression.
The blueprint drawn up on those summer weekends at the White House is a model of pragmatism — eschewing the use of force, except to respond to acts of aggression against the United States or its allies, disruption of oil supplies, terrorist networks or weapons of mass destruction. Tellingly, it does not designate the spread of democracy as a core interest.
This is actually a strategy of breathtaking ambition. US administrations have tried for decades to reach an understanding with Iran, and from the time of the Balfour Declaration to the present day ending the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the impossible dream of diplomats all over the world. As for mitigating the horrors in Syria, the administration so far has had absolutely no success at that—and if anything the consequence of its peculiar mix of saber rattling rhetoric and practical passivity has been to make a bad situation significantly worse.
The new strategy abandons core goals of the first term—we aren’t doing much about democracy now and that whole idea of bridging the gap between the US and the Muslim world seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. At least the way the Times tells it, there is nothing here about a plan to deal with the terror threat. Will there be more drone strikes in Yemen or fewer? What will we do to mend fences with the Saudis?
There’s also a tension between the top two objectives. The tougher the US is on Iran, the more leverage it has pushing Israel toward concessions on the Palestinians. The more risks the administration takes and concessions it makes to get a deal with Iran, the tighter the Israelis are tempted to circle the wagons. Pursuing both objectives simultaneously risks a car crash, but then the Middle East is littered with wrecked cars from this and past administrations.
The most hopeful point is that from the President down there’s an awareness that the Middle East, important as it is, cannot be the be all and end all of American foreign policy. Asia matters, and although the NYT doesn’t seem to have raised these questions, the damage that uncontrolled NSA snooping (combined with inept data protection efforts) has done to our relationships in Europe also calls for some serious action.
As the US thinks about Middle East policies that address our key interests in the region but don’t get in the way of equally important global policies, we are going to have think in a much more focused way about what those key issues are and how to get the most done with the least effort and risk. But it isn’t enough to just say we are tired of the Middle East and want to go home. Problems don’t fade away just because you don’t want to deal with them anymore.